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© Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology,


February 2006, Vol. 32, No.2, 84-92. Invited Article

Psychological Aspects of Language Acquisition

David Annoussamy
Pondicherry

A. Acquisition of mother tongue: in what is spoken to him. Later he shows


1. Universality of acquisition interest in the talk going about around him.

No child fails in learning naturally his 2. Understanding precedes expression


mother tongue except the deaf of the dumb. The child, before he knows the meaning
So universal is the phenomenon all over the of words, even before he is able to realize that
world, whatever the language, that one is they could have a meaning, is interested by
almost tempted to believe that the ability to the sound combination of words. Each word
speak is innate. It is only apparently so; has for him its features, which he is able to
language is actually acquired. Children without recognise; words have life for children. The
any exposure to language, for instance, those special relation of the child with words explains
who are brought up by animals or in total his interest for poetry which is sought to be
isolation, do not have any language. satisfied by lullabies and various sorts of
Acquisition of a language by children is traditional poetical compositions accompanying
achieved within a relatively short period children plays.
between the ages of 1 and 3 in spite of the The language heard by the child is stored
complexity of the task. The result is remarkable and remains latent for some time in the brain;
for its perfection. Oral language is acquired it is put to actual use slowly, first for
successfully regardless of the level of general understanding. This starts at about 12
intelligence. When learning is almost complete months. The child is then able to recognise a
there is not much difference among illiterates, known voice or familiar sounds indicating
whatever be their social rank or avocation. Just certain facts concerning him, like the
faulty pronunciation of some words is preparation of his food. His hearing system
occasionally noticed due to physiological gets every day sharper and sharper. Between
defects in vocal organs. Some children having 12 – 18 months the child is able to follow simple
psychological problems develop stammering. commands and responds to interdictions. 90%
The child picks us language simply by of the comprehension ability is attained at the
listening attentively to the language spoken age of 3. The American psychologist Eric. M.
to him or around him. Parents want their child .Lenneberg describes the process thus:
to understand what they say to him and they “Between the ages of two and three years,
use for the purpose a simplified language language emerges by an interaction of
known as caretaker’s speech or baby talk. In maturation and self-programmed learning.
the first stage he seems to be interested only Between the ages of three and the early teens,
David Annoussamy 85

