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Language Is A Formal System Of Communication Education Essay

Language is a formal system of communication which involves the combination of words and symbols, whether written or spoken, as well as some rules that govern them which are used by the people of a particular culture, (www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.cfm?term=Language). Individuals use language to express inner thoughts and emotions, make sense of complex and abstract thoughts, to learn to communicate with others, to fulfil wants and needs, as well as to establish rules and to maintain culture. Language can be defined as verbal, physical, biologically innate, and a basic form of communication, (http://languagedevelopment.tripod.com/id2.html). There are many theories on the acquisition of syntax, the underlying structure of language. There is still much debate on how children begin to learn the meaning of specific words, and how children learn the grammatical rules of language. This essay will look at three of the major theories that attempt to explain children’s language development (the behavioural, Nativist and Interactionist approaches) and critically evaluate whether any of them sufficiently explain children’s language development by analysing the psychological research evidence.

The behavioural theory has its philosophical roots with Locke (1632-1704), who first proposed the idea that infants are born with everything to learn; using the concept of ‘tabula rasa’ meaning blank slate. The person an individual becomes is the direct result of the learning they have done and nothing else. The theory therefore emphasises the role of the environment, infants develop and learn through a process of stimulus-response (nurture). The behavioural approach suggests children learn language the same way they learn all complex behaviours; through the principles of operant and classical conditioning. It was proposed individuals have a form of general intelligence to learn language which is passed on through generations, denying the idea language is an innate ability.

Skinner (1975), who was a radical behaviourist, emphasised the role of the parents as models and reinforcers of language. Language is conditioned by parents through a process of association and reinforcement. He suggested that the sounds (babbling) made by infants are shaped by their care givers until the sounds become words. Parents shape these sounds by associating them with words, when the child correctly imitates the word parents reinforce this through praise or rewards. If children imitate adult words and receive appropriate reinforcement, then the words are retained by the child and used again in the right circumstances (or stimulus conditions). Successful attempts are rewarded because an adult who recognises a word spoken by a child will praise the child and/or give the child what they are asking for. Successful utterances are therefore reinforced while unsuccessful ones are forgotten as they are not reinforced. It was also though parents teach grammar through conditioning. For example when children say several words or word combos, parents use these words to create and repeat back grammatically correct sentences, these sentences are then learnt by the child through imitation and positive reinforcement.

While there must be some truth in the behaviourist approach, there are many criticisms against it. Behaviourist psychologist actually showed little observation to children themselves when supporting their theory with evidence; the focus was primarily on studying the parents. Children often say things that they could not have heard from their parents and frequently demonstrate understandable and original sentences or phrases that couldn’t possibly have been learnt through a process of conditioning and imitation. It is also argued that the behaviourist theories have not stood the test of time. For example although words can be learned through conditioning principles in laboratory settings; there is little evidence that parents use such structured techniques at home; yet the majority of children are fluent in their native language before they reach school age.

Research by Brown and Hanlon (1970) has shown that parents rarely comment to children about the grammar correctness of their spoken messages, only the meaningfulness of them. Brown et al (1969) recorded mothers talking to their children. It was found parents generally didn’t correct or reinforce grammar they only corrected the content of speech. For example the phrase ‘want cup’ was accepted; however if a child said ‘that pig’ when actually it was a sheep the mother said, ‘no, that’s a sheep’. This demonstrates the children clearly do not learn language there must be something else which aides them in developing this skill as parents appear to only consider the content within children’s’ speech. Brown, Cazden and Bellugi (1969) suggested that truth value rather than a well-formed syntax is what essentially governs explicit verbal reinforcement by parents.

Although new words are obviously learnt through imitation, new grammatical forms (such as plurals or the past tense) are usually not imitated until children are able to produce them spontaneously (Bloom, Hood and Lightbrown 1974). This shows that children need a conceptual understanding to use grammar they cannot just repeat and comprehend the parents’ correction. Therefore, children apparently do not learn the syntax of the mother tongue through the conventional rules of classical and operant conditioning. However, this does not mean the environment and parents do not play a role in the language acquisition of children. Children are not born with knowledge of a specific language; they learn to speak the language that is spoken around them, often to them. However, overall these criticisms show that a behavioural theory of language development is clearly not adequate.

