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First Language Acquisition Theories

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Published: 13th Jul 2017 in English Language

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Imagine a blank template, a white sheet of paper, thats how human being starts off. From a crying baby in a cradle, to babbling, to simple single words, slowly progressing into two-words, then finally a complete sentence, ever wonder how one acquires the ability to produce the language? Linguists throughout the ages have tried to find out how does one ACQUIRE a language, is it a deep structure as claimed by Kimball? Or is it an innate ability, a build-in human capacity propagated by Chomsky?

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Various theories have arose since language studies came to fore, and the ability to acquire language has interested various parties since the dawn of man. From the dunes of Egypt, Psammeticus, the Pharaoh during the 7th century BC, believed language was inborn and that children isolated from birth from any linguistic influence would develop the language they had been born with. Fast forward to the 15th century, King James V of Scotland performed a similar experiment; the children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew. Akbar, a 16th century Mogul emperor of India, desired to learn whether language was innate or acquired through exposure to the speech of adults.  He believed that language was learned by people listening to each other and therefore a child could not develop language alone.  So he ordered a house built for two infants and stationed a mute nurse to care for them.  The children did not acquire speech, which seemed to prove Akbar’s hypothesis that language is acquired and does not simply emerge spontaneously in the absence of exposure to speech. 

Henceforth, modern linguists have been trying hard to crack the codes which govern the acquisition and learning of a language. Theories ranging from Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Theory(1929), Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory (1957), to Chomsky’s The Innateness Hypothesis, and Lambert’s Critical Period Hypothesis(1967) for first language acquisition, and finally Krashen’s 5 hypothesis of second language learning have paved a way for an insight, a way to unravel the way the mind works in acquiring and learning a language -which happen to be distinct from one another-, and here, we will be looking at the theories that have been the workhorse of language acquisition and learning.


First Language Acquisition is touted by linguist as the process of acquiring a language via exposure whilst young. First language is defined as the primary language -not necessarily mother tongue- which the speaker first acquires and use on a constant basis. According to Lennenberg (1967) the language that one picks up during the critical period will generally be the person’s first language. The Canadian census agrees that the first language that one acquires during childhood is the first language.

A second language, however, can be a related language or a totally different one from the first language. Language acquisition is a cognitive process cognitive process (reasoning, perception, judgment and memory) of “acquiring” a language. It is usually done subconsciously, with the mind slowly structuring the template to mold the language into shape. Language learning however, means a person is trying to learn the language consciously through practice, training, or experience.

Amongst the most prominent theories of language acquisition that has been put forward by linguists is the:

Cognitive Development Theory

According to Jean Piaget’s cognitive theory (1970s), language is a subordinate part of cognitive development. Language is mapped onto an individual’s set of prior cognitive structures. The principles of language are no different from other cognitive principles. A person becomes capable of abstraction, of formal thinking which excels concrete experience and direct perception (Freeservers.com, 2012). Firstly, the child becomes aware of a concept, they acquire the words and patterns to convey the concept. Simple ideas are expressed earlier than more complex ideas even if they are grammatically more complicated. Piaget described four distinct stages of childhood cognitive development which include sensorimotor stage, pre-operational stage, concrete operational stage and formal operational stage and relates them to a person’s ability to understand and assimilate new information (Springhouse Corporation, 1990). First language learners are thought to creatively use their skills of cognition in order to figure out the second language of their own. For adult learners, they have the ability to abstract, classify and generalize gives them an advantage to systematically solve problems. Adult language learners rely on their cognitive activities of general information processing because their Language Acquisition Device gradually becomes unavailable for them (Hadley, 2002).

Piaget claims that the human mind has a template known as the schema: The representation in the mind of a set of perceptions, ideas and /or actions which go together (Atherton , 2011). The schema helps individuals understand the various happenings around them, an understanding of oneself (self-schemata), other people (people schemata), events/situations (event schemata) and roles/occupations (role schemata).

According to psychologists, cognitive development starts at adaptation, followed by assimilation and accommodation close after. Assimilation is the process of incorporating new information into pre-existing schema, more often than not leading to overgeneralization. For example, the child refers to a whale as a fish, due to the fact the whales and fish, have fins and lives in the ocean. After assimilation, comes accommodation, whereby the mind is able to differentiate concepts made during the prior phase.

Piaget contends there are four stages of cognitive development which are sensorimotor stage (birth-2years), pre-operational stage (2-7 years), concrete operational stage (7-11years) and formal operational stage (11 years and up).