the possibility for primary language acquisition described above takes place. It is not mere
continues to be good; the individual appears soaking up a language as one would be
to be most sensitive to stimuli at this time and tempted to think. Unconsciously and without
to preserve some innate flexibility for the any deliberate action there is simultaneously
“organisation of brain functions” to carry out storing and organisation of the raw materials.
the complex integration of sub process Between the age of 2 and 3 while storing the
necessary for the smooth elaboration of language, the child has at its command an
speech and language. innate hypothesis forming faculty which
Though parents are aware that the child enables him to devise unconsciously
understands what he is told or what is going grammatical rules in respect of the language.
about around him, they do no press him to In this connection the American psychologist,
speak except on rare occasions like greeting Jerry.A.Fodor would observe as follows:
visitors or thanking them for the present It seems likely, on the basis of recent
offered, or when he child weeps and the investigations of children’s speech, that a child
parents are eager to know the reason in order runs through a series of candidate syntaxes,
to console him effectively. When pressed to all but the last of which are discarded because
speak, the child remains resolutely silent; the they fail to capture(or because they
parents impute caprice to him but the truth is misdescribe) relevant regularities in his corpus.
otherwise. Speech by its very nature is a This explains the discontinuity in learning
spontaneous act which cannot be obtained by that is observed. In fact in the process of
external pressure. For the child to speak he learning one may notice certain steps
should be willing to say something and be able apparently backward. The child who initially
to say it. was saying “did”, “told”, all of a sudden starts
3. Process of acquisition saying “doed”, “telled”, but reverts after certain
The first exteriorisation of his feeling takes time to the correct forms. Learning of a
place without speaking. He cries, he smiles, language by the child is not like addition of
he pushes what is not desired, he gesticulates bricks. Each time there is construction of
with anger. He responds to familiar sounds language by the child with the help of memory
and noises like knocking at the door, sound of and logic, placing reliance on one or the other.
the clock, etc. At about one year, first words Logic, as soon as available to the child, being
are uttered, sometimes modified to suit his more economical in terms of effort than
pronouncing capability.. These words do not memorising, the child starts placing reliance
usually carry the meaning which adults attribute on it. When he discovers that verbs end with
to them. The child speaks to himself a language “ed” in the preterite, he makes use of the logic.
of his own profusely. When the child wants to Afterwards when he finds that logic has failed
communicate with others he starts using the in some cases he takes note of the exceptions
same word for several things. Then single and stores them with the help of memory.
words, with their actual meaning appear.
When he attempts sentences, he shortens 4.Effort involved
them according to his cognitive attainment.
First two word sentences appear: dog comes, On account of the apparent ease with
daddy’s pen, etc. Then sentences with more which the child acquires a language, one is
words are used. tempted to think that there is no effort. In
reality, it is not so. With some attention one
It would be interesting and useful to can perceive the amount of effort spent by the
investigate further how the acquisition as
86 Language Acquisition
child in uttering the first words, the first entails a better development of mind.
sentences and even thereafter in saying The acquisition of one or more language
certain unusual words. The apparent ease by the child by mere exposure and need to
gets explained by the total involvement of the communicate is a natural operation for the
child in the venture. Speaking is vital for him to humankind. However through this way he
satisfy all his needs which become more and acquires the skills of understanding and
more varied, including the urge to participate expression in the oral language only, which the
in the family life, to understand it, to be a full humankind was satisfied with for millennia.
partner and play his role. So his whole energy When he goes to school he has to learn the
is harnessed. It is accompanied by the written form of a language already known to
pleasure arising out of the success in his new him. That takes places according to classroom
experience of expression. Effort is there, but techniques.
is not manifest on account of his high
motivation. Language learning without effort B- Acquisition of a second language
by the child is nothing but a myth attributable Whilst acquisition of the mother tongue is
to lack of close observation. always a success ,acquisition of a second
5. Acquisition of more than a language from language through teaching in schools has been
the start: found to be an immense failure in all countries.
The reason is that the second language is
A child can pick up more than a language being considered as a subject like others ,
at a time from the beginning, if placed in a ignoring the natural process of acquisition of
multi-lingual environment. Only one condition language. In natural process, acquisition
is required: the child should be normal. It follows the flow of circumstances in actual life.
would be helpful to the child if a particular The learner chooses what is of interest for him,
person speaks always the same language. whereas in the process of teaching the choice
The child being eager to get what he wants, is not that of the learner but that of the teacher.
when he has to communicate with persons Exposure to natural language as such is too
speaking different languages, he acquires all meagre. Language is rather presented as a
of them. Between 3 and 4 the child is able to set of formal elements to be apprehended
speak to each of his interlocutors the language outside any communicative context and without
of the latter. He is even able to serve real communicative purpose, in the form of
occasionally as an interpreter. When a word is model sentences selected with a methodical
not known, the child does not use the word of progression. Excessive reliance is placed on
another language, he resorts instead to a grammatical rules which have no relevance in
periphrasis in the language of the actual life situation. Language is presented as
interlocutor.He easily realizes that each an artificial construction, something different
language is a separate entity; he is not tempted from the mother tongue. Students are not made
to mix up languages.. to react authentically to real language. So,
People sometimes wonder whether it is there is low intake and only fragments of
not harmful to expose the child to more than a language are learnt.. The focus being on the
language. Observations so far made have not form of language rather than on its
indicated any harmful effect except in the case communicative interest, what is learnt cannot
of children having mental defects or linguistic be put to use for communication, especially
difficulties. Such children should not subjected for oral communication.
to such an effort. If the child is normal the fact When language is taught, acquisition of
of learning simultaneously two languages
David Annoussamy 87

