It has been noted that a desire to communicate appears to be an innate feature exhibited by all babies, revealed through different forms of non-verbal communication and pre-verbal babbling (Bruce and Meggitt, 1999), described by Trevarthan as ‘pre-lexical communication’ (1977 in Schaffer, pages 227-270) and corroborated by Mercer and Swan who suggest that “children’s early, preverbal, efforts to make their wishes known are an important part of language development” (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 7). A theory accorded to Lennenberg (1967) suggests a ‘critical period’ exists during which language is most easily and effectively acquired, reflected in research by Professor Stapp (1999). Lennenburg’s research, however, was based on a combination of lateralisation studies and social application which appeared to suggest the optimum ages to be most effective between the ages of two years and thirteen years. This observation was noted by Professor Stapp who suggested:
“The ability of young children to achieve native like proficiency in a foreign
language in a rather short time is a reflection of a type of neural plasticity, and it appears to be related to the distinct characteristics of the young brain”
(Stapp 1999, cited in Robertson, 2004, page 7)
Children’s language continues to develop from these early sources, with morphological development effectively completed by the age of four (Crystal, 2003, page 439). Non-verbal communication has been described as being ‘intimately bound up with spoken language’ (Graddol et al, 1994, page 146), with even young babies exhibiting understanding of quite complex kinaesthetic communication, evidence of which can be revealed in one of the more renowned theories of language development that initially evolved from behaviourist concepts, focusing on the theory of imitation and repetition (Skinner, 1957) with later studies revealing more complex factors need to be integrated, associating the features of nurturing with more innate development. Babies, at a very young age, appear to display an innate ability to copy actions recognised within their environment: a baby will learn very rapidly to emulate facial expressions it observes, even to copying a tongue being protruded.
This essay focuses on the continuing debate surrounding environment as an important factor in the acquisition process of language within a child’s development and examines the concept of language acquisition and development in children, together with the claim made by David Bancroft that “when young children acquire English or any other language, they are acquiring a tool for social action…” in accordance with the views expressed by Mercer and Swan (1994), and that revealed in Graddol et al (1996).
Chomsky’s ‘language acquisition theory’ appears to directly contradict behaviourist theory in assuming that, through its innate presence, contributions from social interaction were not necessary for the development of language within a normal human infant , a feature with which McNeill concurred (McNeill, 1970, page 151). Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development correlated with a child’s language development in terms of conveying concepts of culture (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 105), directed into acquiring new skills through adult supervision, eventually leading to the scaffolding theory, directly attributable to Bruner, being developed in accordance with Vygotsky principles (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 113).
Child Directed Speech
Bruner recognised the social interaction that resulted from children responding to adults’ direction as a characteristic that contributed to the child’s developing sense of identity, encouraging them to ‘play around with possible worlds’ (Bruner, 1986 cited in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 102), having the effect of motivating them to increase their usage of language, mentioned by Graddol et al with reference to generative grammar (1994, page 86). From birth, children interact with the familiar adults around them and react to stimuli provided by those carers whose distinct intonation and simplified language when speaking to their charges, is often expressed in tones pitched higher than normal and has been labelled ‘motherese’ (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 15), or more accurately ‘child directed speech’ (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page15), although this is not a universal phenomenon (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 36).
Various distinctive features of ‘semantically contingent utterances’ can be revealed in terms of enforced repetition, choice questions, WH type questions, personal contribution, and phatics (Mercer and Swan, 1996, pages 22 - 24). Child directed utterances featured in research undertaken in 1965 by Cazden who recorded that CDS almost provided sufficient input to enable children to effectively develop language (Cazden, 1965, page 123). It was also noted that correcting errors within the context of discourse through re-phrasing a child’s statement provided adequate stimuli for complex syntax to develop (See Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 90). It is interesting to note, however, that this feature might be more prevalent in Western childcare and cannot be considered to be universal as research amongst various societies, e.g. Quiché in South America, has produced evidence that minimal adult-child speech interaction still results in fluent speech (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 15 - 16). ‘Motherese’ has been noted to adapt into ‘semantically contingent utterances’ as the child ages (Snow, 1986) and is realised in speech that is pitched at a level applicable
to the child’s cognitive development.