Another issue is that language is based on a set of structures or rules, which could not be worked out simply by imitating individual word constructs. The mistakes made by children reveal that they are not simply imitating but actively working out and applying rules. Children often over regularise the rules of grammar by demonstrated sentences that have clearly not been learnt from others; for instance; ‘I love cut-upped egg’, (Pinker, 1995). Another example is when a child who says ‘drinked’ instead of ‘drank. In this case they are not copying an adult but rather over-applying a rule. The child has discovered that past tense verbs are formed by adding an ‘ed’ sound to the base form. The mistakes occur because there are irregular verbs which do not always behave in the same way. These forms are referred to as intelligent mistakes or virtuous errors. Research shows the majority of children go through the same stages of language acquisition; there appears to be a definite sequence of steps. Apart from particularly extreme cases, such as those of feral children, the pattern seems to be largely unaffected by the treatment the child receives or the type of society in which they grow up in. this again suggests their must be some innate construct for the development of language.

There is also evidence of a critical period for language acquisition. Children who have not acquired language by the age of seven will never entirely catch up. Supporting evidence for this is shown in the case of Genie who had been severely neglected and deprived of normal human contact, (Mason, 2002). After being discovered at the age of thirteen she was disturbed and underdeveloped in numerous ways. During subsequent attempts at rehabilitation, her carers tried to teach her to speak. Despite some success, mainly in learning vocabulary, she never became a fluent speaker, failing to acquire the grammatical competence of the average five-year-old. If the behavioural theory was a valid way of explaining language acquisition then through a process of social learning Genie should have been able to learn language and grammar regardless of her age; therefore the theory cannot sufficiently explain children’s language development.

A final limitation which provides no support for the idea that language is completely based on social learning is the idea of speed in learning language. Generally adults learn things quicker than children due to schemas they have developed from having more worldly experiences. However, this is not the case for language; in this instance children learn quicker and more effectively. Chomsky (1959) when analysing verbal behaviour claimed that he could find no support for the doctrine that slow and careful shaping of verbal behaviour through differential reinforcement was necessary for language acquisition. He precipitated that children speak their first word between the ages of seven months and two years; they cannot even walk yet but can talk. He suggested that children are therefore too young to be conditioned and learn language through a process of imitation; he claimed there must be some biological basis to aide language acquisition.

The Nativist theory of language acquisition was developed by Chomsky (1957) and Lenneberg (1967). They both emphasized that language is an innate ability and suggested that although there are obviously environment influences the actual ability to learn language is innate. Slobin (1985) proposed that just as infants come into the world ‘programmed’ to look at interesting, especially moving, objects, they are also pre-programmed to pay attention to language. The theory proposed the complete opposite to Skinners behaviourist approach; instead focusing on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate claiming language is innate and produced by a child’s biology. Chomsky produced a devastating critique of the behaviourist approach which included the claim that much of a child’s speech is composed of original constructions which could not have been copied from an adult.

Chomsky precipitated that children are biologically prepared to learn language and do so with innate learning mechanisms not through a domain general set of learning devices as proposed by behaviourists. He believed language is only one part of a process, known as the surface structure. The surface structure is ordering words into a sentence. Infants hear language being spoken around them and are then able to speak it themselves. However, he suggested no simple rules of learning or conditioning account adequately for this acquisition as the language children hear, as it is too complicated and ambiguous for them to distinguish the rules. Chomsky focused particularly on the impoverished language input children receive. Adults do not typically speak in grammatically complete sentences; also, what children hear is only a small sample of language. Chomsky’s studies gave an understanding of the complexity of language as a formal system and knowledge that language use is ‘messy’ within adult conversation, for example it is filled with hesitations and repetitions, (Lee & Gupta, 2001). He suggested that the language sample which a child might hear from their parents and others would not be sufficient to allow the child to deduce the complex rule systems of adult language. In order that a child can learn this complex system it must be the case that human infants are born with some of this knowledge. He went on to conclude that children must have an inborn faculty for language acquisition. According to this theory, the process is biologically determined the human species has evolved a brain whose neural circuits contain linguistic information at birth. He proposed another mechanism is necessary to explain why children have the ability to perceive the surface structure of the language being spoken around them and then produce it fully and fluently by the age of three, as well as creating sentences that they could not have heard before.

