Neurobiological Insights Into Language Acquisition During Childhood

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Language is perceived as the way humans communicate through the use of spoken words or sign action, it involves particular system and styles in which we interact with one another (Oxford 2009). Possessing this ability to communicate through the use of language is thought to be a quintessential human trait (Pinker 2000). Learning a language, know as language acquisition, is something that every child does successfully within a few years. It is the development by which they acquire the ability to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This involves selecting diverse abilities including phonetics, syntax and an extensive vocabulary. Language acquisition usually refers to first language acquisition, which studies infants' acquisition of their native language.

Steven Pinker, one of the leading neuro-linguist, believes that it is virtually impossible to show how children could learn a language unless one assumes that they have a considerable amount of non-linguistic cognitive machinery in place before they start. Therefore heredity must be involved in language. However, children raised in different parts of the world acquire different language skills; therefore environment must also be an essential factor. Thus the main concern is about how these factors interact during language acquisition (Pinker).

What most scientists are concerned with is how exactly the infants are able to lucratively learn the human language along with all its complexities. Cognition is also thought to be associated with language. It is seen as a way of positioning our thoughts in a way that is communicable. Many Psychologists are concerned with this aspect of learning acquisition in children. One of the leading ideas based on behaviour was conveyed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (Pinker). Skinner believed that Children learned from imitation from people around them, such as their parents and caretakers. His verbal behaviour was based on the idea that the mind consisted to sensory motor abilities including simple law of language that brought gradual changes to an organism's behavioural repertoire. Skinner saw language as being learned and thinking as a form of verbal behaviour, which is a prime manifestation of thought occurring externally. Further study in this field was contributed By Jean Piaget (Vygotsky). According to Piaget, the specific characteristics of a child's logic are egocentrism of their thinking. Piaget was able to link different stages of language development in a child with the child's presumed understanding; this can be seen in Table 1 below.

Table 1 the table shows the stages of language development in an infant and their responses to these expressions. It is thought that metabolic brain activity peaks at the age of 4, where the child would have acquired sufficient language skills by then.A theory averting from Piagets' work is by the American Linguist Noam Chomsky. He believed that language is innate, skills governed by inborn programmes (Mason). Noam claimed that we are all born with a set of rules, known as Universal Grammar, which every human encompasses and differences in languages is just a variation of the use of this rule. He believed this, as he found that children still had the ability to effectively and correctly learn language even though most people when they speak continuously make mistakes, change their minds or use abbreviations. Another reason for Noam's theory is that Children do not merely imitate the language that they hear around them, they attain rules from what they hear and are able to use them successfully in creating their own sentences which they might not have heard before. This varies considerably from what most behaviourists believe. Noam alleged that when a child hears their parent speak they automatically switch to the set of grammatical rules requires for that variation of the language, this is known as setting the parameters. The set of language learning tools which are intrinsic to all humans, referred to as the "Language Acquisition Device" (LAD).

There are also much opposition to Noam's theory. One such critic is the existence of the LAD (Pinker; Mason). If language acquisition is innate and specific, then it must be linked to a specific region in the brain. However there have been no critical findings so far to support this theory as no such area in the brain exists. Nonetheless, it can be argued that as humans have a dominant side to the brain, with the left hemisphere prevailing, the existence of LAD could be situated somewhere in this region. It is in this area that the Broca' area and Wernicke's area also exists. These areas are linked to language processing, including speech and understanding. This is further supported in aphasia patients who have severely damaged their left hemisphere are therefore not able to make the utmost use of language. However this could again be contradicted by stating that there are some areas in the right hemisphere that are linked with linguistic behaviour.

Lev Vygotsky on the other hand believed that language is developed through social interaction (Vygotsky). Furthering Vygotsky theory is the work of Psychologist Jerome Bruner, who saw the support given to children as crucial in their language acquisition. Bruner has also tried to incorporate Noam's work on LAD. He has said that while there may be a Language Acquisition device, there must also be a language acquisition support system (LASS) present. By this Bruner is referring to the child's parents and caretakers. Bruner explains that if we observe a child closely, their interaction with the adults around them constantly provide them with a large quantity of information from which they could learn language. Along with this the child begins to recognise and link a series of predictable action with the language that would be used. Eventually the child wills move from a passive role to a more active role such as imitating the caregivers' actions and eventually their language. Through this the child is able to learn both the language and the daily motions in life which provides a context in which to use this acquired language. Bruner's idea is broadened by John Macnamara who presumes that rather than an inherent language device being present; it is more likely that humans, in particular children have a natural capacity and understanding to read into social situations, which makes learning language more capable.

