Harley, gives this oversimplified definition of language as a system of symbols and rules that enables us to communicate. It is used as a system of signals and symbols. Signals can be written information, verbal sounds or gestures- body/hand is example for sign language.
Giving a definition to language has not been an easy task even to the scholars, because thought and feelings can be communicated unconsciously, does that mean gesture and non verbal are expression of language. Due to the ambiguity in defining a language one tends to look at some of the uses of language, how children acquire it, the process of language and compare different psychologist opinions.
We look into a number of the current issues involved in the first language acquisition as well as the views of some notable social scientists on the subject matter.
Competence and Performance:.- Competence can be said to an individual's essential of a system, event, or fact; non-observable capability to do something. Performance, on the other hand is the obvious and actual demonstration or realization of competence. It means actually doing something. It is general assumption made in schools that children have certain competencies in specific areas and they measure and assess these competencies by administering series of tests and examinations while making careful observations (Erneling, 1993). With respect to language, competence can be described as the fundamental knowledge of the structure of a language, including its grammatical rules, its terminology, all the fragments of a language and how one can fit those said pieces together while Performance in relation to language is the actual production itself (writing, speaking) or the conception (listening, reading) of the events of a particular language.
Chomsky categorized the theory of language as that of competence in order that other language experts wouldn't attempt such with an infinite amount of performance variables which do not reflect the primary capability of the child(Chomsky, 2006). Psychologists and other language experts in the generative/cognitive background have worked with this notion for a while. Indirect means of judging a child's competence had to be created once researchers noticed that as far as a child is not interested or has no cognizance of an older person's linguistic questioning, such child will respond with whatever his mind can think of(Smith, 2004). Some of the methods involved: 1) making several hours of tape recordings and transcripts of speech and carrying out serious analysis afterwards, and 2) a certain amount of comprehension tests which would involve production, imitation and comprehension. Of course there were several downsides (Clark, 2003).
The competence-performance model is yet to be universally acknowledged as it implies that competence comprises of the capacities of an "idealized" hearer-speaker who does not have a performance variable (Smith, 2004 ). Tarone (1988) condemned this model. He claimed that by making the user of a language ideal, there is no room for all of a person's errors that are possibly associated to what he describes as 'heterogeneous competence' which represents the capabilities that are in the course of being made (Lust and Foley, 2004).
Comprehension and Production.- As mentioned earlier, these are both integral features of one's performance and competence. Comprehension, which involves reading and listening, can be linked with competence, while production which is basically speaking and writing is associated with performance. In reality, both these two can actually be related to performance, even though it might not be as clearly apparent in comprehension as it is in performance. There are several levels involved in language competence of an individual, they include: listening, reading, speaking, as well as writing, and all of these are separate methods of performance. One must be careful in concluding or even assuming that comprehension of a language means being able to write or speak it (language comprehension does not necessarily facilitate language production) even though production before comprehension is quite rare.
Nature or Nurture?.- Nativists argue that a child is born with an innate understanding of a dialect, and that this innate property is common across the universe (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011). It has however, not been proven that the human genetic information contain those for language purposes. We cannot ignore Environmental factors. The question 'nature or nurture?' is clearly an issue in first language acquisition as we still need to discern the innate knowledge of a particular language which mother nature provides us with as children from the nurtured one i.e. on that is learned from day to day activities in the environment and from teaching. Researchers have found evidence to prove that there exist mutual forms of linguistic and intellectual development across a number of dialects which humans are "bio-programmed" to advance from one stage to another and improve on as time goes by.
Universals.- around the world, language acquisition is pretty much done in the same way and as such, at the deepest level, the structure of language may be mutual across all languages. According to Maratsos (1988), classifications in language such as ordering of words, agreement, verbs and classes of verbs, reduced reference of nouns and noun clauses, predication, negation and formation of questions are particular to all dialects. However, the presence of some ideologies and factors which indicates some slight likelihood of difference is unquestionable. For instance, there is the principle of structure dependency which states that "language is organized in such a way that it crucially depends on the structural relationships between elements in a sentence" (Holzman:1988), seemingly, in the comprehension and production of language in a child, this principle of structure dependency would ultimately surface. It is rather impossible for languages to vary in an infinite number of ways. There are factors that define ways in which languages can differ; for instance, some languages are structured in a "head first" or "head last" way, having the main nouns come second within a sentence.
