This essay will discuss three theories of language acquisition from theoretical standpoints of behaviourism, linguistics and the social interactionist. It is imperative that research is carried and knowledge is gained about language, as it is a fundamental part in our functioning (Bernstein 2002). Language is "a socially shared code, or conventional system, for representing ideas/concepts through the use of arbitrary symbol and rule governed combinations of these symbols" (Owens p.4 2008). The present essay will also discuss how these theories apply practically to the speech and language therapists' role. It is important to note from the outset that effective case management is mediated by knowledge of the practical implications of language acquisition theories (Bernstein 2002).
Skinner (1957) is the main theorist behind the behaviourist approach. The behaviourist tradition stipulates that speech and language are operant behaviours learned according to the operant conditioning principles. Verbal behaviour is a "behaviour reinforced through the mediation of other persons" (Skinner 1957 p. 2). Children's learning of language is mediated by their verbal behaviour being differentially reinforced by people in their environment (Bernstein 2002). The child's correct utterances are reinforced while their incorrect ones are not. This causes incorrect usage to be eliminated from their vocabulary and correct usage increases (Harley 2010).
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The environment is the underlying factor of language acquisition according to the behaviourist standpoint (Hulit and Howard 2002). Caregivers use techniques like shaping, modelling, chaining and imitation to elicit a target response (Owens 2008). Shaping is a process whereby reinforcement is given if the approximate gets progressively closer to the target word. Single word utterances expand into sentences through caregivers modelling and subsequent withholding of reinforcement until the longer utterance has been said (Hulit and Howard 2002). The child is passive in the language development process, totally dependent on the training given to them by the caregiver (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001). The child's past experience with the salient environmental stimuli at that time determine the sequence of language acquisition (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001).
Research in the area of behaviourism has contributed a lot of meaningful knowledge to the debate on language acquisition. In support differential reinforcement, Whitehurst and Valdez-Menchaca (1988) examined the use of this technique in children exposed to a foreign language in a naturalistic and controlled setting. The use of differential reinforcement resulted in more foreign language use and better performance on comprehension and production tests compared to no differential reinforcement conditions. The researchers interpreted the results as evidence that the acquisition vocabulary is a function of socially mediated reinforcement. Word meaning research shows that networks of associations are involved in semantics, giving some recognition to classical conditioning principles (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001). A study examining how mothers interact with their children specially relating to the types and levels of grammatical occurrences used was conducted by Cameron-Faulker and colleagues (2003). Children who had mothers showing a high level of responsiveness to their vocalisations typically had faster language growth, compared with mothers who showed lass responsiveness. This further confirms the importance of the environment for children's language acquisition.
There are a number of criticisms of the behaviourism account of language acquisition. Much of the experimentation that underpins behaviourist theory was conducted in a laboratory setting, thus generalisation to children's homes is limited. In line with this, Saxton (2000) found that techniques like shaping, reinforcement and deprivation do not generally occur in the home environment. Saxton did find that parents alerted children to their grammatical errors, but do not punish them. In the same vein, parents focus their reinforcement on the correct semantic features of an utterance, but do not explicitly punish or praise the syntactic features of it (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Chouinard Clark 2003; Chomsky 1959). The behaviourist explanation of grammar acquisition purely based on a negative reinforcement ideology cannot explain adults' use of grammar. It would predict that adults would use erroneous grammar in utterances, because they had not received negative feedback about this when they were a child (Ambridge, Pine and Rowland 2011). Chomsky (1959) found that the rate of children's acquisition was too fast to be completely environmentally dependant and there was no explanation as to why children produce utterances they have never heard before (Bernstein 2002). Learning by association was challenged as Chomsky felt some grammar principals are too abstract to be generalised (Tomasello 2003).
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Despite the criticisms of the behaviourist approach, it has contributed important knowledge about learning to speech and language therapy practice. Behaviours identified by Skinner are useful in language training. Speech and language therapy practice utilises structured behavioural techniques as shaping and reinforcement to help children with limited speech progress (Owens 2008). Behavioural techniques like reinforcement are frequently used in therapy. Examples of extrinsic reinforcement include the child working for tokens, stickers and toys. Social reinforcement includes the use verbal praise by saying 'good sitting' of 'good listening' during the session o children. Reinforcement can also be intrinsic; the child asks to play with a toy and the therapist gives it to them (Paul 2012).
