BEHAVIORIST THEORY. You are probably familiar with behaviorism as a major learning theory emphasizing stimulus, response, and reinforcement as the basic elements of learning. For language acquisition, behaviorists hypothesized that children learned their first language through stimulus, response, and reinforcement as well, postulating imitation and association as essential processes. For example, to learn the word ball, the child would first associate the word ball with the familiar spherical object, the stimulus. Next the child would produce the word by imitation, at which time an adult would praise the child for saying ball, thereby reinforcing the child’s correct verbal response. Behaviorists assumed that the child’s mind was a tabula rasa, a blank mental slate awaiting the scripture of experience.
Behaviorist concepts of imitation and reinforcement could not account for typical child utterances like “Him don’t say it right,” which were clearly not imitations of adult speech. Moreover, behaviorists could not explain how any novel utterance was produced, even those that were grammatically correct. Yet most utterances we produce in conversation or writing are in fact original. That is, they are not pat phrases we have learned by hearing and repeating. In addition, child language researchers noticed that parents typically reinforce their children for the meaning of their utterances, not for grammatical correctness. These and other concerns were boldly pointed out as Noam Chomsky (1957) engaged in a heated debate with behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1957), attacking behaviorist theory as inadequate to explain observations of child language development.
INNATIST THEORY. Chomsky was able to garner some strong arguments against the behaviorist explanation of language acquisition, using examples from children developing grammar, such as our example from Hope. Skinner and his behaviorist colleagues were experts in psychology, applying their theories to verbal behavior. Chomsky, on the other hand, was a linguist with a genius for analyzing syntax. In fact, his early work on syntax and transformational grammar revolutionized the field of linguistics (Chomsky, 1957, 1959). Chomsky’s explanations of grammatical rules and transformations became the subject of psychological research on language use in the interdisciplinary field of psycholinguistics.
As Chomsky pondered the complex intricacies of children’s development of grammar, he concluded that language acquisition could only be accounted for by an innate, biological language acquisition device (LAD) or system. Infants must come into the world “prewired for linguistic analysis.” Specifically, Chomsky claims that infants universally possess an innate “grammar template,” or universal grammar, which will allow them to select out the many grammatical rules of the language they hear spoken around them, as they gradually construct the grammar of their mother tongue.
From the innatist perspective, children construct grammar through a process of hypothesis testing. For example, a child may hypothesize the rule that all plural nouns end with an -s. Thus, when they come to a word such as child, they form the plural as childs, or when they come to the word man, they say mans for the plural. Gradually, they will revise their hypothesis to accommodate exceptions to the plural rule. Thus, children create sentences by using rules rather than by merely repeating messages they have heard, as assumed by behaviorists. This application of rules accounts for the generative nature of language. With a finite set of rules, people can generate an infinite number of novel utterances. Children acquire the rules, according to Chomsky, with little help from their parents or caregivers. But as Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner stated (Gardner, 1995, p. 27), the Chomskyan view is “too dismissive of the ways that mothers and others who bring up children help infants to acquire language.” Gardner argues that, “while the principles of grammar may indeed be acquired with little help from parents or other caretakers, adults are needed to help children build a rich vocabulary, master the rules of discourse, and distinguish between culturally acceptable and unacceptable forms of expression.” This interest in the role of people in the social environment provides the focus ofthe next theoretical perspective on language acquisition that we discuss, the interactionist perspective. In response to Chomsky’s emphasis on innate grammar mechanisms centered in the infant, interactionists have brought back an interest in the role of the social environment and the influence of parents and
caregivers on children’s language acquisition.
INTERACTIONIST THEORY. According to the interactionist position, caregivers play a critical role in adjusting language to facilitate the use of innate capacities for language acquisition. This is in sharp contrast to the innatist view that adapting language has little effect on a child’s acquisition process. The interactionist view thus takes into consideration the importance of both nature and nurture in the language acquisition process.
Interactionists study the language mothers and other caregivers use when caring for infants and young children, with special attention to modifications they make during these social interactions to assist children in communication. One strategy often observed between English-speaking, middle-class mothers and their toddlers is conversational scaffolding (Ninio & Bruner, 1978), as illustrated
in the following conversation:
CHILD: Birthday cake Megan house.
MOTHER: We had birthday cake at Megan’s house. What else did we do at Megan’s house?
CHILD: Megan dolly.
MOTHER: Megan got a doll for her birthday, didn’t she?
In this conversation, the mother repeats the child’s meaning using an expanded form, thereby verifying her understanding of the child’s words while modeling adult usage. In addition, the mother assists or scaffolds the toddler’s participation in the conversation through prompting questions at the end of each of her turns. In this way, scaffolding provides conversational assistance and focused linguistic input tuned to the child’s own interests and language use at that moment. By preschool age, this kind of scaffolded conversation is no longer necessary. Whether scaffolding is actually necessary for language acquisition has not been verified. In fact, ways in which infants and young children are spoken to varies across cultures (Ochs & Schieffelen, 1984; Schieffelin & Eisenberg, 1984). Nonetheless, caregivers generally facilitate children’s vocabulary development, their ability to use language appropriately in social situations, and their ability to get things done through language. Children’s language develops over time, not within a single interaction.
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