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Language is perceived as the way humans communicate through the use of spoken words, 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.
Language acquisition is in itself the development by which humans acquire the ability to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse abilities including phonetics, syntax and an extensive vocabulary. This language might be vocal as with speech or manual as in sign. Language acquisition usually refers to first language acquisition, which studies infants' acquisition of their native language, rather than second language acquisition, which deals with acquisition, in both children and adults, of additional languages (Wiki).
Pinker 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 Jean Piaget (Vygotsky). Piaget believed that Children learned from imitation from people around them, such as their parents and caretakers. Piaget's theory is based on the idea that every aspect of language is learned.
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 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 considerably varies 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).
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 present, therefore there must also be a language acquisition support system (LASS) present. By this Bruner is referring to the child's parents and caretakers.
The innate attainment of language is thought to lie within the FOXP2 Gene (Bear at al, 2007).
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 also 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.
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 affects of social and behavioural factors must also be taken into account.