The behavioural standpoint indicates the crucial importance of the environment in language acquisition (Hulit and Howard 2002). Through the means of health promotion, speech and language therapists can broadcast the importance of providing children with rich lexical input and language-rich activities in the home and childcare centre. Lees (2011) emphasises that there is an urgent need to provide parent-focused enrichment programmes to at risk families to educate them about the importance of providing a rich language environment. This is turn would lessen the risk of their children having reading difficulties in school. The speech and language therapists' health promotion activities play a key role in initiatives like the Surestart programme in the UK (Ferguson and Spence 2012). Parents who live in socially disadvantaged areas are just as likely to be concerned about their children learning to talk as other parents (Lees, Stackhouse and Grant 2009). Therefore, health promoting guidelines as enforced by speech and language therapy can be effective in decreasing the risk for children in disadvantaged areas. Girolametto and colleagues (2000) reinforce the health promoting aspects of the speech and language therapists' work, whereby adult-child play contexts can be modified to ensure interaction is promoted, childcare providers are trained to use language input that promote communication development. Regarding adult interventions, the social environment provides a critical foundation to build positive change. Without a rich communication environment, an individual or partnership based intervention is rendered void (Bunning 2004).
Contrasting to behaviourism, the linguistic approach is firmly rooted on the nature side of the nature versus nurture debate. Differing from behaviourism, the linguistic approach posits that the environment is merely a trigger for an innate disposition (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001). Linguists believe that humans are born with a capacity for language; only severe mental or physical limitations limit this capacity. Chomsky is the main theorist from this approach; he views language acquisition as a process whereby learners obtain the ability to generate utterances not heard before (Ambridge, Pine and Rowland 2011). Chomsky believed that the behaviourist approach to language acquisition results in a poverty of stimulus, whereby the rules of syntax cannot be learnt by hearing alone (Harley 2010).
Chomsky's solution forms the basis of the linguistic approach; every speaker possesses abstract syntactic knowledge which has its basis in human genes (Chang, Dell and Bock 2006). Chomsky (1959) proposes that if humans are exposed to language they will talk, regardless of the environment. He proposes that language acquisition and cognitive development as two separate entities. A capacity to generalise grammar is constrained by basic semantics relating to agents, patients and causal actions. It is only when children learn more about the lexicon that more complex semantic relations are understood (Abbot and Tomasello 2010).
Chomsky (1957) put forward a theory stipulating that there are universal grammar rules of language. Grammar rules allow speakers of a language to communicate mutually comprehensible sentences unrestricted. These grammatical rules thereby allow for the understanding of novel sentences (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001). The innateness of language is qualified by universal similarities in how language is acquired. This innateness is accounted by the presence of a non- language specific mechanism in the brain, called Language Acquisition Device (LAD) (Hulit and Howard 2002; Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001). The LAD consists of two components; a cognitive system for storing information and a performance system for accessing and using the stored information of the child's specific language (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001).
Evidence in favour of this theory of language acquisition will now be discussed. Firstly Chomsky argues that grammar is primarily the link between what is meant and what is said, more so than the influence of intuition. Grammar-specific processing research has found that the perception of sentences is determined by the principles of syntactic organisation. Base structure meaning is attained by determining the major syntactic units of a sentence. The emergence of linguistic rules are evident whereby children over apply the past tense for regular verbs is seen worldwide. Cross culturally and cross linguistically, evidence of similar patterns of language development for example patterns of babbling is taken as evidence of the LAD's operation (Bernstein 2002).
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Glodin-Meadow (2003) provided evidence for the idea that humans have the capacity to generate symbols and to organise their communicative expressions systematically. Her research on 10 deaf children who were not singed to by their hearing parents found that children created an effective communication system that was similar to normal developing children's language. Furthermore, Arbib (2009) argues that the brain's language structure of functional hemispheric specialisation depends on both genetic and environmental factors.