Systematicity and Variability: The development of language goes from basic grammar to making complete sentences of variable length. Children display great capacity to deduce the phonological, essential, and vocabulary semantic arrangement of language. But it is not uncommon to notice some disparity or variability in this process of language acquisition within children i.e. something which a child has learned in the past could easily be forgotten or changed as a result of the awareness of new language systems.
Language and thought: There has been the question among linguists of how thought language is affected by thoughts and vice-versa, as well as finding the best possible way to describe and explain the relationship between the two. Some have held on to such positions as that of Piaget (1972), who argued that mental development is at the middle of human beings and that said cognitive development is what language is dependent upon. Another perspective is that of Jerome Brunner (1966), in his opinion, there exist some sources of intellectual development which are influenced by language where concepts are shaped by words, discussions between parents and children serve to teach and orientate. However, Vigotsky (1978) believes that the social interaction given between thought and language is one where language is a requirement necessary for cognitive development. He considered the two (language and thought) as two separate cognitive actions. He believed that each individual child reaches his/her potential development by means of interacting socially with peers as well as adults. Spir-Whorf claimed that each dialect enforces on its speakers a certain "world view" ( Smith, 2004).
Imitation: Research has revealed that echoing is a predominantly significant approach during a child's first language learning and an essential feature of early phonological acquisition. Nevertheless, most of the semantic data usually goes unnoticed. In classes where foreign language is being taught, there have been observations that routine pattern drills induce superficial imitation where the reiteration of sounds doesn't mis-lead students to have the unclear knowledge of what they are saying. Nevertheless, children can sense the importance of the semantic level of language, so by carrying out a surface imitation of the language, they will find it difficult to comprehend what they are imitating.
Practice: Practice make perfect they say, just as children play with items and happenings that are around them, they do so with language as well. The language of a child is apparently basic to language acquisition. In this context, practice does not strictly refer to speaking alone but also to comprehension of the language.
Input: the home is basically the first input of speech for a young child, the speech from parents and older siblings make up this input. At first, a child will start out with consistent repetition of truncated speech in meaningful contexts, sooner or later; they transfer correct forms of the language to their speech. For example, a child might start out saying "dat mummy" to "that's mummy". More recent research have shown that input from adults and peers to a young child is a lot more important that what the nativists earlier thought. The input of adults appears to shape the language acquisition of a child, and the pattern of interaction between a child and the parents will change according to the child's increasing linguistic skill.
Discourse: Discussion is a general human event carried out usually in the course of day to day activities. The ways in which children learn to partake in discussions or conversation is seemingly complex. Besides having to learn the way in which to start a conversation, a child must also learn how to reply to someone else's initiating utterance and be aware of the function and purpose of the discussion. For instance, when a child is asked for something, he will need to ascertain whether the response required of him is information, help or an action.
