Language development, in particular oral language, is regarded as one ofchildren’s most impressive accomplishments during the first 5 years of life (Genishi, 1988)It is commonly consideredto be a result of both environmental and biological factors combined.
There aremany theories of language acquisition which generally fall within three major schools ofthought, namely, the behaviorist, the psycholinguistic), and the interactionist(also referred to as cognitive) perspectives. This paper defines each of theseperspectives and examines the biological component of language, accepted by thepsycholinguistic and interactionist proponents alike. In examining thebiological component of language, this paper also discusses the critical periodfor language acquisition, theories of language development from the biologicalperspective, as well as information from studies of individuals withneurological or biological dysfunction. The study of the language developmentof persons with specific types of brain damage or other biological disturbanceshas provided much information regarding the brain’s role in the languageprocess. Finally, this paper discusses how these innate, biological factors,influence the acquisition of language. Biological(approx. 800)The notion that children possess the innate structure which assists themin the acquisition of language is more commonly associated with NaomChomsky. Chomsky(1957,1968) believed that children’s’abilities to understand and use a language system that is complex in nature in ashort period of time while still often hearing incorrect or incomplete languagesuggests that children must be born with innate tools to assist them inunderstanding and thus learning the language that they hear (Keenan, 2002).
It is suggested throughouth language acquisition research that childrenare inherently predisposed to listen to and respond to language and thateveryone has an innate mental structure called a Language Acquisition Device. Chomsky(1968.) This device contains information about universal grammar that ispresent in all languages and adapts to the language the child hears to enablethem to understand the language and use it in the grammatically correct way(Keenan, 2002)The similarities that canbe seen in young children when learning different languages imply that biology offersa huge contribution to language acquisition (MacNeilageet al., 2000).
But must we attribute language development to themysterious workings of an LAD or LMC to explain these linguistic universals?Apparently not. According to the interactionist viewpoint, young children theworld over talk alike and display other linguistic universals because they areall members of the same species who share many common experiences. What isinnate is not any specialized linguistic knowledge or processing skills but asophisticated brain that matures very slowly and predisposes children todevelop similar ideas at about the same age—ideas that they are then motivatedto express in their own speech (Bates, 1999; Tomasello,1995). Indeed, there is ample support for links between generalcognitive development and language development. For example, words are symbols,and infants typically speak their fi rst meaningful words at about 12 months ofage, shortly after they display a capacity for symbolism in pretend play andtheir deferred imitation of adult models (Meltzoff,1988c). Furthermore, we will see that infants’ fi rst words centerheavily on objects they have manipulated or on actions they have performed—inshort, on aspects of experience they can understand through their sensorimotorschemes (Pan & Gleason, 1997). Finally,words like “gone” and “oh oh” emerge during the second year, about the sametime infants are mastering object permanence and are beginning to appraise thesuccess or failure of their problem-solving activities (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1987). So infants and toddlers often seem totalk about whatever cognitive understandings they are acquiring at the moment.
Like the nativists, then, interactionists believe that children arebiologically prepared to acquire a language. However, the preparation consistsnot of an LAD or LMC but a powerful human brain that slowly matures, allowingchildren to gain more and more knowledge, which gives them more to talk about (MacNeilage et al., 2000). However, this does not meanthat biological maturation and cognitive development totally explain languagedevelopment. Elizabeth Bates (1999) argues thatgrammatical speech arises out of social necessity: as children’s vocabulariesincrease beyond 100 to 200 words, they must find ways of organizing all thislinguistic knowledge to produce utterances that others will understand.Consistent with Bates’s idea, there is a strong relationship between the Ayoung boy at the Alice Fung Yu public school in San Francisco.
This is aChinese language emersion program where students, beginning in kindergarten,speak and write only Chinese in their daily lessons. Learning a second languageearly in life may be easier than trying to learn one as a teenager or an adult.Andy Sacks/Stone/Getty Images interactionist theory the notion that biologicalfactors and environmental influences interact to determine the course oflanguage development. 396 Part Three | Cognitive Development number of wordsyoung children have acquired and the grammatical complexity of their utterances(Robinson & Mervis, 1998) (see Figure 10.
3).But how might young children discover subtle points of grammar without the aidof a specialized linguistic processor? Here is where the linguistic environmentcomes into play. However,Chomsky’s (1968)Language Acquisition Device has also been strongly criticized. The maincriticism is that there is no evidence for either the existence of universalgrammar or the existence of such a device in the brain. It is alsosuggested that if such a complex device did exist then children would acquirelanguage much quicker than they actually do (Keenan, 2002).
Anothercriticism of Chomsky’s theory is that it indicates that children are not activein their own language acquisition. Research by Bates et al (1975) has shown how even very young children play an active rolein the pre-verbal and verbal exchanges they have with others (cited in Bancroft, 1995). This suggests they do not justpassively absorb language but actively acquire it. Furthermore, incontrast of Chomsky’s view that children hear incomplete and incorrectlanguage, research has shown that adults in many cultures adapt their speechwhen talking to children so that it is easier for them to understand.
This adaptation could make it simpler for a child to learn both meanings ofwords and the grammatical systems that exist (Lloyd, 1995). Chomsky’s (1968)Language Acquisition Device shows how the development of language may be aidedby an innate predisposition and mental structure but its many criticisms andthe fact that it does not view the child in its social context mean that thistheory alone does not effectively explain how children acquire language.