The first stage or the sensorimotor stage is the stage where a child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex movements. The child’s thoughts are derived from movement and sensation (Springhouse Corporation, 1990). They learn and progress by doing simple motor movements such as looking, grasping, crying, listening, touching and sucking. Further down the road, they will also gain a basic understanding of the relationships of cause and effect. Object permanence appears around 9 months and further physical development allows the children to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Piaget contends that some basic language abilities are developed at the end of this stage.

Pre-operational stage follows after the child reaches at the age of 2. During that stage, a child’s intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, and his language use matures, advancing to basic sentences. The child’s memory and imagination are developed to a certain extend but thinking is done in non-logical and non-reversible manner.

The following stage is the concrete operational stage -where the child reaches the age of 7-11-: Children then develops seven types of conservation, namely number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area and volume. The child’s intelligence is further demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects, and his operational thinking develops exponentially, however, his thinking at this stage is still concrete.

The final stage in the cognitive development is the formal operational stage, where the child’s developed intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. This is reflected in his/her speech as in choice of words, and capability of metaphorical usage.

Humanistic Approach (Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers)

Abraham Maslow proposed the humanistic approach as a method of language acquisition and learning. The theory takes into considerations of the feelings, motivation levels and confidence of a person According to Carl Rogers however, the person’s consciousness of their own identity is about behavior central to oneself. Rogers believed that people could only fulfill their potential for growth if they had basically positive self-regard. On the contrary Abraham Maslow’s believed that those who satisfied all their needs might become self-actualizers (Sammons, n.d.).

Humanistic approach differs it tries to encourage positive emotions that help language acquisition such as self-esteem, motivation, empathy and risk taking. It also tries to dampen negative emotions such as low self-confidence, nervousness and mental inhibition (Villatoro, n.d.) and in a sense, it coincides with Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory.

Behaviorist Theory

B.F. Skinner described learning as a behavior produced by learner’s response to stimuli which can be reinforced with positive or negative feedback to environmental stimuli. Skinner added that learning can be observed, explained, and predicted through observing antecedents and consequences. Both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement increase the probability that the antecedent behavior will happen again. In contrast, punishment (both positive and negative) decreases the likelihood that the antecedent behavior will happen again. Positive indicates the application of a stimulus; Negative indicates the withholding of a stimulus. Learning is therefore defined as a change in behavior in the learner. Punishment is sometimes used in eliminating or reducing incorrect actions, followed by clarifying desired actions. Educational effects of behaviorism are important in developing basic skills and foundations of understanding in all subject areas and in classroom management. 

Skinner’s Behaviorist approach contends that children learn language through imitation, repetition and the reinforcement of the successful linguistics attempts. Mistakes are considered to be the result of imperfect learning or insufficient opportunities for practice. In such, that a child having a pleasant learning experience (such as rewards or praise) is positive reinforced. Through that positively reinforcing stimulus, a child’s learning capacity is triggered. However, unpleasant experiences (such as punishment) serve as negative reinforcements, and cause learners to avoid undesirable responses to stimuli. As such, continuous reinforcement increases the rate of learning, be it positive or negative; a child will respond to different triggers and with experience, remember what is to do and to avoid. Hence, intermittent reinforcement helps a child to a longer retention of what is learned.

Skinner contends that both positive and negative reinforcement can shape behavior, and this in turn affects their language acquisition capability, as such, a lack of any reinforcement can also shape behavior. If people receive no acknowledgement of their behavior, they will likely change that behavior until they receive some kind of reinforcement.

Behaviorism gave birth to a stimulus-response (S-R) theory which sees language as a set of structures and acquisition as a matter of habit formation. Ignoring any internal mechanisms, it takes into account the linguistic environment and the stimuli it produces. Learning is an observable behavior which is automatically acquired by means of stimulus and response in the form of mechanical repetition. Thus, to acquire a language is to acquire automatic linguistic habits. According to Johnson (2004:18), “Behaviorism undermined the role of mental processes and viewed learning as the ability to inductively discover patterns of rule-governed behavior from the examples provided to the learner by his or her environment”. Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991:266) consider that S-R models offer “little promises as explanations of SLA, except for perhaps pronunciation and the rote-memorization of formulae” (Menezes, V. n.d.).

This view of language learning gave birth to research on contrastive analysis, especially error analysis, the main focus of which is the interference of one’s first language in the target language. An important reaction to behaviorism was the interlanguage studies, as the simple comparison between first and second language neither explained nor described the language produced by SL learners. Interlanguage studies will be present in other SLA perspectives, as the concern of the area has been mainly with the acquisition of grammatical morphemes or specific language structures.

