How Languages are Learned (LightBow & Spada) Unit 1 Language Learning in Early Childhood.

Language Learning in Early Childhood

– The First Three Years: Milestones and Developmental Sequences.

One remarkable thing about first language acquisition is the high degree similarity in the early language of children all over the world. Researchers have described developmental sequences for many aspects of first language acquisition.

Infants are able to hear subtle differences between the sounds of human languages. Not only do they distinguish the voice of their mothers from those of other speakers, they also seem to recognize the language that was spoken their mother before they were born.

One important finding is that it is not enough for babies to hear language sounds from electronic devices. In order to learn – or retain- the ability to distinguish between sounds, they need to interact with a human speaker.

However, by the end of their first year, most babies understand quite a few frequently repeated words in the language or languages spoken around them.

At 12 months, most babies will have begun to produce a word or two that everyone recognizes. By the age of two, most children reliably produce at least 50 different words and some produce many more.

As children progress through the discovery of language in their first three years, there are predictable patterns in the emergence and development of many features of the language they are learning. For some language features, these patterns have been described in terms of developmental sequences or ‘stages’. To some extent, these stages in language acquisition are related to children’s cognitive development. For example, children do not use temporal adverbs such as ‘tomorrow’ or ‘last week’ until they develop some understanding of time.

In the 1960s, several researchers focused on how children acquire grammatical morphemes in English. One of the best-known studies was carried out by Roger Brown and his colleagues and students. In a longitudinal study of the language development of three children, they found that 14 grammatical morphemes were acquired in a similar sequence.

Thus, there was evidence for a ‘developmental sequence’ or order of acquisition.

Many hypotheses have been advanced to explain why these grammatical morphemes are acquired in the observed order.

wug test—> By generalizing these patterns to words they have never heard before, they show that their language is more than just a list of memorized word pairs such as ‘book/books’ and ‘nod/nodded’.

The pre-school years

By the age of four, most children can ask questions, give commands, report real events, and create stories about imaginary ones, using correct word order and grammatical markers most of the time. In fact, it is generally accepted that by age four, children have acquired the basic structures of the language or languages spoken to them in these early years. Three-and four-years-olds continue to learn vocabulary at the rate of several words a day. They begin to acquire less frequent and more complex linguistic structures such as passives and relatives clauses.

In the pre-school years, children also begin to develo metalinguistic awareness, the ability to treat loanguage as an object separate from the meaning it conveys. Three-year-old children can tell you that it’s silly to say ‘drink the chair’, because it doesn’t make sense.

The school years

Learning to read gives a major boost to metalinguistic awareness. Seeing words represented by letters and other symbols on a page leads children to a new understanding that language has form as well as meaning.

Vocabulary grows at a rate of between several hundred and more than a thousand words a year, depending mainly on how much and how widely children read.

Another important development in the school years is the acquisition of different language registers. Children learn how written language differs from spoken language, how the language used to speak to the principal is different from the language of the playground, how the language of a science report is different from the language of a narrative.

Explaining first language acquisition.

Behaviourism is a theory of learning that was influential in the 1940s and 1950s, especially in the United States. With regard to language learning, the best-known proponent of this psychological theory was B.F Skinner (1957). Traditional behaviorists hypothesized that when children imitated the language produced by those around them, their attempts to reproduce what they heard received ‘positive reinforcement’.

Imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children. They are not merely repetitions of sentences that they have heard from adults. Rather, children appear to pick out patterns and generalize them to new contexts. They create new forms or new uses of words. Their new sentences are usually comprehensible and often correct.

Although behaviourism goes some way to explaining the sorts of overgeneralization that children make, classical behaviourism is not a satisfactory explanation for the acquisition of the more complex grammar that children acquire.

The Innatist Perspective

Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential figures in linguistics, and his ideas about how language is acquired and how it is stored in the mind sparked a revolution in many aspects of linguistics and psychology, including the study of language acquisition. The innatist perspective is related to Chomsky’s hypothesis that all human languages are based on some innate universal principles.