Criticisms of this approach include Chomsky's belief that language acquisition and cognitive development are two separate entities. Clark (2004) proposes that when children first acquire language, they build on the conceptual information they know, helping to discriminate and create categories for objects, relations and events experienced. Furthermore, the development of the cognitive system influences children's understanding of the linguistic system (Ely 2005). Furthermore, Owens (2008) argues that cognition precedes language development; there are cognitive and perceptual prerequisites for language development. It is fair to argue that language does not develop in a vacuum; language acquisition and cognitive development are not two separate entities (Owens 2008). Chapman (2000) notes that there is empirical evidence opposing the innate basis of language acquisition. He argues that language structure is acquired gradually, across an extended time period, for example grammatical verb inflections are acquired one verb at a time. Aspects of acquisition can be impaired in a variety of ways for example autism or specific language impairment, as well as specific aspects of acquisition for example pragmatic aspects (Chapman 2000).
The LAD has is a weak explanation of language acquisition (Owens 2008). Syntactic structures of language are emphasised at the expense of semantics, phonetics and pragmatics. There is no adequate explanation given for children's use of one word utterances as Chomsky relied on adult data. Tomasello (2000) notes that children operate with different psycho linguistic units compared with adults. The assumption that language acquisition is complete for the age of five is exaggerated as the acquisition of complex rules and intricacies of syntax continue through adulthood (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Hulit and Howard 2002).
Chomsky's work contributed a lot of worth to knowledge on language acquisition as it was an impetuous for research on developmental processes that crossed cultural boundaries. As noted above, the linguistic approach was an alternative to the behaviourist view, whereby the child was seen as active in the language learning process (Bernstein 2002). This is an essential consideration to be taken into account for the therapy process. For the child to be cooperative in the process it is essential that the family and the therapist work together. When working with speech impaired children, therapists tend to focus on issues like choosing the right therapy approach, objectives, reinforcement schedules and initial target words. Bowen (2009) notes that although these are all important, therapists tend to forget about the attributes of the child and family involved, which can impact speech progress. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual and the child engages with therapy because they want to do it. It is more powerful than external motivation (Bowen 2009). Verbal praise can promote intrinsic motivation whereby the therapist centres praise on the client's efforts and successes in reaching their goals. Incorporating games with speech activities during therapy can be highly motivating for the child. Furthermore, if a child has good self- efficacy, learning sounds will be approached positively if the child had past success with new sounds. If intrinsic motivation is utilized by the speech and language therapist learning new speech sounds can be accomplished (Bowen, 2008). The importance of naturalistic observation was also realised (Bernstein 2002).
The third approach to be discussed in the interactional model. This approach is considered by Bohannon and Bonvillan (2001) to be a moderate compromise in the naturalistic versus nurture extremes of linguistic theory and behaviourist theory. Language acquisition results from an integration of learning in multiple fields (Chapman 2000; Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001).
The social interactionist model will be the focus of the present essay. In line with the linguistic approach, this model argues that language is structured and follows rules which differentiate it from other behaviours. However, moving away from the linguistic standpoint and moving towards behaviourism, the social interactionist recognises the crucial role the environment and the caregiver plays in language acquisition. Language acquisition and social interaction are mutually dependent (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Hulit and Howard 2002). The main underpinning of this theory is that human language structure has grown from the social-communicative function of language. It posits that children must learn grammatical skills in the same vein as the linguist, but this is accomplished through association and accommodation in the social context. Therefore, children are conceived as active participants in the language acquisition process (Hulit and Howard 2002; Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001).
Tomasello (2000) argues that cognitive and social processes present in the child underpin their language acquisition process, in contrast to Chomsky's universal grammar approach. The social interactionist does not take into account a linguistic mechanism or the conditioning process for language learning. This models focus is on the non-linguistic parts of interaction. Specific communicative events like turn-taking, joint attention and the context of the interaction are part of the language learning process as observation of actual language can occur (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Tomasello 2000)
Child-directed speech or motherese is an important method of communication between adults and children which facilitates language acquisition along with the environment (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Harley 2010). Hulit and Howard (2002) put forward a number of arguments stipulating the positive effect motherese has on language acquisition. Repetition provides multiple models for the child and opportunities for practice. The use of short, simple sentences make the utterance replicable for the child and phonological distinctions are simplified. The adult finds meaning behind the child's babbling, which is negotiated through social interaction. The importance of gesture and imitation in early social communication is emphasised, whereby parents teach their children social conventions like 'hello'. (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001; Hulit and Howard 2002; Harley 2010). As the child grows older and increases in their language skill, input from the environment increases in complication which facilitates communication similar to Vygotsky's zone of proximal development model. The verbal code is provided when the child is attending to the speaker or object. A real life example of this is exemplified by research Deb Roy's in depth work of his son's language acquisition process. The word 'water' is most frequently said in close proximity to the kitchen, aiding his son to associate words to their meaning (TED 2011; Hulit and Howard 2002)
The major difference between this model and the two discussed previously is the importance put on motherese. Child-directed speech is observed in all language and is use by all adults when they are addressing infants . Using simplified speech is effective when communicating with somebody less linguistically sophisticated. The lack of the child's listener signals acts as a catalyst for the speaker to simplify what they say even more (Berko-Gleason 1977). The child therefore controls the speech they hear, leading to less variability in their linguistic environment although moving up as the child's ability increases (Bohannon and Bonvillan 2001).