Behaviorist Theory for Second Language Learning

Under this theory, it is believed that the second language learning learner tries to imitate what he hears and practices the second language regularly to develop habits in the language. This theory also believes that learners try to relate their knowledge of the native language to the second language and this could lead to positive as well as negative results. However the imitation of one language with the other is not recommended as this does not help in real life situations. The behaviorists believe that First language learners (FLL) consists of learners imitating what they hear and develop habits in the first language (FL) by routine practice. In this view, the learners are thought to relate what they know of their first language to what they recognize in the second language. “Positive transfer” is a result of similarities between the first language and the second language, because habits used in the first language easily transfer to the second language. On the other hand, “negative transfer is caused by differences between the first language and the second language, because errors result from using habits from the first language in the second language.

Problems with this view of FLL include the fact that imitation does not help the learner in real-life situations. Learners are continually required to form sentences they have never previously seen. A finite number of pre-practiced sentences is not enough to carry on conversation, not even with an instructor. Another problem with this view is that many of the errors made by FL learners are not based on the first language. Instead, the problems most often encountered by learners resemble errors made by children during the period of first language acquisition.

The Innateness Hypothesis

Noam Chomsky believes that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD) which encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical structure into the child’s brain and thus possesses an inherited ability to learn any human language. He claims that certain linguistic structures which children use so accurately must be already imprinted on the child’s mind. Children have then only to learn new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences. Chomsky points out that a child could not possibly learn a language through imitation alone because the language spoken around them is highly irregular – adult’s speech is often broken up and even sometimes ungrammatical. Chomsky’s theory applies to all languages as they all contain nouns, verbs, consonants and vowels and children appear to be ‘hard-wired’ to acquire the grammar. 

Chomsky defends the innate hypothesis in terms of an elaborated linguistic theory which postulates not only a general ability in humans to acquire language, but also the ability that comes from a specific language acquisition device in the brain, equipped already at birth with specific grammatical rules and principles.

The main arguments in favour of the innateness hypothesis are first, language acquisition would be difficult or even impossible without an innate grammar: “How do we come to have such rich and specific knowledge, or such intricate systems of belief and understanding, when the evidence available to us is so meager?” (Cook, 1985).

Chomsky claims that the mere existence of language universals supports the hypothesis that these are innate, and most essentially all humans acquire language, and no other animals do.

The LAD is a hypothetical brain mechanism that Chomsky suggested to explain human acquisition of the syntactic structure of language. This mechanism endows children with the capacity to derive the syntactic structure and rules of their native language rapidly and accurately from the impoverished input provided by adult language users. The device is comprised of a finite set of variables which languages vary, which are set at different levels for different languages on the basis of language exposure. The LAD reflects Chomsky’s underlying assumption that many aspects of language are universal (common to all languages and cultures) and constrained by innate core knowledge about language called Universal Grammar. 

Universal grammar is defined by Chomsky as “the system of principles, conditions and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages” (Cook, 1985). The language properties inherent in the human mind make up ‘Universal Grammar’, which consists, not of particular rules or of a particular grammar, but of a set of general principles that apply to all grammars and that leave certain parameters open; Universal Grammar sets the limits within which human languages can vary.

Universal Grammar present in the child’s mind grows into the adult’s knowledge of the language so long as certain environmental ‘triggers’ are provided; it is not learnt in the same way that, say, riding a bicycle or playing the guitar are learnt: ‘a central part of what we call “learning” is actually better understood as the growth of cognitive structures along an internally directed course under the triggering and potentially shaping effect of the environment’ (Cook, 1985).

Language acquisition is the growth of the mental organ of language triggered by certain language experiences. Hence the theory of Universal Grammar is frequently referred to as part of biology. Indeed the theory is not dissimilar from ideas current in biology on other issues, for instance the view that ‘Embryogenesis may then be seen as the progressive, orderly manifestation of the knowledge which is latent in the egg’ (Cook, 1985).

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So, to acquire language, the child needs not only Universal Grammar but also evidence about a particular language; he needs to hear sentences of English to know how to fix the parameter for the order of Verb, Subject, and Object. The evidence he encounters can be positive or negative (Cook, 1985). 

