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How Do Humans Acquire Language?

Essay by review  •  November 15, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  1,345 Words (6 Pages)  •  1,864 Views

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How Do Humans Acquire Language?

Humans live in a world full of communication. Humans possess a native language that separates them from other animals. Language is developed within the first few years of a person's life. By the time one is a child; he can speak and understand almost as well as an adult. Children world-wide exhibit similar patterns of language acquisition even though they may be learning different languages. How humans learn even the most complicated languages has perplexed the minds of many scientists. Two of the most popular beliefs on language acquisition today are held by Skinner and Chomsky. Their opposing belief on how humans acquire language has become the two standard views on this complicated issue; however, other researchers have also reported convincing theories.

Some theories of language acquisition that are not as commonly recognized as Skinner's or Chomsky's theories are still important in understanding language development. "Even before using any words, the infant learns to communicate through gestures, facial expressions, and reciprocal vocalization with a caretaker" (Levine 4). These nonverbal behaviors are very important for an individual's speech development. Another author, Fromkin reported that:

Children diagnosed at birth as mentally retarded acquire language in the same way as those with normal intelligence. Not only can children learn any of the thousands of languages that exist in the world, they do so without being overtly taught. It is difficult, if not impossible, to account for this ability without assuming that the brain is genetically 'pre-wired' for language. (2)

One renowned researcher of language acquisition, Pinker, endorses language as being an instinct. The term instinct conveys the idea that:

People know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs. Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. Although there are differences between webs and words, [...] it helps to make sense of the phenomena. (5)

Pinker also acknowledged that Darwin was the first to articulate language as a kind of 'instinct.' He explained that Darwin believed the ability of language was "an instinctive tendency to acquire an art" (6-7).

Skinner believed language acquisition to be a learned behavior. He suggested that children learned language through observation rather then biological predisposition (Gazzaniga and Heatherton 373). Berry acknowledges Skinner's theory on operant conditioning, which is a behavior that is immediately reinforced (115). For example, when an infant imitates the pattern of syllables of the mother, the mother will immediately express joy and delight. However, as speech continues to develop only closer approximations of the speech will be rewarded. Berry points out that with systematically applied rewards the child learns to repeat the word or phrase (115). Gazzaniga and Heatherton highlight that Skinner also believed people cross-culturally used the same type of speech patterns which helped a child to learn the language. He said it was easier for a child to learn when parents repeated words and used slower speech (373).

Chomsky believed that humans acquire language through an instinctive knowledge. He thought that there was deeper meaning to words and that was how people learned them so easily (Gazzaniga and Heatherton 374). When someone hears a sentence they do not merely hear the words, instead they acquire a certain understanding of the meaning of the words. Gazzaniga and Heatherton add that his major theory was that every human was born with a language acquisition device (LAD) that allowed them to learn any language. He believed it provided infants with the ability to attach meaning to words even if they weren't grammatically correct. This is referred to as primary linguistic data. Also, the language acquisition device provided infants with the ability to fix or deduce a theory for their native language. This is called the parameter setting, and is one of Chomsky's most well known ideas (374). Chomsky believes that the structure of language is not fully learned by experience but is in part at least embedded in the network of connections of the human brain (Fromkin 3). This idea confirms how children have the ability to acquire language on even slight exposure and without specific training. Pinker explains Chomsky's theory very clearly by summarizing that:

Virtually every sentence that a person utters or understands is a brand-new combination of words, appearing for the first time in the history of the universe. Therefore a language cannot be a repertoire of responses; the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. The second fundamental fact us that children develop these complex grammars rapidly and without formal instruction and grow up to give consistent interpretations to novel sentence constructions that they have never before encountered. Therefore



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