Two Main Theories of Language Acquisition compare and contrast

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The aim of this essay is to investigate, compare, and contrast various hypotheses of language acquisition and production. Language is the most fundamental mode of human communication. It is used in a variety of social situations and to express personal desires. Eye touch, facial expressions, movements, postures, and vocabulary are also ways of communicating. So, how can one master a language? Are people born with the ability to communicate?

After several years of study into infant language development, the process that allows children to distinguish syllables and words from sounds, as well as the method of grammar learning to generate and comprehend language, remains a mystery. The enigma, therefore, brings theories that explain language development and acquisition. There are four main theories but this essay will explore only two of them. The approaches covered by this essay include Noam Chomsky’s theory and that of B.F Skinner.

The two theories contrast each other as one suggests that language acquisition is based on nature, while the other one is based on nurture. During the 1960s, Noam Chomsky explored the idea that language development and acquisition are innate and genetically determined. Chomsky proposed the new ways of thinking about language. In short, language is either developed through what we get at birth or simply how we are brought up. All these theories suggest that language can be learnt through several aspects including nature and nurture. B.F Skinner analyzed language behavior in terms of their natural occurrence in response to the available environmental circumstances. He insists that children majorly acquire language through nurture.

Chomsky’s theory first book named Syntactic Structures challenged old ideas about language acquisition. In this book, he rejected the notion that all languages must be learned afresh by each child unlike Skinner’s theory. Instead, he argued that these children are born with a wire syntax enabling them to quickly grasp basic workings of their languages (Miskimon 2). Skinner’s language and behavior approach relies on the principle of classical components of conditional and unconditional stimuli and operational conditioning; a method of learning is defined as a method of learning through punishments and rewards (Lee 6). Thus, behavior operates among the children to bring more favorable consequences. The ideas of operant conditioning can be similarly applied to language acquisition and development, since Skinner believed that language can as well be treated as other kinds of cognitive behaviors. Chomsky, on the other hand, fails to treat language as a cognitive behavior. Instead, he considers language acquisition as a biological characteristic inherited from the parents.

Chomsky’s principle relied o the fact that language is a biological inheritance that follows a specific pattern unlike Skinner’s theory. Chomsky’s theory is comprehensive and explains why this development takes a pattern in babies. The pattern becomes activated when a child interacts with the environment. He compares the child’s brain to a music player that is set to play a specific music. It is said that their brains are like CD players, if a CD for a particular language is inserted, that is the language learnt by the child. He believed that these children are born with intellectual and physical abilities of language acquisition and are therefore capable of inventing the new words and sentences that they haven’t heard. Chomsky therefore suggested that children learn talking through their language acquisition device, which consists of ability to understand and mechanisms of speech production.

Skinner in his theory tells that no pattern is followed in language acquisition. Instead, children learn their first language from the care givers.

Chomsky tells the world that knowing a particular language is synonymous with the ability of producing several sentences that haven’t been previously spoken. It also involves the capacity to understand the sentences never heard. Therefore the process of understanding mechanics of language is dependent on patterns of human thought (Miskimon 4). According to him, evidence of children being born with syntax is the facility with which they easily learn a specific language. This is contrary to Skinner’s theory, which insists that babies acquire their first language from learning sounds that are repeatedly uttered by the care givers. They learn to associate these sounds with a particular situation.

In Chomsky’s 1981 book Government Binding, he says that the children’s native syntax is composed of several linguistic principles defining any form of language (Miskimon 3). He insists that the principles are linked to switches triggered by the language environment unlike Skinner’s theory. He therefore emphasizes the importance of genetic inheritance in children, where they inherit syntax imprint. According to him, language development and growth are analogous to organs of the body such as arms and legs; this growth is determined by internal mechanisms, but the nourishment is performed by verbal or nutritional environment.

Skinner’s theory of language acquisition stresses that the utterances and sentences made by a child are things that they have heard from their care givers. On the contrary, Chomsky clearly states that the children in language acquisition process are able to speak and utter new sentences. They both agree that these sentences follow specific grammar rules.

Skinner’s theory of language acquisition stresses that children learn speaking through copying the utterances that are made around them, having their responses strengthened by repetitions and positive reactions from their care givers (Lee 8). However, before children begin to speak, children listen to the sounds in their environments. This is contrary to Chomsky’s theory that children learn speaking majorly from their biological inheritance. In a gradual process, the child then learns to associate sounds with particular situations such as a sound produced by the mother when feeding her young one. The sounds will later be pleasurable to the child even in the absence of food. Eventually, the child attempts to imitate the sounds made by the mother during feeding.

According to the behaviorists, learning of language involves habits formation with period of trial and error where children try and fail to use right language until success is achieved. He emphasizes that even infants see role models in human beings in the environment that provides operant conditioning. An example is a situation where an infant starts babbling, which is encouraged by their care givers. It reinforces further articulations of the same syllable and words.

Chomsky’s theory has several limitations. He was only interested in grammar and much of his work is based on the complex explanations of the existing grammar rules. The theory doesn’t involve the study of real children but completely relies on them being exposed to language. The approach doesn’t take account of the interaction between children and their care givers. Nor does the theory cover the functions of language and the reason why children might want to speak. While Skinner’s theory has some truth in it, there are several objections to this approach of language acquisition. First, language is based on a set of rules and structures, which cannot be worked out by uttering personal utterances. The mistakes made by a child simply show that they work on the rules but not imitation. Secondly, developmental milestones of language acquisition seem to be unaffected by the type of care that the child receives. Thirdly, these children are usually unable to repeat what an adult says, especially if the adult’s utterance contains a sentence structure that the child hasn’t started to use.

Works cited

Lee, Emma. Tag Archives: BF Skinner. Language Debates, March 2015,

Miskimon, Robert. Chomsky’s theory on Children’s Language Development., June 2017, -on-language-development-in-children/. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017.

October 18, 2022

Language Learning

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