Chomsky believed there is a second structure of language that exists; the deep structure. This is the underlying meaning and structures of language, things individuals just know (grammar). He suggested this species specific characteristic is dormant in the nervous system until stimulated by actual language use. The child's natural predisposition to learn language is triggered by hearing speech and the child's brain is able to interpret what they hears according to the underlying principles or structures it already contains. Humans possess a physical organ that is dedicated to language use which is located in the brain. This natural faculty is known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). All human languages share this deep structure of language knowledge and it is an innate and universal notion in all humans; he compared it to the concepts of time and space. This innate neural device (the LAD) leads to psychological benefits of learning language, it is a program that helps individuals’ make sense of incoming grammar and imposes order on incoming stimuli.

Linguistic theorists believe children acquire language so easily because they possess this mental organ of the LAD which is designed to perform the job of learning language. Infants also have some primitive knowledge about the structure, or syntax of language. This is universal grammar which consists of the basic grammatical rules that typify all languages. Children do not learn all of the rules of their language, instead they have to observe the language that is around them, see how it fits in with the universal grammar and make appropriate modifications so that their innate theory of syntax matches the theory that individuals around them use. Children don’t actually know any language at birth but they have a set of principles and parameters that guide their interpretation of speech. For example, Chomsky did not suggest that an English child is born knowing anything specific about English. He stated that all human languages share common principles, (for example, they all have words for things and actions - nouns and verbs). It is the child's task to establish how the specific language they hear expresses these underlying principles and applies the universal rules of language to that particular language version. For instance the LAD already contains the concept of verb tense. By listening to such word forms as "worked" and "played" ", the child will form the hypothesis that the past tense of verbs is formed by adding the sound ‘ed’ to the base form. This shows how children can make errors in their speech when learn language for example using the phrase, ‘we wented to the park’. Obviously this process of learning language rules occurs within the unconscious.

Brown and Bellugi (1964) found research evidence to support this theory by analysing the early speech of two children. The children were found to over generalise these rules of the past tense such as by using the words ‘growed’, and ‘drinked’. They interpreted these findings to suggest the child’s innate propensity to use rules lead to errors from which the linguist can infer from the grammar being used. The incorrect grammatical constructions did not occur from adult imitation the children had created them themselves on the basis of grammatical hypotheses, supporting the idea of a LAD.

Lenneberg (1967) suggested language is a special human ability that is not just a result of learning it must have an innate biological basis. He found six characteristics to support this. The first is that language is species specific; only humans possess such a complex language. However, there has been some disagreement with this proposal as some have suggested dolphins possess a similar language; it is difficult to define what ‘language’ is. A second is that language is species uniform; the complexity of language is not influenced by the complexity of a society, (Pinker, 1994). All members of the species possess language and the complexity of a language is not related to the complexity of that cultures technology. For examples less wealthy countries are exposed to less objects or things compared to others; this does not mean however that their language abilities are weaker. Another characteristic is that language is difficult to retard. It’s difficult to prevent the learning of language with the exception of children in raised in severely deprived situations such as feral children, all children learn to speak. This is demonstrated in children with severe mental problems who still have language abilities which are often far in excess of their more general intellectual abilities. Language also develops in a regular sequence; children around the world acquire language in the same way about the same time.

The penultimate characteristic is that there are specific anatomical structures for language. The structure of the mouth and throat are unique to our species and specially suited for the task of speaking. There are also different aspects in the brain dedicated for language. Evidence for this is found when looking at people who experience damage within certain areas of the brain. Broca’s area located at the front of the brain controls the production of language; those who experience damage within this area can’t produce language but still understand. Wernwicke’s area located towards the middle back of the brain controls language comprehension, experiencing damage in this area leaves individuals being able to produce but not comprehend language. In the majority of individuals it is found the area of the brain which priorities in language is located in the left hemisphere, in a small number of cases this language acquisition area is found in the right hemisphere; again supporting the idea of anatomical structures. The final characteristic is that there are language disabilities that are genetically based. Specific language disorders are found to run in families, suggesting there is a genetic base for these disorders which are controlled by a dominant gene, (Gopnik and Crago, 1991).