both oral and written languages is students, the latter should be actively involved
simultaneously attempted which is against the by way of answering or executing orders given.
natural course of language acquisition. This What the teacher says should be of interest to
complicates the process and usually written the pupil so as to make him listen to eagerly.
language takes the pride of place. The teacher Students at the beginning may be allowed to
finds it easier to teach. Grown up pupils and respond in any manner: gestures, single
adults are more at ease with written language. words, faulty language, broken language.
They are keen on having the written support. Teaching would consist of tasks leading to
Oral language appears to them somewhat simulate a situation, to expose the pupil to living
evanescent. They feel that they have a better language and provoke communication. There
hold on language when it is in its written form. is no escape from this way.
Since they are apprehensive of mistakes, they The mode of teaching now largely
do not like oral exercises in which mistakes are prevalent can help the student to get
immediately known to all the classmates. Thus successfully through a conventional
teaching slips easily into traditional school examination. What is learnt has to stand the
exercises and acquisition of language as such test of use in real circumstances of life.
cannot take place. James.J.Jenkins, an Looking from that angle one would find that
American psychologist discards this method in much of the matter in which he succeeded in
very strong words the examination evaporates thereafter. What
Language , essentially , is an auditory remains is the amount of living language he
product; when one takes away the auditory side came across accidentally in the “methodical”
of language and is forced to present it in the teaching. In other words the only worthy
visual domain, the innate process that makes acquisitions are rather the side effects of the
language acquisition so speedy and impressive planned teaching.
performance operates extraordinarily poorly. 2) Repetition
Language ”through the eye” means to
demonstrate little power to activate the A word, or sentence pattern has
language-learning mechanisms and to initiate necessarily to be met several times for getting
the necessary system-building activities. memorized. The teacher resorts to repetition
and makes it interesting; in that way language
So for learning a new language in school is acquired without conscious effort. Learning
one has to pay full attention to the by heart and reciting several times is an easy
psychological process of such acquisition and and fruitful exercise which everyone can resort
the various factors involved which are to . Instead of providing one short text on each
summarized below: topic, it is preferable to provide several texts
1) Communication on the same topic and long texts from the
Language being essentially a tool for same book so that the same words are met
communication, learning requires several times. The learner who has reached
communication. Teachers and pupils should be the adequate level would be well advised to
engaged in communication activities. The read the same book or watch the same film
teacher is expected to speak only in the target again and again, if found interesting
language. He may resort to extra-verbal media 3) Intensity of learning
if necessary. In this way, the learner is placed There are three phases in the process
from the beginning in a communicative context. of learning a language, which are:
Communication involves more than talking to
i. Early exciting phase
88 Language Acquisition
ii. Middle unrewarding phase 5) Continuity in learning
iii. Final joyful victory phase. What has been memorized with great effort
In the early phase the attraction of novelty is susceptible to be forgotten. Some kind of
kindles motivation. The easy exercises like, continuous practice is necessary especially as
listening and reading, doing simple drills ect… long as the teaching consists mostly of oral
can be successfully gone through. language. Interruption in learning a language
is disastrous. Therefore, it would be extremely
In the middle phase complication starts; useful for beginners to have language classes
pupils are asked to write and to speak. They or any other form of exposure during the
are then prone to commit mistakes not done vacation time as well.
earlier. If they are allowed to linger in this phase
regression takes place. It is therefore imperious Once he has decided to learn, the pupil
to cross quickly the second phase before the should do it continuously till he reaches the
interest for language vanishes. For that stage of relative fluency enabling him to keep
purpose the minimum of teaching would be 2 contact with the language by himself in one
sessions per day and one session per day form or other. When actual use after learning
when the learner is able to avail of individual is not in sight, the easiest way to keep contact
exposure outside in the class room. with the language is reading. Acquiring reading
ability during the period of learning is essential.
4) Maturation
Oblivion is variable according to age, the
Though the teaching should be intense level obtained and the way in which the
in the initial stage, one cannot expect language was acquired. Children forget more
immediate result, such is the complexity of the easily than adults. The easier you learn, the
language acquisition process. One has to quicker you forget. But when studies are
listen and read a lot before attempting to speak resumed, acquisition is found easier.
or to write. Short answers and simple exercises Language units remain hidden in the brain,
are possible and desirable, but for actual available for use, quick progress is noticed as
speaking and writing one has to wait. Interstitial compared to fresh beginners. The sooner the
rest is necessary for the maturation process. resumption, the better the result.
Sometimes, language is used by the learner
in silent form when he thinks or dreams. But 6) Effort feeding success
compelling too early to express orally or in One of the secrets of nurturing motivation
writing will prove counter-productive. The is to make room for success which releases
learner should not be asked to search his brain energy and sustains the effort. Since the real
for what proves elusive. Understanding would intake, which is the amount of input that is
suffice for some time. This may be absorbed, depends on motivation, the teacher
accompanied by a large amount of preparatory should carefully avoid creating failure complex.
exercises with slow progression and easy Certain teachers have a liking for vicious and
enough to be done always with success. So trap questions. They are totally to be banned
one has to wait till what is sought to be learnt because they reduce motivation. One makes
is assimilated perfectly and becomes readily progress in the language when he comes into
available for natural use. Expression will spring contact with the level of language that is a little
in due course if the intake is looked after. The beyond his current level of competence. He
take off comes all of a sudden on a fine day. apprehends the extra input with the aid of his
One gets the impression that he has crossed entire linguistic knowledge and the range of
the border, that he has jumped into a new world. his acquired experience in life. Language
David Annoussamy 89

