From as early as our time spent in the womb, our ears are already adjusting to the sounds of the exterior world. This marks the beginning of a life full of language acquisition and development. Going from a child aged 0-6 months of age, turning their heads to listen to sounds (Cox, 2011) to a child of 4-5 years with a vocabulary of 3000- 5000 words, truly represents the complexity of a child’s mind in language learning. Subsequently, as adults it is often difficult to pin point the process of language learning in children and understand our exact role, we play in this critical development stage. Interestingly, language acquisition in the early years if often something the child nor the parents remember ever engaging in. As there is no formal training involved in the first stages of speaking and sentence construction, it is the critical role adults play as a ‘model’ for which a child learns to speak. According to (Hill, 2013) ‘language is made up of sounds (phonemes), words, word order (syntax) and meaning (semantics)’ and while there are many conflicting theories into language acquisition, a common ground including all theories falls under the notion that language acquisition is developmental, occurs in stages and actively involves adult’s child language learning. Thus, whether one chooses to focus on the psychological, biological or environmental factors which help contributes to a child’s language complexity, it is ultimately in the hands of the child to ‘actively generate meaning through experience and interaction’ (Smidt, 2012).
Firstly, into a behaviourist perspective, B.F Skinner (a psychologist and behaviourist) expresses the idea that language is learned through conditioning and imitation of the adult. Looking particularly on spoken language, behaviourists believe ‘Operant Conditioning’ (Skinner, 1957) accounts for children’s language learning. Conditioning involves a child imitating a word or phrase and then immediate feedback is given via reinforcement and punishment to either change or maintain the spoken behaviour. For example, if a child has picked up a sentence incorrectly “I gooed to the pool”, a stimulus-response conditioning method is used in adults in which they can say “yes, very good” for positive reinforcement or “is that how it is said? What how about…” for ‘punishment’ in which the child is given the opportunity to change their behaviour. Although it is made clear the adult’s role in providing immediate feedback to change the child’s behaviour, this theory is limited in that this theory implies that learning a Language is a Conscious and autonomic effort and such no learning is done by the child alone. Although adults are critical as environmental stimulus for very early language learning, as the child ages, they begin learning words individually and rely less on the assistance provided by adults. Therefore, as an upcoming teacher, it is unrealistic to say that all language learning is done through encouraging certain behaviours through praise or criticism as ‘each child’s language growth is different and is influence by varying factors’ (Fellowes & Oakley, 2011).
Differing to Skinners approach, Jean Piaget’s cognitive theory pulls emphasis on a child that is ‘set on a linear path towards rational thought’ (Smidt, 2013). Piaget shows child language acquisition as a conscious process of thinking which is taken from the environment that surrounds them thus ‘The human infant is never passive in the learning process but is cognitively active in seeking to make sense of the world (Smidt, 2013). However, it is Piaget’s distinguishable model of linearized stages of learning in children which sets aside her theory from others. The first phase of this cognitive development process is the sensory- motor period categorising the ages from birth- 2 years, which largely focuses on development through activity. Children make sense of the world around them and gather meaning though their senses; they also use limited vocabulary to ask questions such as “what this?”. It is though this stage that the child begins demanding answers within the world that surrounds them. Stage two: the preoperational phase, shows ages 2-7 years and how the child uses symbols to convey meaning and enhance language development through writing and conversations. E.g. The letters d-o-g represent the animal dog. It is believed children in this stage are in a highly ‘subjective’ mindset in which they understand the world (Smidt, 2013). Therefore, much conversation and writing form of language is limited to the child’s own experience and their outlook on life. Though Piagets development process continues towards adolescence, ultimately Piaget’s theory underlies that as the stages increase, so does the level of a child’s language development. In an educator’s perspective it is often difficult to generalise children into stages of language learning as all learners are different and factors such as socio-economic status or cultural background doesn’t enable the experiences of one child to be generalised to the entire population of children. Thus, as teachers facilitating language learning, it is important to identify individual students needs so we can develop authentic materials to assist children move to additional stages in their learning.