Evidence to support the Nativist approach includes that language is creative; language is not finite whereas the environment is. Bickerton (1990) and Pinker (1994) found support for the theory that children create a grammatical system based on some universal principles by conducted research looking at pidgins and creoles. When individuals go to other countries for example and don’t have the opportunity to learn that cultures language they develop a communication system called a pidgin. This is when several languages are combined; for example the individual using elements of their own language and aspects of the foreign language they understand or have picked up so they are able to communicate to others within that culture and understand each other. Obviously in cases like this little grammar is used as the individual does not fully understand the language they are just attempting to convey the necessary information to the best of their ability. However, Bickerton also found that pidgins can be transformed into actual languages. For example new or foreign words are frequently created and individuals are biologically hardwired to impose grammar for them, (therefore grammar is innate). This is shown in the fact that children constantly reinvent languages and words and create grammar for them in cases such as where they have parents who speak two different languages. The child combining these and creating a new, fully developed language is known as a Creole. This shows that children can not only learn, but also create a language which provides additional criticisms against the behaviourist interpretation which suggests all language is learnt.

Lenneberg (1967) also claimed there is a critical or sensitive period where children need to be exposed to language to develop their LAD properly and the most effectively. As individuals age the nervous system loses its flexibility so that the organization of the brain is fixed by puberty and meaning language learning is more difficult. Curtiss (1977) also found evidence of a critical period when looking at individuals who are socially deprived or isolated during early childhood which showed these children could only develop a very superficial undeveloped level of language. Fromkin (1974) and Maratsos (1979) looked at the language development of the feral child, Genie. If Lenneberg was right about the idea of a critical period, then Genie would never be able to speak properly. It was found one year after her escape, her language resembled that of a normal 18-20 month old child. She could distinguish between plural and singular nouns, between positive and negative sentences and produce two-word sentences. At this point the language of a normal child begins to take off and the infant learns more vocabulary, and more complex grammar; however with Genie, this did not happen. Although she craved social contact, she was unable to achieve it through language. These findings appear to support the Nativist approach of language acquisition in terms that children need to experience exposure to language within the critical period to activate the LAD. However, it has been suggested by Mason (2002) that Genie's history was so disastrous, that it would not be at all clear why she had been unable to make more progress. It may be that she had been so emotionally damaged by her father's treatment that all learning processes would be affected.

Witelson (1987) suggested the plasticity of the brain declines as individuals get older. Evidence to support this is shown in that younger children recover from brain damage within the left hemisphere better than adults. Kim (1997) conducted research to find that the ability of other brain areas to take over language function decreases with age by looking at individuals who speak more than one language (bilinguals). They studied the difference between individuals within early childhood and individuals who were in adolescence or adulthood by looking at brain images. It was found those in childhood used the same parts of the brain to comprehend both languages whereas older individuals used two parts of the brain; one for each language. This again provides support for Chomsky’s idea of a sensitive period for learning language and explains why it is more difficult for older individuals to learn a second language compared to children. Evidence to support the idea of a critical period was found in research conducted by Johnson and Newport (1989). They tested the difference of grammatical competency between USA immigrants and USA natives of various different age ranges. It was found the age of an individual when they came into the USA determined how well they did on the test; the younger the individual was the better they were at the grammatical language. It was three to seven year old immigrants had the same grammatical proficiency as native speakers; this gradually declined as individuals got older. This shows that individuals who learn a second language in early childhood find is easier and have the ability to pick it up easier than those who are older, again providing support for the idea of a critical period for language acquisition.

Criticisms of Chomsky's ideas on language included that it was too theoretical. He was interested in grammar and much of his work consisted of complex explanations of grammatical rules; however he did not study real children to provide evidences for these theories. The theory also relies on children being exposed to language but doesn’t take into account the actual interaction between children and their carers. It also doesn’t consider the reasons why a child might want to speak, the functions of language. Bard and Sachs (1977) conducted research on a hearing child with deaf parents. His parents wanted their son to learn speech rather than sign language so he watched a lot of television and listened to the radio, to receive frequent language input. It was found however, that his language development was limited until a speech therapist was enlisted to work with him. This shows that simply being exposed to language is not enough; associated interaction is needed. This therefore precipitates that language acquisition is not a completely innate process providing limited evidence to completely support for the Nativist approach. More reliable theories have placed greater emphasis on the ways in which real children develop language to fulfil their needs and interact with their environment, including other people.