By using the same language principles, a French child constructs a grammar of French, an English child a grammar of English. The two grammars represent different choices within the guidelines set by Universal Grammar, different applications of the same linguistic principles in response to different environments; ‘Experience is necessary to fix the parameters of core grammar’ (Cook, V, 1985). But the children also have to learn aspects of language that are peripheral, that do not conform to Universal Grammar. The child’s mind ‘prefers’ to adopt rules based on the handy set of principles with which it is equipped; they are in a sense the easy way out, and need only triggering experience to be learnt. By listening to the language around him, he can decide how to fix the parameter of sentence order as SVO or SOV, for instance. His mind ‘prefers’ not to adopt peripheral solutions, as they fall outside his pre-programmed instructions; they are more demanding. This may be interpreted through the concept of markedness: the child prefers to learn ‘unmarked’ knowledge that conforms to Universal Grammar, rather than ‘marked’ knowledge that is less compatible with it. 

Chomsky’s work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Despite its few limitations, The Innateness Hypothesis is rich enough to provide a substantial idea of how a child acquires his/her first language.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

According to Eric Lenneberg’s Cirtical Period Hypothesis in 1967, the hypothesis theorized that the acquisition of language is an innate process that determined biologically. The notion of critical period was connected only in the first language acquisition (freeservers.com, 2012). Lenneberg assumed that the structural reorganizations within the brain were developed only from roughly the age of two to puberty which was around thirteen or fourteen. Language skills which were neither learned nor being taught during this age would remain permanently undeveloped (Schouten, 2011). Lenneberg’s hypothesis claimed that the absence of language was very limited in the first language acquisition during the early childhood exposure (citizendium.org, 2009). He believed that the brain would lose the plasticity after two sides of the brain has developed specialized functions.

The Critical Period Hypothesis is Lenneberg’s response to the long-standing debate in language acquisition over the extent to which the acquire language is biologically linked to age (citizendium.org, 2009) Lenneberg proposed that the ability of brain to acquire a language is stopped at puberty with the onset of brain lateralization. He refers that brain lateralization, which is a process which the both sides of brain develop specialized function, in which after the process, the brain would lose its plasticity as the function of the brain is set.

Lenneberg stated that if the child did not learn the language before the puberty, the language could never be learned in a full and functional way. He proves his theory by referring to cases of feral children, such as Genie. Discovered in the age of thirteen and a half in 1970 in an isolated and neglected living condition, Genie did not had any form of communication, and she was neither able to speak nor write. After being saved from her ordeal, she began to learn language slowly, but she never regained full language capabilities.

According to Lenneberg, first language learners should receive exposure on their first language prior to puberty for the best acquisition results. He contends that the critical period for learning a first language would same apply to acquiring a second language Studies have shown that before the brain is fully developed a second language can be learned more easily. However, while many people have been able to master the syntax and vocabulary of a second language after puberty, not many achieve native-speaker fluency, compared to first language learners, or bilinguals who start off at a young age. A notable trait for FLL is that their phonological is the most obvious evidence for the critical period hypothesis, as their learning a second language would be impacted by their first language accent.

Lenneberg’s works is still highly regarded as one of the most well regarded psycholinguistic argument of language acquisition.

Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition

Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition has been of much debate in the psycholinguistic circles. His theories are well regarded, and provide a different insight into how the mind works in learning a second language.

The first of the five of Krashen’s theories is the Natural Order Hypothesis. Based on a powerful analysis of research results, Krashen’s natural order hypothesis suggests that the acquisition of language, especially the rules of language, follows a predictable natural order. For any given language, some grammatical structures tend to be acquired earlier than others. This idea reflects Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary notion that have a built-in Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which within the first year of the children lives begins to enable them to understand and acquire language.

Because of the nature of the LAD, children tend to learn different structures at different levels as young children. Researchers have found that the same pattern occurs for older learners – not a surprise to seasoned language teachers! This is the “predictable natural order” of this hypothesis.

Secondly, is the Acquisition or Learning Hypothesis. The distinction between acquisition and learning is the most fundamental of all the hypotheses in Krashen’s theory, since it suggests that language comes to children in two rather different ways. Acquisition is one. Language can be acquired by using it for real communication while learning, which he describes as “knowing about” language, is quite a different thing.

Acquisition is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language-natural communication, in which speakers concentrate not on the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act. Learning, on the other hand, provides conscious knowledge about the target language. It is therefore less important than acquisition for basic communication, but it still plays an important role in language learning. In short, learning is likely to occur in the “study” segment of an English lesson, while acquisition takes place during language activation.