DEBATES (Skinner Vs Chomsky)
There are two major disputing views in psychology as regards the way children acquire Language. Skinner (1957) suggested a behaviourist methodology to the way in which children acquire language which underscores the significance of nurture or learning from the environment, these ideas of his were based on previous work proposed by John Locke (Clark, 2003). The impression John Locke implied that, the human's brain at the time of birth is like a 'blank slate', that is expected to be occupied with information and knowledge about the world as time passes (Clark, 2003). Likewise, Skinner uses this idea as a threshold to describe his view on the way children acquire their first language. A contrary opinion however, proposes the significance of innate influences in the language development of an individual; these views were in clear contrast to those held by Skinner. Somehow, this latter perspective (nativist) provides somewhat more rationalist justification of the way children acquire language and this implies that children are born with a certain segment in the brain that is mainly for language support, this is known as the 'Language Acquisition Device' (Chomsky, 1959). Chomsky further proposed that there exist a general component to language acquisition due to the fact that every child's language development is pretty much done in a similar manner (universal grammar). According to Skinner, children language acquisition is achieved through imitation; a very important aspect in the behaviourist view is 'operant and classical conditioning'. The manner in which children cultivate their language abilities is via a method of classical conditioning. For instance, when a parent, guardian or caregiver sees a child's behaviour as accurate, they attempt to strengthen the primary knowledge by rewarding the child. A good case of this is when a child pronounces a word rightly and gets a reward of some kind, say candy or chocolate, this kind of action contributes to the rate at which children learn words and their meaning at a young age. However, some features of language do exist that simply cannot be described by this 'imitation and reinforcement' method, the rules of complex grammar for example; children tend to make mistakes with words that have not previously been said to their hearing (Chomsky, 1959). For this reason, it is impossible to completely give an explanation to the abstract and verbal stages of language, but on the other hand, the behaviourist explanation of the method of supporting correct words and sounds has an amount of backing (Gross, 2005), when the right words and sounds are fashioned then the child is strengthened at the same time. In the behaviourist view, Imitation and observations are the greatest significant feature of acquiring language (Gross, 2005). However, some problems exist with adopting a strictly behaviourist methodology to describe how a child acquires language- for instance, the inclination of humans towards creation of new words cannot be clarified by the perspective of a behaviourist, which according to them, reiteration of the same basic words is what allows the child to carry out language acquisition without errors. (Gross, 2005).
To critically evaluate skinner's theory of accent learning we must include imitation in a compound feature of language, these procedures allows for less evident syntax and semantics. According to behaviourist, skinner (1957), children are passive learners rather than active learners; he also believes that the environment plays a vital role in the development of child's language acquisition. Skinner also believes that language is not innateness but learned through imitation, association and reinforcement. He explains further to talk about positive and negative reinforcement, how it has an impact on children's language acquisition.i.e politeness these usually follow from positive reinforcement or too much of a correction brings about a negative reinforcement.
On the other hand, there was another psychologist who had a contrary opinion to that of Skinner in the name of Avram Noam Chomsky (1959) who believes that children are born with everything they need to develop language. He believes that children are biologically programmed for language regardless of their environment, that environment only plays a minimal role in their language input. Chomsky goes on to state that children are born with special ability to discover for themselves the rules of language which is otherwise known as language acquisition device (LAD). These can also be referred to as "hard wired" in a child.
An important question in relation to the hypothesis during the critical period is that of reports of feral children or those that were isolated during their upbringing, who have inadequate normal human interaction and cannot be reached by the society, they are not able to gain language and performance skills (carroll, 2007) a well-known case of this was that of a boy, later named Victor, thought to be around the age of twelve to thirteen years old who was found in the wilderness. (1796) He was taken to a physician known as jean ltard (1774-1838). At the time he was discovered, he could not speak but his hearing was seamlessly normal, other researchers believed he was deaf and retarded .ltard taught victor for 5years so as to acquire language and performance abilities. He taught victor to identify and objects such as milk and giving the French word for as well, his language development was quite poor but he was able to recognize objects without their names. Researchers claimed that the boy might have been able to learn more if he was given appropriate training, suggesting that the approach ltard employed was flawed. (Carroll, 2007). Nevertheless, this proof has been used to offer a critical period at which a child must be exposed to language to enable proper language acquisition .Itard started teaching victor at about the age of sixteen, many researchers assumed either victor was intellectually backward or autistic, but ltard believed the boy's performance was as a result of been isolated for a long period. He believed he was normal (Carroll, 2007).
Lastly, Innateness approach to language learning does not believe in imitation, based on the experiment that children come up with their own language some of the time for example goed instead of went at least this proves that the children are not saying exactly what their parent or caregiver is saying.
Conclusively, we can all agree on the fact that the process through which children learn language is about the same stage to every child around the world, around one month of age children learn to respond to their mothers' voice than any other person. Around six or seven month of age they start babbling making some noises to notify one of their needs or wants. Examples of such is ma-mam,ma-ma. And at a year plus, they begin to make one or more sentences.