Research has found that adults know the child is attending when they look at the target object. When they are looking at it, adults begin to talk about the object. Attention is maintained on the object through language and gesture where the parent gives the child information about it. This shows the importance of the interactive nature of the environment to enable the occurrence of language learning (Estigarriba and Clark 2007). Research has shown that if mothers talk about the object of the child visual gaze, the child is likely to use first words early and have a large initial vocabulary (Tomasello and Farrer 1986).
One of the main criticisms of this approach is that it relies on assumptions which have not been adequately tested, with the exception of motherese. The Furrow study findings have been questioned from the results of research carried out on older children. The idea that the factors involved in motherese differ from adult like speech do not imply with certainty that motherese is helpful for language learning, only a correlation exists. Allen and Oliver (1982) question the notion of who is leading who in language acquisition regarding cases of neglect. They say that perhaps the child had a language impairment, making interaction less appealing for the parents thus neglect followed. From a cross cultural perspective, it has been argued that in non Western cultures, children are not primarily exposed to one on one interactions still acquire language. The majority of children's social interactions occur in the presence of more than one person (Benigo, Clark and Farrar 2007).
Bernstein (2002) outlines some of the contributions the social interactional makes to speech and language therapy practice. One of the main contributions is the emphasis on the social aspect of language use. Adolescents in need of improving their social and communication skills can be involved in social skills programmes aimed at teaching and aiding them develop in this area. Positive peer modelling of conversational behaviours is an effective approach, whereby peers develop conversational skills leading to greater acceptance within their groups. This type of teaching can be effective when working with people on the autism spectrum. Speech and language therapists can facilitate social skills clubs where topics of importance to teenagers in school are discussed for example stress in school and possible difficulties in making friends. Modelling of an appropriate answer is given by the therapist. A group like this could provide an outlet for teenagers with high functioning autism to feel included and to meet others who feel the same way. It is important for people with communication difficulties like autism to functionally express their needs and wants effectively and appropriately. There should also be an emphasis on how to deal with emotions and what ways are appropriate to express them, depending on the person. Regarding children with ASD, social story books are a useful aid to visually inform the child of upcoming events. Peer pairing is also an effective tool to help children understand and engage with the social aspects of language use (Paul 2012).
The theoretical approaches discussed in this essay have contributed to our understanding of the language development process, but clearly a need for a complete model of language acquisition remains (Bernstein 2002). According to Bohannon and Bonvillan (2001) a successful theory of language acquisition must account for why children's language eventually develops into adult language. On the evidence and criticisms presented in this essay, there is a need for this theory to be developed. The three theoretical standpoints have contributed significant knowledge to the speech and language therapy profession in their own rights. As language is a fundamental part in our functioning, it is imperative that research continues into this phenomenon (Bernstein 2002). The examples of theoretically driven applications hopefully touch on the notion that effective case management is mediated by knowledge of the practical implications of language acquisition theories (Bernstein 2002).
Graziano, P., Courtenayo A., Calkins, S., D. and Keane, S., P. (2011). Sustained attention development during the toddlerhood to preschool period: associations with toddlers' emotion regulation strategies and maternal behaviour. Infant & Child Development, 20(6), 389-408.
Lees, J. and Urwin, S. (1997). Children with Language Disorders. 2nd ed., London: Whurr Publications.