The final language theory to be considered it the social interactionist approach; this is the most recent and widely accepted theory to date. Social interactionist psychologists theorize language development is a combination of the behavioural and Nativist perspectives (it is both biological and social) suggesting that humans are specially prepared to acquire language but that aspects of the environment especially parents also might be specially prepared to cultivate language acquisition. Interactionists argue that language learning is influenced by the desire of children to communicate with others. Tomasello, (1999) argued that, ‘children are born with a powerful brain that matures slowly and predisposes them to acquire new understandings that they are motivated to share with others’. In contrast to the work of Chomsky, recent ideas have stressed the importance of the language input children receive from their care-givers. Interactionists such as Bruner (1975) agreed with much of the Nativist perspective in terms that humans being specially prepared for language and there is a universal grammar, however he proposed children need to hear a language to develop properly. Bruner rejected the idea of Chomsky’s innate LAD indicating that this concept is not as affective as proposed and believed that language is presented by adults in special ways for children. Language is cultural conventionalised and optimum entry into the culture is by social interaction. He suggested that the language behaviour of adults when talking to children (known as child-directed speech) is specially adapted to support the acquisition process. Hoff (2001) proposed this is done by using high pitched tones, exaggerated modulations, a simplified form of adult words ad the use of questions and repetitions. Fernald and Mazzie (1991) conducted research looking at the differences between infant directed and adult directed speech within mothers. It was found infant directed speech was different mainly in terms of the use of high tones in their voice in general, more high and low tones and more tones that move from low to high. Fernald, (1992); Fisher and Tokura, (1996) and Kitamura, (2002) replicated this research across different countries and found universal similarities in the results with of Latvian, Comanche, Mandarin, Chinese, Japanese, Sinhala, Russian, Thai and Swedish mothers. This support of directed speech is often described as ‘scaffolding’ for the child's language learning, (Bjorkland, 2005).

Other research by Stern, Spieker & MacKain, (1982) has shown children are more attentive to infant directed speech. Four month old infants listened to both infant and adult directed speech. They were found to be more likely to turn their head towards the infant directed speech. It is suggested children prefer this way of talking as they experience it the most frequently therefore they are conditioned to it. Masataka (1996) also found support for this when conducting research looking at mothers of deaf infants. The parents were still found to sign more slowly and demonstrated a greater exaggeration of movement with their hands compared to when they used sign language with other adults. It was also found the infants responded more to the exaggerated sign language compared to the adult directed sign, supporting the theory that children respond best to and prefer child-directed speech as a universal factor. All these findings suggest children are born ready to process language and that adults feel compelled to talk to infants in child directed speech that they understand best. Cicchetti (1989) found evidence for those although children do not need a secure attachment to develop language maltreated infants are found to have significant delays in language acquisition. These findings may be interpreted to suggest that maltreated infants are less likely to receive and experience child-directed speech which is needed to help them develop language successfully and more effectively supporting the underlying principles of the interactionist theory. Moskowitz (1978) again looked at another case of a hearing child with deaf parents. The child frequently watched television in attempt to learn how to speak but was still unable to speak or understand language by the age of three. It was suggested that this was due to television containing mostly adult directed speech not the simplified version children typically receive from adults. Locke (1993) proposed that although infants are biologically prepared to learn language, the actual development of it is rooted within the social-emotional context of learning through the caregivers.

Bruner instead developed the concept of the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) which emphasised the interaction between the environment and innate biological abilities in the process of learning language as an alternative to Chomsky’s LAD. The LASS incorporated both internal ‘push’ force drives; which focused on the innate aspects of an inbuilt system to aid language acquisition and the external ‘pull’ force drives; which consider the role of a supportive environment which assists learning. In summary the system suggests the process of language acquisition is pre-programmed but adults assist with learning by exposing infants to speech.