Researchers who study language acquisition from the innatist perspective argue that such complex grammar could never be learned purely on the basis of imitating and practising sentences available in the input. They hypothesize that since all children acquire the language of their environment, they must have some innate mechanism or knowledge that allows them to discover such complex syntax in spite of limitations in the input.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

The innatist perspective is often linked to the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) – the hypothesis that animals, including humans, are genetically programmed to acquire certain kinds of knowledge and skill at specific times in life. Beyond those ‘critical periods’, it is either difficult or impossible to acquire those abilities.

Interactionist / developmental perspectives

Developmental and cognitive psychologists have focused on the interplay between the innate learning ability of children and the environment in which they develop. They argue that the innatists plave too much emphasis on the ‘final state’ (the competence of adult native speakers) and not enough on the developmental aspects of language acquisition.

They hypothesize that what children need to know is essentially available in the language they are exposed to as they hear it used in thousands of hours of interactions with the people and objects around them.

Piaget and Vygotsky

Vygotsky observed the importance of conversations that children have with adults and with other children saw in these conversations the origins of both language and thought. The conversations provide the child with scaffolding, that is, a kind of supportive structure that helps them make the most of the knowledge they have and also to acquire new knowledge.

Vygotsky’s view differs from Piaget’s. Piaget saw language as a symbol system that could be used to express knowledge acquired through interaction with the physical world. For Vygotsky, thought was essentially internalized speech, and speech emerged in social interaction. Vygotsky’s views have become increasingly central in research on second language development.

Cross-cultural research

Since the 1970s, researchers have studied children’s language learning environments in a great many different cultural communities. The research has focused not only on the development of language itself, but also on the ways in which the environment provides what children need for language acquisition.

The importance of interaction.

The role of interaction between a language-learning child and an interlocutor who responds to the child is illuminated by cases where such interaction is missing.


Usage-based learning

As more and more research has documented the ways in which children interact with the environment, developmental and cognitive psychologists find further evidence that language acquisition is ‘usage based’.

The usage-based perspective on language acquisition differs from the behaviourist view in that the emphasis is more on the child’s ability to create networks of associations rather than on processes of imitation and habit formation.

Language disorders and delays

While most children produce recognizable first words by 12 months, some may not speak before the age of three years. In very young children, one way to determine whether delayed language reflects language reflects a problem or simply an individual difference within the normal range is to determine whether the child responds to language and appears to understand even if he or she is not speaking.

Childhood bilingualism

The acquisition and maintenance of more than one language can open doors to many personal, social, and economic opportunities.

Unfortunately, as Jim Cummins (2000) and others have pointed out, children who already know one or more languages and who arrive at their first day of school without an age-appropriate knowledge of the language of the school have often been misdiagnosed as having language delays or disorders.

Children who learn more than one language from earliest childhood are referred to as ‘simultaneous bilinguals’, whereas those who learn another language later may be called ‘sequential bilinguals’.

However, there is little support for the myth that learning more than one language in early childhood is a problem for children who have adequate opportunities to use each one. There is a considerable body of research on children’s ability to learn more than one language in their earliest years.

As children learn a second language at school, they need to learn both the variety of language that children use among themselves (and in informal setting with familiar adults) and the variety that is used in academic settings. In his early research on childhood bilingualism, Jim Cummins called these two varieties BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitice academic language proficiency).

Lily Wong Fillmore (2000) observed that when children are ‘submerged’ in a different language for long periods in pre-school or day care, their development of the family language may be slowed down or stalled before they have developed an age-appropriate proficiency in the new language. Eventually they may stop speaking the family language altogether, and this loss of a common language can lead to significant social and psychological problems.

Wallace Lambert (1987) called the loss of one language on the way to learning another subtractive bilingualism. It can have negative consequences for children’s self-esteem, and their relationships with family members are also likely to be affected by such early loss of the family language.

The research evidence suggests that a better approach is to strive for additive bilingualism – the maintenance of the home language while the second language is being learned. This is especially true if the parents are also learners of the second language. If parents continue to use the language that they know best with their children, they are able to express their knowledge and ideas in ways that are richer and more elaborate than they can manage in a language they do now know as well.