difficulties should be limited in words and each one of us a preference vis-à-vis some
sentence patterns. Stumbling through a difficult words and patterns, which surface readily for
text does not yield any result. Too many the purpose of expression. Others are not at
difficulties discourage. The progression our command, even though encountered
should be slow. One should take care to offer several times; but for the purpose of
a large number of texts with imperceptible understanding they are familiar. So, each one
increase in difficulty rather than few ones with of us has got an active and a passive
sharp ascent requiring a lot of explanations. vocabulary, the latter being of course larger.
Language learning is not a matter of 9) Trial and error
understanding alone, but it is process of slow
impregnation. From the data available to him, the learner
formulates hypotheses regarding the rules of
7) Tolerance of irregularities the language. That operation forms part of the
Learning a second language requires strategy of learning. Elaboration of rules by
openness of mind and tolerance . The rigidity way of generalisation of a pattern, recourse to
of mind is fatal. Some learners, specially adult analogy, shaping the corresponding verb,
learners, are prone to find fault with the substantive, adjective, adverb, when one of
language, for not obeying the kind of logic they them is known is something that everyone is
are accustomed to. Each language has got tempted to do. In that process the learner
its own logic which is different from that of the unavoidably commits mistakes in
mother tongue and that logic will appear to the pronunciation, in the form of the words or in
learner only when all the rules of the language respect of grammar on account of the
are sufficiently mastered. Even then, there ignorance of irregularities and exceptions in
would always remain exceptions. Those the language. These mistakes are
exceptions have got their explanations in the manifestations of the learning activity. They
history of the language that are better left to are normal and unavoidable in the process of
philologists. The learner has to take the learning. At no cost the teacher should allow
language as it is with humility and love, if he the classmates to laugh at a mistake. Of course
wants to progress. Idiomatic forms of no mockery by the teacher himself. If mockery
expression constitute the charm of each is resorted to, nothing can be obtained
language. Language is essentially a matter thereafter from the pupil who would remain
of usage. It is to be learnt by patient exposure decidedly silent.
and practice. There is an understandable
8) Selection apprehension in the mind of the teacher that
The speed of acquisition is not the same defective forms may become habits and would
in respect of all words, sentence patterns and then become hard to eradicate. So, teachers
phrases. Some of them, one has been in need react violently to mistakes. But that is not a
of, are apprehended at first appearance and good strategy. Censuring of mistakes in one
even stored. But words not at all related to way or other will only cause inhibition and no
one’s experience, past and present, are hard positive results. On the other side, initially
to store. Even if stored by way of special effort, defective forms do not necessarily become
they get out of mind soon. Some words are habits, if some precautionary measures are
stored for their musical value, even if the taken. The pupil is to made aware that his
meaning is not well known. Even when a large expression has not reached perfection in form,
portion of a language is stored, there is for that it is provisional. If he remains alert enough
to apprehend the correct pronunciation and
90 Language Acquisition

