Children's language learning

Question 1:

People are very much interested in learning languages and knowing whether language is something that is as natural to humans as walking and smiling. Another interesting question is on how children acquire language. Is it possible for children, even without experiencing language, to produce speech on their own? Is there a critical age for first language learning? Is there an age beyond which a person is unable to learn a first or second language? What are the major factors governing children's language learning?

Is learning language something that is natural to humans as walking and smiling?

Language is extremely complex in every aspect. Sometimes we wonder is learning a language is the same process as we learn walking and smiling. Is it a natural process where we don't have to learn but we acquire automatically like how babies learn to smile? Language can be seen as a universal biological capacity common to every individual, but can also be considered as a cultural element that would have evolved in relation to different external, environmental factors. According to Chomsky (1994) as cited in Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams (2003), "We are designed to walk... That we are taught to walk is impossible. And pretty much the same is true of language. Nobody is taught language. In fact you can't prevent the child from learning it."

How children acquire language?

There are many ways how children acquire language according to many scholars. As discussed above, the acquisition of language is very complex; many scholars have studied and researched it meticulously.

Behaviourists believe that organisms come into the world as "blank slates." That means that when babies of all species are born into the world they do not have any knowledge whatsoever; they do not know anything and they can't do anything. They believe that the process of learning has only occurred if there has been a change in behaviour. Also, behaviourists basically study the relationship between stimuli and responses, and actual mental process. In the 1950s, the classical conditioning paradigm was used to account for how words acquired emotional meaning. (Jay, 2003). Language was viewed as a kind of verbal behaviour and it was proposed that children learn language through imitation, reinforcement, analogy, and similar processes. (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams, 2003). Another suggestion is that babies are able to learn language because of "simplified" language talked by the adults. This language sometimes called 'motherese' or child directed speech (CDS). The role of the environment of the babies in facilitating language acquisition is emphasized by this theory.

On the other hand, there is another theory which has shaped the world of language acquisition which has been proposed by Noam Chomsky. He has critically reviewed the behaviourists' theories and successfully challenged its assumptions. He believed that children's potential for language was an inborn or innate mental capacity. (Jay, 2003). This theory has created the 'Innateness Hypothesis'. Linguists believe that children are equipped with an innate template or blueprint for language which is called the Universal Grammar (UG). Chomsky argued that children's patterns of language are too systematic and cannot be the product of parents' operant conditioning (imitation, reinforcement and etc.) He also came out with the idea of language acquisition device (LAD) which help infants to acquire the language. This explains the transformation of a corpus of speech, i.e. a set of utterances (some grammatical, some not) into a complex grammatical system.

Is possible for children, even without experiencing language, to produce speech on their own?

This is question is related to the next question which is about the critical age for first language learning. According to many researches, there are many cases where children who have not been exposed would not be able to produce speech on their own. In 1758, Carl Linnaeus had introduced the 'Homo ferus' (wild or feral man). The 'wild' or 'feral' children had been reared with wild animal or have lived alone in the wilderness. A feral child is a child who has lived isolated from human contact starting from a very young age and who has remained unaware of human behaviour and unexposed to language" (Wikipedia, 2005). According to Linnaeus, these children were lack of speech or observable language of any kind.

Another case are the two Indian girls, Kamala and Amala. Villagers caught the girls in 1920 in remote countryside west of Calcutta. They had been spotted previously with adult wolves and were found in a wolf den with two wolf cubs. The den was dug up, the mother wolf killed and the girls taken away. http://www.wolftrust.org.uk/gr-spacer.gifAmala died the year after she was found. Kamala survived into her teens and managed to learn only some three dozen words.

So these cases are the answer for the question. If the children had no input on the language they will not have the ability to produce the speech on their own.

Is there a critical age for first language learning?

Yes, there is a hypothesis that there is a critical age for first language learning. This hypothesis is called the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) and had been introduced by linguist Eric Lenneberg in 1967. He suggested that CPH is part of the biological basis of language and states the ability to learn a native language develops within a fixed period, from birth to puberty. (Lennenberg, 1967). During this critical period, language acquisition is said to be proceeds easily, smoothly and without outside interference. It is also said that after this critical period, the acquisition of the language is going to be difficult and for some individuals never fully achieved.

Is there an age beyond which a person is unable to learn a first or second language?

As discussed on the above question, the critical period hypothesis (CPH) believes that if the person doesn't receive any input after he/she reaches puberty, the acquisition of grammar is difficult and for some individuals it could never be fully achieved. There is a case where there was girl name Genie. She was unable to acquire language after exposure, even with purposeful and meticulous linguistic teaching. Genie was discovered in her home on November 4, 1970, strapped to a potty chair and wearing diapers. She appeared to be entirely without language. Her father had judged her retarded at birth and had chosen to isolate her, and so she had remained until her discovery. Genie started learning language after the critical period that is after her puberty, and was unable to require language completely, supporting the hypothesis. There is a wide range of normal ages; girls typically begin the process of puberty at age 10, boys at age 12.

CPH proposed by Lenneberg (1967) hold the belief that it is impossible for anyone learning another language after puberty to have a native-like language performance, especially a native like accent. In other words, if one learns a new language after the critical period, he or she can never easily erase his or her foreign accent despite how much effort and talent that person has. (Tran, 2009)

On the other hand, there are many researchers who are quite sceptic with this idea. Many researches had been carried out in order to find the truth and challenge this hypothesis. For example a research done by Abu-Rabia and Kehat (2004) on ten cases of successful late-starters with a native-like Hebrew pronunciation. Their conclusion is that their case studies show that some L2 learners can succeed in achieving a near-native or a native-like accent, although they were exposed to the target language after puberty.

The issue of CPH in relation to second language acquisition continues to be disputed among second language researchers.

What are the major factors governing children's language learning?

There are many major factors governing children's language learning. Based on the theories above, we would say that the Innateness hypothesis is the major factor governing children's language learning. Although children hear many utterances, the language they hear is incomplete, noisy and unstructured. The innateness let the children to have the ability to come to know aspects of grammar which they receive no information. In other word, the complexity of the language and grammar are innately governed inside the brain unconsciously.

We also think that the children should have adequate stimulation of talking and playing with the adults. As the behaviourist had suggested; children learn language through imitation. Even though Chomsky debated on this but still yes, the children language learning is much affected by their environment. In our culture adults also use what we call it as 'simplified' language which sometimes called motherese or child directed speech (CDS). The adults tend to speak more slowly and clearly, exaggerate the intonation, and sentences are generally grammatical. (Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams, 2003). This is very important as the children need input in order to produce speech.

The age of the children is also a factor. As according to the CPH, if the babies have early exposure to the language, they will easily pick up the language as compared to children who only exposed to the language after the critical period. The cases presented in the above question surely have given the evidence of this hypothesis.

References:

  • Abu-Rabia, S., & Kehat, S. (2004). The Critical Period for second language pronunciation: Is there such a thing? Ten case studies of late starters who attained a native-like Hebrew accent. Educational Psychology, 24(1), 77-98.
  • Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. & Hyams, N. (2003). An introduction to language. (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson
  • Jay, T.B. (2003). The psychology of language.New Jersey: Prentice Hall
  • Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York, NY: John Wiley.
  • Tran, Hoang-Thu. (2009). The critical period and second language acquisition. ERIC. Universiti Utara Malaysia Library. November 20, 2009 from
  • http://www.eric.ed.gov.eserv.uum.edu.my/
  • Wikipedia. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child
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