The nativist approach to child language acquisition is associated with theorist Noam Chomsky who emphasises the notion that children are born with pre-existing potential for language acquisition. It is said to be natural and part of a ‘biological phenomenon’ (Fellowes & Oakley, 2011) in which includes a ‘universal grammar’ in which certain linguistic structures are pre known to the child. Evidence to support this theory can be seen in children’s early speech and writing. According to (Cox, 2011) children aged 3-4 often have the tendency to overgeneralise tenses and plurals e.g. “I goed to McDonalds.” These early grammatical mistakes such as adding ‘ed’ to all verbs, shows that children generalise all language concepts and leave no room for irregular possibilities in grammar. Because of this, conclusions can be drawn that explain how children draw off their own innate abilities to construct sentences and don’t learn entirely off the imitation of an adult’s language. Linking Chomsky’s theory to the transcript in the conversation between Saskia and her father, Saskia uses the wrong tense when referring to a sunken ship. “C: They sink” “F: They sank. Their ship sank, didn’t it?” “C: Yeah.” (line 21-23.) In this example, we see Saskia incorrectly state the tense of sunken ship as she referred to it in present tense instead of past tense. This shows evidence that Saskia’s learning as not passive and was most likely guessed according to Saskia’s innate beliefs. However, when her father corrected her mistake, she appears to understand the correction her father made and responds “yes” showing evidence of understanding and development within her understanding of language. Therefore, it can be concluded that while a child could have pre-existing knowledge into the structures of English, it is still critical for an adult to be active in a child’s language acquisition progress as it allows mistakes to be pointed out and language to increase complexity in speech.
In continuation of the analysis of the transcript, it is important to note that Saskia is two and a half years old and the language she expresses is typical of a child that age in that she is only able to use simple and compound sentences and has a limit of around an 800-1000-word vocabulary (Cox, 2011). It is obvious throughout the conversation between Saskia and her father, the ways in which the father was active in Saskia’s language development and promoted exploratory talk allowing scaffolding to occur. He often asked to follow up questions and put-forth questions which required open ended answers to be given by Saskia so she would be encouraged to use more vocabulary, e.g. “It’s a ship, is it? Where’s the ship sailing?” (lines 6-9). This idea is social exploratory talk can be categorised into a form of social learning. Lev Vygotsky a Russian scientist stresses that child’s understanding comes from ‘social origin’ (Smidt, 2013). Thus, it is the involvement by adults which often facilities the social transition of knowledge. Vygotsky believes children work at two levels. the first is the “performance level” (Vygotsky, 1978 as cited in Smidt) which is information the child has already learnt and “potential development” which expresses the process of maturation in a child from support of an adult. In the transcript, (lines 10-12) Saskia says a phrase wrong “Sailing into the water,” the father then corrects her by saying “Sailing in the water” and she responds “yes” this is another example of Saskia’s incorrect usage of grammar but shows the role her father has in helping her improve on her speech by pointing out her mistake allows her to understand where she went and allows her the opportunity to acknowledge she understands, thus showing her growth from “performance level” to completion in “potential development” stage. Therefore, it is clear to establish within this social learning theory that ‘What a child can do with assistance today, they will be able to do by themselves tomorrow,’ (Vygotsky, 1978 as cited in Smidt, 2013).
Ultimately, in terms of children’s learning and development, there is no single fixed pattern for which children should engage in language acquisition. It is interwoven with cognitive, social, and biological factors and with results varying from child to child. What’s important is that adults and teachers understand the role they play in children’s language development, so we are able to understand a child’s journey and help them ‘progress along the path to oral language competency’ (Fellowes & Oakley, 2011).
- Cox, R. (Ed.). (2011). Primary English Teaching: An Introduction to Language, Literacy and Learning. Sage. pg 4
- Fellowes, J., & Oakley, G. (2011). Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education. Oxford University Press. Pg 2
- Hill, S. (2012). Developing early literacy: Assessment and teaching. Eleanor Curtain Publishing.
- Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Smidt, S. (2013). The developing child in the 21st century a global perspective on child development (second ed.). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.