Learning theory

Use empirical evidence to describe and discuss how infants and children learn their first words

The way in which infants and children come to learn their first words is a much debated topic in the field of psychology. Some theorists believe in a learning theory approach, which entails an emphasis on reinforcement and imitation, such as Skinner (1957, as cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003), whereas others believe that there is a biological basis for the acquisition of language, for example Chomsky (1965). Another contrasting view is that of the Piagetians; they claim that cognitive development is an important feature in the learning of language (Piaget, 1935, as cited in Smith et al., 2003). This essay will consider the main points of each of these approaches in turn in order to evaluate their worth.

One theory of language development is that children learn through the role of reinforcement and imitation (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003). Skinner (1957) believed that children learn language through reinforcement from adults, for example when a baby makes random sounds such as coos and babbling noises, these can be shaped into words by adults rewarding the child for sounds which sound most similar to words. Other learning theorists suggest that imitation also plays an important role in language acquisition, such as Bandura (1971, as cited in Smith et al., 2003). Smith et al. (2003) state that clearly imitation must have some influence on language acquisition since infants learn the same language as members of the people surrounding them, and learn words by reproduction the words of these people. This theory is plausible, as it explains why children speak in different languages and accents depending on their parents; whom they imitated and learnt from.

Nevertheless, empirical evidence, such as that of Brown, Cazden and Bellugi (1969), suggests that this process of reinforcement is more complicated. They found that mothers only corrected their children when they used incorrect content, rather than when they used incorrect grammar, which gives no support to the idea of the role of reinforcement as an explanation of syntactic acquisition (Brown et al., 1969). An investigation was conducted by Nelson, Carskaddon and Bonvillian (1973) to compare the effects of different types of adult feedback given to children on their grammatical constructions. It was found that children whose sentences were recast rather than just expanded performed better in a sentence imitation task, used more complex sentences, and used more spontaneous speech (Nelson et al., 1973). This suggests that parents pushing their children by providing them with more ways of talking about topics help them to develop their language further at a younger age.

More recently, Moerke (1991) put forward a skill learning model, combining different theories. The model is based on the idea that the learning of language is based on a continuous feedback cycle, where the 'trainer,' usually the child's parents, encourages a response from the child, then provides feedback (Moerke, 1991). However, the fact that when analysing the conversations between parents and their children, it is clear that children do not specifically imitate the adult's language, but also that parents do not usually use reinforcement techniques whilst teaching their children to speak under normal circumstances (Smith et al., 2003) suggests that imitation and reinforcement may not be the only factor influencing language acquisition.

In contrast, another theory is that of Chomsky (1965); the theory of the innate basis of language. This idea focuses on the universal properties of language, based around the fact that sequences of language acquisition are largely similar across languages. Chomsky (1965) believed that humans have an innate language acquisition device (LAD) in the brain, which without, language could not develop. He proposed that the LAD is built so that it can distinguish regularities in the speech which the child hears, generating hypotheses about language. These hypotheses then get tested when new utterances are heard, and accepted or rejected accordingly. The LAD is compatible with any language, therefore whichever language utterances it is faced with, it develops a grammar for (Chomsky, 1965). Brown and Bellugi (1964) looked at early speech in infants, and found that children had an innate tendency to use rules, which led to grammatical errors. These grammatical errors were not arising from their learning from adults, rather from grammatical hypotheses which they had made themselves. This finding provides empirical evidence for Chomsky's (1965) theory, as it shows that not all language in children is learned, but they do create their own hypotheses.

According to Damon and Lerner (2006), for infants to be successful word learners, they must be able to identify the relevant conceptual units, such as an individual or a category, be able to identify the relevant linguistic units, and also be able to establish a mapping between them. They argue that word learning requires a certain degree of abstraction in each of these areas. Damon and Lerner (2006) look at the fact that the links between grammatical and semantic categories are not rigidly fixed; therefore it must be difficult for infants to learn these rules. It is suggested that infants may approach this task of acquisition already with some general language expectations in place, which are fine tuned as the infant gains experience of their native language this backs up Chomsky's (1965) view that individuals are born with an innate language acquisition device.