Bruner (1983) stressed the importance of opportunities for children to interact with, and observe interactions between others. In this theory language develops as a more effective means of making communication rather than as the first means. The important point is that spoken language is part of a history of shared communications which predates it. In this shared history the child’s partner in the communication will make the greatest contribution until the child is able to take a progressively more active role. This idea is supported by research showing that mothers who behave as if children understand language right from the start, make eye contact with them and engage in dialogue, responding to their infants’ reactions are laying the foundations of conversation. Involving infants in conversational exchanges are essential experiences for language development. Trevarthen, (1989) studied the interaction between parents and infants who were too young to speak. He concluded that the turn-taking structure of conversation is developed through games and non-verbal communication long before actual words are spoken.

Although the social interactionist theories are useful when overcoming issues with Chomsky's Nativist ideas and it seems likely that a child will learn more quickly with frequent interaction there are some criticisms. Problems with the social interactionist theory include that research shows children in all cultures pass through the same stages when acquiring language. However, in many cultures it is found adults do not adopt special ways of talking to children, this shows child directed speech may be useful but is not essential in the acquisition of language. Heath (1983) found problems with the theory in that not all caregivers subscribe to traditional Western cultured ideology in terms of ‘child centeredness’. In many cultures care givers do not talk to their infants as they see ‘no point’ therefore not infant directed speech is used to encourage children to speak which undermines the whole theory of social interactionism. Research by Bee, (1989) indicated that while infant directed speech can be used to explain how aspects of individual children’s environments help or hinder them from talking, it does not explain the underlying causes of language acquisition. Infant directed speech he suggested is only useful and effective as it attracts and holds an infants attention and allows the infant to take part in enjoyable turn taking exchanges, which results in the beginnings of conversation. The Interactionist approach is criticised as even though it defines the elements needed for the language acquisition (LASS) it doesn’t explain the development of the linguistic system itself. It also idealises the idea of infant directed speech. Newport, Gleitman & Gleitman (1977) raised the issue of how do parents know what they are supposed to do to facilitate language acquisition? The idea is somewhat hypocritical or the Nativist approach in that it suggests that parents ‘know’ how best to teach syntax which replaces a strong Nativist claim about the child with a strong Nativist claim about the caregiver. Cross (1977) also criticised the approach by suggested that caregivers when engaging in infant directed speech may actually be attempting to facilitate interaction not language acquisition. Research he conducted showed that the simplicity of infant directed speech was tuned not to child’s current level of productive language, but to child’s current comprehension ability. A final limitation is that the theory proposes that infant directed speech is used to make it easier for child to interpret the caregivers’ utterances, but it doesn’t explain how the child comprehends the grammatical rules that underlie them.

In conclusion, it can be suggested that no one of the theories sufficiently explain children’s language development on their own. There is still a conflicting debate today on whether children’s language development is domain general; it reflects a child’s changing representations of concepts, events and scripts across cognitive domains or domain specific; the child’s linguistic processes are specialised and arise out of domain specific information-processing systems. The behaviourist and Nativist approaches are reductionist in that they both firmly take either the nature or nurture side in explaining language development without considering the alternative. The behavioural approach suggests language is learnt through imitation and reinforcement. However although research evidence supports the fact parents have an influence, problems are found in that children speak novel sentences. The Nativist approach takes the other extreme and claims language is an innate factor. The theory does expand on the behaviourist ideas by suggesting that the development of language is biological but children need to be exposed to language to activate the LAD; which accounts for individual differences of the different languages spoken. However, the theory still has weaknesses in that research evidence shows that to successfully acquire language children need to experience speech interaction between others; mere exposure to speech isn’t enough. The social Interactionist theory includes both of the previous ideas which are more effective at sufficiently explaining children’s language development. However, it focuses on the pragmatics of language rather than considering the development of grammar. Overall, it can be proposed that children’s language development is the result of an interaction between the social influences that children experience from listening and imitating their caregiver and innate biological factors that lead to a child wanted to talk and having the ability to learn. There is no one theory alone that successfully encompasses all aspects of language development, however, by combining aspects of all three theories they may together sufficiently provide an explanation of language acquisition.


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