Thirdly, is the Monitor Hypothesis. The fundamental distinction between acquisition and learning leads directly to the next hypothesis. The monitor hypothesis relegates language learning (that is, a student’s responses to what the teacher teaches) to a secondary place in the scheme of language learning. 

The monitor hypothesis is the idea that conscious learning – that is, the outcome of grammar instruction and other activities that were the traditional stock in trade of the language teacher – serve only as a monitor or an editor for the language student. Real acquisition takes place as “meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers is concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.” 

Following that is the Input Hypothesis. The input hypothesis suggests that people acquire language in only one way: by understanding messages, or by receiving ‘comprehensible input’. According to the input hypothesis, learner’s progress by receiving second language input that is one step beyond their current stage of linguistic competence. Acquisition for learners with language knowledge “i” can only take place if they are exposed to comprehensible input at a slightly higher level, which Krashen describes as level “i + 1”. 

And last but not least, the Affective Filter Hypothesis. Finally, the Affective Filter Hypothesis proposes that a mental block caused by affective or emotional factors can prevent input from reaching the student’s language acquisition device. The affective filter hypothesis says that affective variables like self-confidence and anxiety play a role in language acquisition. When the filter is up, that is, when negative emotional factors are in play, language acquisition suffers while when the filter is down, language acquisition benefits.

Similarities between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

There have been many arguments about language acquisition, some claims that acquisition and learning is the same process, whilst some beg to differ. Here are some similarities between first language acquisition and second language learning that have been argued before.

Physical process wise, the learners of both first language and second language hear the spoken language and begin to understand how it sounds, the mind works to grasp the basic sounds, which in turn, facilitates learning. The learners pick up words and phrases in the language and begin to build up a vocabulary, this is then followed up by grasping the grammatical structure and learning how to form simple and complex sentences in the language. Subsequently the learners are eventually able to understand new words by context and they are able to express complex ideas and thoughts in the language, and finally, learn to pick up writing and reading skills in the language (Panse, 2010).

Universal grammar may influence learning either independently or through the first language in second language learning. For both first language acquisition and second language learning there are predictable stages, and particular structures, are acquired in a set order.  Individuals may move more slowly or quickly through these stages, but they cannot skip ahead.

Making errors is a part of learning.  Learners need to make and test hypotheses about language to build an internal representation of the language.  In the initial stages of learning, learners may use chunks of language without breaking them down or processing them as independent units.  In later stages, they may make new errors as they begin to process the parts of each chunk according to the rules of their language system.  For example, a learner may start out using the correct form of an irregular verb as part of a language chunk, but later overgeneralize and place a regular affix on that same verb.

Differences between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

Many studies addressed the distinction between first language acquisition and second language learning. The first distinction is the natural process in which first language learners acquire their knowledge naturally and the conscious process in which second language learners learn their second language.

First language acquisition is a natural process which is genetically triggered at the most crucial stage of the child’s cognitive development in which children subconsciously process and develop the linguistic knowledge of the setting they live in and are unaware of grammatical rules.

In contrast, second language learning takes place where the target language is the language spoken in the language spoken in the language community that differs from the first language. Second language is not genetically triggered in any way unless the child grows up bilingually in which case, it is not considered second language learning at all.

First language acquisition is mostly passive. Children usually listen to the people around them, their speech melody, their sounds, their words, and their sentence structures. Before the child can even read or write a single word in his first language, he is already using an impressive vocabulary and many important grammar structures. Some people never learn how to read or write but can still speak their first language fluently. Most babies learn rules while listening to the people around them. They are able to distinguish sentence structures at the early age of seven months as experiments have shown. They also pick up new words from their surrounding people. At the age of six, most children have acquired their native language(s) without any effort.

Second language learning, on the other hand, is an active process. Second language learners need to learn vocabulary and grammar in order to achieve their goals. Most people will need an instructor, either a teacher at school or the instructions of a course book or audio course. For those learners to achieve fluency or near fluency in a second language, it requires years of studying and likely a long stay in another country. Many people will never reach anywhere near fluency with any second language. Most experts see the ages between three to four years as the critical age when first language acquisition ends and second language learning begins.

Another area of difference between first language acquisition and second language learning is input – specifically the quality and quantity of input. Language learning process depends on the input frequency and regularity. The quantity of exposure to a target language a child gets is immense compared to the amount an adult receives. A child hears the language all day every day, whereas an adult learner may only hear the target language in the classroom – which could be as little as three hours a week. Even if one looks at an adult in a total submersion situation the quan


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