Language Acquisition Support System
Banyard (1996) focused on the genetic aspect of language development, believing that language develops in a similar fashion regardless of the culture, loosely correct as noted by Evelyn Hatch:
“One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed”
(Evelyn Hatch cited in Mercer and Swan, 1994, page 44)
This concept has been described as a language acquisition support system, a feature recognised by Chomsky who suggested that children were born with an innate ‘language acquisition device’ (Brown and Bellugi, 1964) enabling them to adapt the grammatical rules they heard and use it to develop their own evolving language skills, a feature described by Crystal who describes the phenomenon of telegraphic speech and explains the development of grammatical markers and children’s expertise develops (Crystal cited in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 26).
Meanwhile, the locus on empiricism was propounded by Skinner, Bruner, and, especially, Vygotsky who considered that children’s language development was more enhanced in environments where children were encouraged to develop their knowledge from adults caring for them. Of particular relevance to this concept was the study undertaken by Hampson and Nelson (1993 cited in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 23). This interactionist concept of individuals reacting in response to their environment reflects the principle behind language as a tool for social action, reflected in Hampson and Nelson’s study (1993, page 327. Also Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 23).
The basic premise behind Bruner’s scaffolding theory was a facilitator directing a child to develop their language through implementing a task-based system that builds on a child’s inherent knowledge. This process became known as the spiral curriculum and involved the development of gradually more complex tasks based on Bruner’s principles that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (Bruner, 1963, page 33), famously embodied by Vygotsky:
“What the child can do in co-operation today, he can do alone tomorrow”
(Vygotsky, 1962 cited in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 113)
Chomsky, contributing to these nativist principles, suggests that, through this concept of universal acquisition, children are enabled to extract information from surrounding conversations and attempt to apply these concepts to their own developing language, a factor referred to by Lieven (Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 36), although a debate continues to exist as to the benefits of dyadic or polyadic influences (Lieven in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 36). Pinker and Piaget were also influenced by nativist principles which recognised that syntactic and lexical features are harnessed through universal devices within the brain, with linguistic structure being dependent on learning and environment - an especially important feature in language acquisition, clarified by Hatch (1978, page 104) who recognised that “…out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed” (See also Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 44).
Evidence suggests that infants incorporate the use of verbs into their Stage 1 language development, whilst a structure of grammar appears to emerge in stage 2, whereby the placement of a verb often follows the subject in a sentence and, by stage 5, there is a more efficient use made of verbs to adequately express a concept of intention in more developed sentences (Crystal, 2003, page 438). Clark (1979) attributes this sufficiency to the increasing use of pronouns and of nouns which have been acquired from those objects, people and places that constitute a child’s familiar environment. McNeill recognised the differences between ‘surface language structures’ (Graddol et al, 1994, page 87) which he correlated with cross cultural similarities and differences, and ‘deep structures in language’ which involved an ability to manoeuvre grammar within language to express more cognisant intentions (Graddol et al, 1994, page 87). Designated generative grammar, this enables deep language to revert to its surface structural elements and vice versa (Graddol et al, 1994, pages 85 - 89).
It was noted by Pinker (1994, page 32) that “complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it”, developing this concept into an argument for pidgin languages evolving into the format associated with creole citing Bickerton (1990) whose research involved emigrants from such countries as Puerto Rico and the Phillipines whose children adapted the pidgin English spoken by their parents into a unique adaptation which evolved into creole (Crystal, 2003, pages 96 - 97).
A number of complex stages contribute to language acquisition in children, with theory attributing such language development to a mixture of an innate sense, together with attributing environmental factors. Children gradually acquire the full complement of grammatical sequences and phonological content necessary for a full command of language, actively assisted by carers in Western societies presenting opportunities for these essential skills to develop. Evidence, however, has shown that this factor is not considered universal, with child-raising in many cultures being provided by a more polyadic influence and children absorbing their language skills from their surrounding environments.
Regardless of where the influence may be directly attributed, language acquisition and development in children could be summed up in an observation made by Barrett et al:
“…linguistic input may play an important role in early lexical development, with children deriving their initial use of a word from the most frequently occurring use which is modelled for them in their environment”
(Barrett et al, 1991, page 22 quoted in Mercer and Swan, 1996, page 23).
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