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Theoretical Approaches to First Language Acquisition

First Language Acquisition is touted by linguist as the process of acquiring

a language via exposure whilst young.

First language is defined as the primary language -not necessarily mother

tongue- which the speaker first acquires and use on a constant basis.

According to Lennenberg (1967) the language that one picks up during the

critical period will generally be the person’s first language. The Canadian census

agrees that the first language that one acquires during childhood is the first


Amongst the most prominent theories of language acquisition that has been

put forward by linguists is the:

1. Cognitive Development Theory

According to Jean Piaget’s cognitive theory (1970s), language is a

subordinate part of cognitive development. Language is mapped onto an

individual’s set of prior cognitive structures. The principles of language are no

different from other cognitive principles. A person becomes capable of abstraction,

of formal thinking which excels concrete experience and direct perception

(, 2012).

Firstly, the child becomes aware of a concept, they acquire the words and

patterns to convey the concept. Simple ideas are expressed earlier than more
complex ideas even if they are grammatically more complicated. Piaget claims

that the human mind has a template known as the schema: The representation in

the mind of a set of perceptions, ideas and /or actions which go together (Atherton,

2011). The schema helps individuals understand the various happenings around

them, an understanding of oneself (self-schemata), other people (people

schemata), events/situations (event schemata) and roles/occupations (role


According to psychologists, cognitive development starts at adaptation,

followed by assimilation and accommodation close after. Assimilation is the

process of incorporating new information into pre-existing schema, more often than

not leading to overgeneralization.

Piaget contends there are four stages of cognitive development which are

sensorimotor stage (birth-2years), pre-operational stage (2-7 years), concrete

operational stage (7-11years) and formal operational stage (11 years and up).

The first stage or the sensorimotor stage is the stage where a child learns

about himself and his environment through motor and reflex movements. The

child’s thoughts are derived from movement and sensation (Springhouse

Corporation, 1990).

Pre-operational stage follows after the child reaches at the age of 2. During

that stage, a child’s intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, and

his language use matures, advancing to basic sentences. The child’s memory and

imagination are developed to a certain extend.

The following stage is the concrete operational stage -where the child

reaches the age of 7-11-: Children then develops seven types of conservation,

namely number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area and volume. The child’s

intelligence is further demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of

symbols related to concrete objects, and his operational thinking develops

exponentially, however, his thinking at this stage is still concrete.

The final stage in the cognitive development is the formal operational stage,

where the child’s developed intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use

of symbols related to abstract concepts. This is reflected in his/her speech as in

choice of words, and capability of metaphorical usage.

2. Humanistic Approach (Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers)

Abraham Maslow proposed the humanistic approach as a method of

language acquisition and learning. The theory takes into considerations of the

feelings, motivation levels and confidence of a person.

According to Carl Rogers however, the person’s consciousness of their

own identity is about behavior central to oneself. Rogers believed that people could

only fulfill their potential for growth if they had basically positive self-regard. On the

contrary Abraham Maslow’s believed that those who satisfied all their needs might

become self-actualizers (Sammons, n.d.).

Humanistic approach differs it tries to encourage positive emotions that help

language acquisition such as self-esteem, motivation, empathy and risk taking. It

also tries to dampen negative emotions such as low self-confidence, nervousness

and mental inhibition (Villatoro, n.d.) and in a sense, it coincides with Skinner’s

Behaviorist Theory.

3. Behaviorist Theory

B.F. Skinner described learning as a behavior produced by learner’s

response to stimuli which can be reinforced with positive or negative feedback to

environmental stimuli. Skinner added that learning can be observed, explained,

and predicted through observing antecedents and consequences. Learning is

therefore defined as a change in behavior in the learner. Punishment is sometimes

used in eliminating or reducing incorrect actions, followed by clarifying desired


Skinner’s Behaviorist approach contends that children learn language

through imitation, repetition and the reinforcement of the successful linguistics

attempts. Mistakes are considered to be the result of imperfect learning or

insufficient opportunities for practice. In such, that a child having a pleasant

learning experience (such as rewards or praise) is positive reinforced. Through

that positively reinforcing stimulus, a child’s learning capacity is triggered.

However, unpleasant experiences (such as punishment) serve as negative

reinforcements, and cause learners to avoid undesirable responses to stimuli. As

such, continuous reinforcement increases the rate of learning, be it positive or

negative; a child will respond to different triggers and with experience, remember

what is to do and to avoid. Hence, intermittent reinforcement helps a child to a

longer retention of what is learned.

Skinner contends that both positive and negative reinforcement can shape

behavior, and this in turn affects their language acquisition capability, as such, a

lack of any reinforcement can also shape behavior. If people receive no

acknowledgement of their behavior, they will likely change that behavior until they

receive some kind of reinforcement.

4. The Innateness Hypothesis

Noam Chomsky believes that children are born with a language acquisition

device (LAD) which encodes the major principles of a language and its

grammatical structure into the child’s brain and thus possesses an inherited ability

to learn any human language.

He claims that certain linguistic structures which children use so accurately

must be already imprinted on the child’s mind. Children have then only to learn

new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences.

Chomsky points out that a child could not possibly learn a language through

imitation alone because the language spoken around them is highly irregular –

adult’s speech is often broken up and even sometimes ungrammatical. Chomsky’s

theory applies to all languages as they all contain nouns, verbs, consonants and

vowels and children appear to be ‘hard-wired’ to acquire the grammar.

Chomsky defends the innate hypothesis in terms of an elaborated linguistic

theory which postulates not only a general ability in humans to acquire language,

but also the ability that comes from a specific language acquisition device in the

brain, equipped already at birth with specific grammatical rules and principles.
The main arguments in favor of the innateness hypothesis are first,

language acquisition would be difficult or even impossible without an innate

grammar: “How do we come to have such rich and specific knowledge, or such

intricate systems of belief and understanding, when the evidence available to us

is so meager?” (Cook, 1985).