the important distinctive features of the target to start reading only after a long exposure to
language, his expression will become more and oral language. Otherwise words met for the
correct. Mistakes will diminish in course of time. first time in written from and not heard earlier
If the pupil does not have such an attitude he sufficiently will be pronounced as in the mother
will not make much progress in language, tongue.
punishment notwithstanding. C- The age to start the study of a
10) Interference of the acquired language. second language
The second language used to be taught 1) Psycho-physiological factors
formerly through the mother tongue or another The general perception is that children
language already known. This created several learn more easily a second language than
difficulties which have been perceived long adults. Before assessing to what extent age
back. Educators have even gone to the extent affect results let as have a peep on the findings
of saying that one has to forget one’s language of science regarding the way age operates in
to acquire another. There is some truth in the acquisition of language. Brain maturation
this sally. On account of the natural laziness studies show that during the first years of life
of the mind, one has some repugnance to the process is very rapid. Maturation is
search for another way of expression when achieved to 60% when the child starts speaking
he has already got one. The old form is the and then slows down progressively. The most
first to appear in the mind at least till such favourable period appears to be between 2
period as the second language is not mastered and 5. During that period, there is an
enough. At any rate, one has to take stock of interaction of maturation and self-programmed
the fact that the known language acts as a learning. At the age of 5, the brain is sufficiently
screen. We have to study how such knowledge developed to tag general principles with rules
operates in order to evolve a strategy. The of exceptions. Passage from coordination to
learner is tempted to resort to a large extent subordination takes place. The child moves
to words and sentence patterns of his mother progressively from juxtaposed utterances to
tongue. By a close comparison of both the organized, coherent and cohesive speech. At
languages it is possible to predict the areas the age of 8, the child is able to cope up
of learning difficulty. One can take also clues abstractly with the language and to acquire
from the mistake usually committed by learners quickly without difficulty the concepts and
and evolve elaborate corresponding corrective corresponding vocabulary. As regards the
exercises. exact process, Kenji.Hakuta, an American
Advantages and difficulties arising out of psychologist would observes thus:
a language known would depend on One should not be fooled, however, by
differences between the two languages in the developmental order in which their
respect of script, sounds and sentence characterizations of language emerge, from
patterns. When the script is different it has to communication to meaning and grammar. It
be learnt; but mistakes in pronunciation are would be rash to conclude that there is a
less. For a second language learner, who progression with grammar developing out
usually had already a good intellectual meaning and communication. Grammar,
development, learning a new alphabet is quite meaning, and communication are distinct levels
an easy task. On the contrary if the script is of language and cannot be interchanged.
the same, the learner will be tempted to read Each has its own course of development, and
the target language in the same may as his it is still unclear how they are related to each
mother tongue. In such a case it is imperative other
David Annoussamy 91