Vouloumanos and Werker (2007) carried out an experiment in which the listening preferences of neonates were compared. A bias was found, in that the newborn infants preferred to listen to speech than non-speech stimuli. This bias may indicate an adaptive advantage by preparing them at a young age to recognise the communication of the people surrounding them, therefore facilitating in depth processing and enabling them to learn more rapidly the specific attributes of their native language (Vouloumanos & Werker, 2007); therefore providing further evidence for the work of Chomsky (1965). Fernald (1992, as cited in Kuhn & Siegler, 2006) says that although even at birth, infants prefer human speech, during their first five to six months of life, infant directed speech serves an attentional function, and at six months of age infants begin to hear individual words. Marcus, Fernandes, and Johnson (2007) found similar results in their work. They found infants, with an average age of 7.5 months old, to be capable of extracting rules from sequences of speech, and also that if they hear rules in sequences of speech, that they are then better equipped to extract rules from sequences of non-speech (Marcus et al., 2007). These patterns suggest that infants have a profound interest in speech long before they actually say their first words. This is particularly clear when compared to Lenneberg's (1967, as cited in Bates, Bretherton & Snyder, 1991) finding that children on average say their first word at the age of 12 months old.

Piagetians, alternatively, suggest that children form schemas to explain the events in their lives, and only then are able to talk about them (Smith et al., 2003). They believe that language development echo's the stages of cognitive development which the child is progressing through; however they reject the idea of the child applying an innate LAD to the speech which it subjected to, as Chomsky (1965) would suggest. Rather, they consider that the child's understanding stems from their existing knowledge of the world. Piaget claimed that in order to understand that words can represent actions or object, the child needs to understand that objects exist independently of themselves. It was found that this object performance occurs in the first year of life; which coincidently is also around the same time as children say their first word (Lenneberg's 1967). Through observations of usual first words in children, it has been found that they usually focus on familiar actions or objects, hence they use words to communicate parts of their surrounding environment which they already understand non-verbally (Smith et al., 2003). This cognitive approach was well accepted, until it was suggested that this theory gives a narrow view of the child, as it ignored things such as social skills, and the effects of social environments on a child's ability to learn (Smith et al., 2003).

Tomasello et al. (1997), in a theory complimentary view to that of the Piagetians, adopt a construction grammar approach. The approach emphasises the role of linguistic ability, which is entwined with cognitive abilities, believing that in order to learn language, intention reading and pattern finding are essential skills (Tomasello et al., 1997). They argue that children acquire language gradually; starting with linguistic structures based on words and morphemes. This is then built upon to produce more abstract structures based on linguistic schemas and constructions (Tomasello et al., 1997). Grammar then emerges from the acknowledgement of recurring symbol sequences in the input from the people surrounding them (Tomasello et al., 1997). Tomasello et al. (1997) believe, in the same way as the Piagetians, that infants are able to express understanding through the use of gestures and vocalisations, and then go on to use simple one word utterances. The idea that language is gradually learnt is logical; children do not suddenly learn to speak. It makes sense that children have to build up an understanding in a non-verbal way before learning speech. The theory is an improvement on the Piagetians theory as it takes a more holistic view of the child; including their ability to understand and separate occurrences, and then distinguish common factors across linguistic constructions (Tomasello et al., 1997). Croft and Cruse (2004) trust that although the research into this model of grammatical representation is fairly recent and therefore has little supporting evidence at present, this is an important and rapidly expanding area of cognitive linguistics research.

After considering the ideas of Skinner (1957), Chomsky (1965) and Piaget (1936, as cited in Smith et al., 2003), it has become clear that each of the theories are solid, with plenty of empirical evidence behind them. There has been no agreement amongst theorists about how language is learnt (Smith et al., 2003). Nevertheless, it would seem, through the assessment of conversations between children and parents, that language acquisition is not simply leant through reinforcement and imitation as Skinner (1957) would suggest. This suggests that if Skinner's (1957) theory was to be accepted, the views of Chomsky (1965) and Piaget (1936) should also be considered in parallel. Both the theories of Chomsky (1965) and Piaget (1936) seem to be logical and do not have any opposing evidence at present; hence it would be impossible to infer for definite which idea is most likely to be correct. At the present time it would be reasonable to take the view that language is learnt through a combination of both an innate language acquisition device which we are born with, and environmental factors such as reinforcement and imitation of the language infants hear from adults.


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