Chomsky claims that the mere existence of language universals supports

the hypothesis that these are innate, and most essentially all humans acquire

language, and no other animals do.

The LAD is a hypothetical brain mechanism that Chomsky suggested to

explain human acquisition of the syntactic structure of language. This mechanism

endows children with the capacity to derive the syntactic structure and rules of their

native language rapidly and accurately from the impoverished input provided by

adult language users. The device is comprised of a finite set of variables which

languages vary, which are set at different levels for different languages on the

basis of language exposure. The LAD reflects Chomsky’s underlying assumption

that many aspects of language are universal (common to all languages and

cultures) and constrained by innate core knowledge about language called

Universal Grammar.

Universal grammar is defined by Chomsky as “the system of principles,

conditions and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages”

(Cook, 1985). The language properties inherent in the human mind make up

‘Universal Grammar’, which consists, not of particular rules or of a particular

grammar, but of a set of general principles that apply to all grammars and that
leave certain parameters open; Universal Grammar sets the limits within which

human languages can vary.

Universal Grammar present in the child’s mind grows into the adult’s

knowledge of the language so long as certain environmental ‘triggers’ are

provided; it is not learnt in the same way that, say, riding a bicycle or playing the

guitar are learnt: ‘a central part of what we call “learning” is actually better

understood as the growth of cognitive structures along an internally directed

course under the triggering and potentially shaping effect of the environment’

(Cook, 1985).

Language acquisition is the growth of the mental organ of language

triggered by certain language experiences. Hence the theory of Universal

Grammar is frequently referred to as part of biology. Indeed the theory is not

dissimilar from ideas current in biology on other issues, for instance the view that

‘Embryogenesis may then be seen as the progressive, orderly manifestation of the

knowledge which is latent in the egg’ (Cook, 1985).

So, to acquire language, the child needs not only Universal Grammar but

also evidence about a particular language; he needs to hear sentences of English

to know how to fix the parameter for the order of Verb, Subject, and Object. The

evidence he encounters can be positive or negative (Cook, 1985).

By using the same language principles, a French child constructs a

grammar of French, an English child a grammar of English. The two grammars

represent different choices within the guidelines set by Universal Grammar,

different applications of the same linguistic principles in response to different

environments; ‘Experience is necessary to fix the parameters of core grammar’

(Cook, V, 1985). But the children also have to learn aspects of language that are

peripheral, that do not conform to Universal Grammar. The child’s mind ‘prefers’

to adopt rules based on the handy set of principles with which it is equipped; they

are in a sense the easy way out, and need only triggering experience to be learnt.

By listening to the language around him, he can decide how to fix the parameter

of sentence order as SVO or SOV, for instance. His mind ‘prefers’ not to adopt

peripheral solutions, as they fall outside his pre-programmed instructions; they are

more demanding. This may be interpreted through the concept of markedness: the

child prefers to learn ‘unmarked’ knowledge that conforms to Universal Grammar,

rather than ‘marked’ knowledge that is less compatible with it.

Chomsky’s work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over

whether language exists in the mind before experience. Despite its few limitations,

The Innateness Hypothesis is rich enough to provide a substantial idea of how a

child acquires his/her first language.

5. The Critical Period Hypothesis

According to Eric Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis in 1967, the

hypothesis theorized that the acquisition of language is an innate process that

determined biologically. The notion of critical period was connected only in the first

language acquisition (, 2012). Lenneberg assumed that the

structural reorganizations within the brain were developed only from roughly the

age of two to puberty which was around thirteen or fourteen. Language skills which
were neither learned nor being taught during this age would remain permanently

undeveloped (Schouten, 2011). Lenneberg’s hypothesis claimed that the absence

of language was very limited in the first language acquisition during the early

childhood exposure (, 2009). He believed that the brain would lose

the plasticity after two sides of the brain has developed specialized functions.

The Critical Period Hypothesis is Lenneberg’s response to the long-

standing debate in language acquisition over the extent to which the acquire

language is biologically linked to age (, 2009). Lenneberg proposed

that the ability of brain to acquire a language is stopped at puberty with the onset

of brain lateralization. He refers that brain lateralization, which is a process which

the both sides of brain develop specialized function, in which after the process, the

brain would lose its plasticity as the function of the brain is set.

Lenneberg stated that if the child did not learn the language before the

puberty, the language could never be learned in a full and functional way. He

proves his theory by referring to cases of feral children, such as Genie.

According to Lenneberg, first language learners should receive exposure

on their first language prior to puberty for the best acquisition results.

Lenneberg’s works is still highly regarded as one of the most well regarded

psycholinguistic argument of language acquisition.


Everyone is unique in their own little way—from the way they walk, the

manner they talk and the process they learn. The first language learning

acquisition vary depending on the individuals themselves. Everyone has their

own way on how they acquire learning in language. And through this, the

emergence of various studies and theories regarding language acquisition

became widespread—cognitive development, humanistic approach, behaviorist,

innateness and critical period hypothesis.

Each theories mentioned above have different explanation and often times

contradict each other. But even though there are such instances, still these had

brought many contributions to the parents and the teachers applicable to the

learning approaches.

Some made everyone realized that reward conditioning will bring huge

impact on learning motives of a child. Some discussed that learning acquisition

vary depending on the biological heredity of an individual. And some mentioned

that learning process occurs due to the emotion and individual consciousness.

Each theories has different ideologies but still their mission is one—to

provide everyone a light for the pursuance of another study and a threshold for a

better understanding.

Essays, UK. First Language Acquisition Theories. 2018
Taylor, Charles V. The Origin of Language. 1997