The innate attainment of language is also thought to lie within the FOXP2 Gene (Bear at al, 2007). The issue was first brought forward in 1990 in relation to the KE family (MacAndrew). The family suffered from a mutation on a single dominant trait gene. Any deficit on the Silent and replacement nucleotide substitutions mapped on a phylogeny of primates. Bars represent nucleotide changes. Grey bars indicate amino-acid changes - after reference (6)

FOXP2 gene is thought to lead to brain defects during embryo development leading to disruption in language acquisition. As Figure 1 shows, the FOX gene is present in almost all mammals but with slightly different coding, which may be crucial in language acquisition.

An additional biological feature that contributes to Human language is believed in the way the human vocal tract is shaped and modified through evolution, to allow humans to speak. Unlike most great apes, including Chimpanzees, the human larynxes are low in the throat and the vocal tracts have a sharp right angular shape (Pinker). This creates two independently modifiable resonant cavities which is able to produce a two-dimensional range of vowel sounds. However a disadvantage of this evolution has limited humans in efficient breathing, swallowing and choking. Therefore the benefits associated with the ability to speak must have far outweighs the disadvantages. This might also be due to human settling in one area and the benefits to share and communicate to others through language taking more priority. In spite of this, there is evidence to suggest that some great apes do possess the ability to learn language but not fully use it due to their biological structure. This related to Apes being taught sign language, many of which have been able to use successfully, along with its specific grammar rules and systems.

Conversely there are problems with the language acquisition theories that we have seen so far, that provides some contradicting discussions. The studies and observations made on Deaf and Feral Children show learning under extreme conditions (Mason, web). Feral Children are not exposed to language during infancy due to being raised in the wild or being raised in isolation. They may have a lack of social interaction which would eventually deprive them of their social lives. In the case of feral children, especially those that are past puberty, it is extremely difficult for them to adjust back to the normal human life and learn the language. Hence, it brings the issue of a "critical period" that must exist in which children are effectively able to learn language (Pinker).

The theory of "Critical period" was created by the neuropsychologist Eric Lenneberg, 1967. He had believed, similar to Chomsky, that learning a language is innate. However it is restricted before reaching a certain age such as puberty then the child will never be able to master language (Mason). Cases that exist to support this theory includes "Victor- the wild boy of Aveyron", found at the age of 11. Although he could understand language and read a little, he never learnt to speak. Another example is that of "Kamala" from Midnapore, found at the age of 8, she was able to speak a bit but mostly preferred to communicate through sounds. A more recent case involves a girl named Genie in California. She was of 13 years old and was brutally isolated by her father. When found she could understand roughly 20 words, which included some colours and a few other words including "mother". She was only able to speak two words which included "stopit" and "nomore". She was extensively studied by scientists who were interested in how she would progress in language. A year after she was found, Genie's language was similar to that of an 18-20 month child producing 2-3 word sentences and understanding positive and negative sentences. Normally after this stage, a normal Childs language skills grow drastically, learning more vocabulary and complex sentences, this was not so in Genies case. After 4 years her language skills still resembled that of a 20 months infant. Many had believed Genie would falsify the theory of the "critical period". However it is believed that isolation or confinement can lead to retardation or emotional disturbances that could prevent the subject from effectively learning language and which may also confound conclusions. As Genie's past was grievous, it could be said that here capacity to learn language was limited due to her mental state. Other suggestions had included that Genie was abnormal as brain scans had shown she was predominantly right-brained. Genie's case does not prove Lennebergs' "critical period "theory but it does strongly support it.

An alternative case to support the theory of "critical period" is a study by Newport and Supalla in 1987. They studied a group of Deaf Children and the progress in learning the American Sign Language and the stage at which they were exposed to it. Some were familiar to ASL since birth while others learned it at school. Their results showed a liners decline in performance with increased age, with those familiar with ASL performing better while the late learner performing the worst. However this does not directly support Lenneberg's theory that the critical period end when children reach puberty, as the oldest child was 4 years old. On the other hand this might suggest that the "critical period" stage may well end earlier than even Lenneberg had anticipated.

In conclusion, there is no distinct way in which children learn language. It is virtually impossible to show how children learn language without having presumptions of the factors that might have to be taken into account. This assumption would have to rely heavily both on the fact that a form of non-linguistic cognitive machinery must be in place before they start and the effects of social and behavioural factors must also be taken into account. Many different theories exist that try to explain how children learn language and whether this ability to learn language is innate as Chomsky suggested or learned as Vygotsky thought. There are evidences and cases to support and condemn both fields. However the ability of children to spontaneously grasp and use correctly thousands of words and vocabulary in a short period of time has been one that has intrigued many and will continue to be studies for a long time.

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