At the age of 12 the mind is shaped for If the content of the text to be studied is
formal operations and the essential of mental familiar to pupil with something new, it will kindle
and linguistic structures is constituted. The his interest. It is therefore necessary to link
brain is now programmed. There is no more language lessons with the personal experience
docile assimilation of the first years of life, when of the learner instead of selecting
brain was plastic an d receptive to all language authoritatively the series of topics to be
units and when units of different languages covered. If both the content and the language
could be deposited at the same time. This are alien to him, the pupil gets discouraged.
capacity slows down with age, because the Good results can be obtained by selecting
brain is turned progressively towards other topics from class room experience and from
purposes. Speech units of the mother tongue among what the pupils have already learnt in
are well anchored and appear to stand in the other subjects. Language lessons would then
way of units other language. Acquisition of a act as a repetition of a lesson in another
second language is no longer instinctive; it subject. Pupils will realise that the second
becomes intellectual. Acquisition of written language is another manner of expression but
language becomes easier, there is some not altogether a new subject to be learnt for
handicap in picking up oral language itself.
2) Motivation Among higher school children and adults,
Motivation plays a big place in any work motivation is necessarily present, otherwise
or learning. It is indispensable for acquisition they will not undertake the study of a new
of a second language. The word “motivation” language. They are ready to deploy a
is quite commonly used, but its nature is only sustained effort because they have some goal
confusedly perceived. Motivation arises out in mind; they are also able to concentrate on
of need or interest, it is sustained by external language study for a long stretch of time.
factors and is easily subject to variations. In 3) Assessment of results
its manifestation, it is the will to learn.. a- Learning by picking up a language
Among pre-school children the exposure This relates to oral language only. The
to language would be only through activities, observations so far made by research scholars
and the motivation would depend on the reveal that children reach a ceiling lower than
interest those activities generate. It may the adults and that such a ceiling is reached
become equal to that for the mother tongue. faster. Almost all children succeed in learning
Among school children, there is no the language they are exposed to, whereas
personal desire to learn a second language. some adults do not. Subjects in their 20s
But the desire to please parents and to be resemble the adolescent group more closely
acknowledge by the teacher as a successful that the subjects in their 30s and 40s. The
pupil is present. At the same time there is capacity to learn declines with old age.
also more docility to class-room activity and The younger the age of learning the
spontaneous enthusiasm for learning. The quicker the acquisition fades away, if there is
novelty of the sounds and of exotic words no continuity. If the practice of language is
pleases. But school children get easily bored; continued up to the intellectual period of 12
their attention lasts only for a short span, so, and beyond, the result is more durable. Even
variety in the exposure to language is otherwise speech units acquired in the young
necessary. It is essential to nurture motivation age are easy to recover at a later stage. There
till the learner experiences a permanent appeal is also greater facility in reproducing sounds
for the language.
92 Language Acquisition
specific to the targeted language coaching of six months. The best among them,
b. Language taught in class room upon continuing to peruse technical literature
in the second language, acquire even the
Teaching a language through classroom ability of writing thesis in their subject in that
methods usually includes both its written and language.
oral aspects. Such a teaching is possible only
after two years of schooling when pupils have In conclusion young age is physiologically
learnt to some extent reading and writing in more favourable for acquiring the oral
the mother tongue. It has been found that language, it does not prove to be an asset for
children who have not mastered well reading the acquisition of written language for which
and writing in the mother tongue. make little maturity of mind of those aged 13 and plus is
progress in the second language Even among an advantage. It has also been found that one
those who make a good start, many reach soon can acquire or improve any skill in the second
the ceiling. They can acquire ability in simple language at any age if he is talented and
conversations, but they cannot get the skill in motivated. But late starters have sometimes
understanding texts in second language difficulty to get the exact pronunciation. If
dealing with serious matters nor do they learning is started early and is not continued,
become able to write. what is learnt fades away. It would be wise to
start the study of a language when the need
In most of the countries it has been found thereof is felt.
that teen-agers above 12 and even young
adults were better learners than those below It is essential to bear in mind that language
13. They make faster progress. This is quite learning is not conditioned only by age. There
natural because when written language is are several other factors whose combination
attempted to be learnt along with oral language could override age. They are the competence
the nature of the matter to be learnt changes of teachers, the knowledge of the language
considerably. Malleability of mind of the by the parents, the time allotted for teaching,
younger children which helps them store the aptitude of the pupils, the skills sought
quickly in their brain speech units of oral after. These are formidable factors which can
language is not of much avail when what overshadow the age factor. Therefore, it
assumes importance is written language for would be wise not to start teaching a second
the acquisition of which mental development language when the required conditions are not
plays a bigger role. favourable. Study of a second language made
compulsory on a mass scale at a low age would
As far as adult professionals are require a large number of competent teachers,
concerned, recent experiences have shown which is difficult get .Results will prove definitely
that those adults having already a good better if started later with competent teachers.
command of their mother tongue acquire as
working knowledge of the second language for
general purposes, the ability to read and
understand the technical literature of their
profession, all just within a period of intensive

David Annoussamy, PhD, is former Judge, High Court of Madras, Chennai. He is the
author of the book “Answers to language problems” PR Books, Delhi, 2001.