Theories About Language Acquisition

In the following article, we'll take a close look at some of the most well-known theories about language acquisition, a process that begins when children are approximately 12 months old.
Theories About Language Acquisition
Marta Crespo Garcia

Written and verified by the pedagogue Marta Crespo Garcia.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

There are various different approaches or perspectives that have explained the process of language development. Today we’ll look at the most well-known theories about language acquisition, so keep reading.

Infant language begins during the prelinguistic stageThis stage lasts from the time a child is born until approximately the age of 12 months. Then comes the linguistic stage, during which children begin the complex process of language acquisition. They start to acquire and manage language on a functional level.

Theories about language acquisition

Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning or the Theory of Behaviorism

B. F. Skinner believed that the development of language depends exclusively on external stimuli. According to this American psychologist and author, language acquisition takes place by means of operant conditioning mechanisms.

In the beginning, children imitate the sounds they hear in the language adults use. Then, they begin to associate certain words with different situations, objects, or actions.

However, if children use improper constructions, pronounce the wrong way, or say bad words, adults punish them or disapprove of their incorrect language.

“The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again.”

– B. F. Skinner – 

Theories About Language Acquisition

Language is something that’s very complex, and the Behaviorism Theory falls a bit short at explaining it. It doesn’t contemplate any stage of language acquisition. According to this theory, language is simply a summation.

Nor does it explain why all children follow a similar process of language development. The positive aspect of this approach is that subsequent studies will contemplate the context and a child’s way of speaking.

Chomsky’s psycholinguistic theory: The innateness hypothesis

According to Chomsky, language develops based on innate structures. According to this author, there’s a factor called the “language acquisition device.” This factor is something innate that exists in an individual’s biological and genetic factors, and determines the acquisition and development of language.

Departing from this device, children are capable of elaborating well-structured sentences and comprehending how they should use grammatical rules.

According to the innateness hypothesis, no relationship exists between language and thought, and both processes are independent. For that reason, current studies aren’t in agreement with this theory. However, today’s experts do agree that human beings have an innate tendency toward language acquisition.

The Bruner theory: The pragmatic approach

Bruner’s approach attempts to look for a third path that takes into account constructivism and social interaction. It seeks to fill the gap between the impossible and the miraculous (Skinner’s immigration and Chomsky innateness).

Bruner, an American psychologist, concentrated his studies on social interaction. He believed that proper interaction frameworks must exist in order for learning to take place. This is called scaffolding.

He introduced the concept of the “Language Acquisition Support Systems” (LASS). Within this support system, the author describes baby talk – the language that adults use to address little ones. It helps children so that they can extract the structure and rules of language. Bruner maintained that children will learn to speak by interacting with their mothers.

Baby talk is characterized as being a slow, brief, repetitive, and simple language that focuses on the concrete (here and now). Studies have demonstrated that even 4-year-olds use this language to talk to smaller children.

Piaget’s theory on language acquisition

According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piagetlanguage and thought are two processes that are intimately related. Cognitive processes and structures preceded the appearance of language.

The proper development of these cognitive processes allows for the appearance and development of language. But once a child acquires language, it contributes to better thought development.

“Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.”

– Jean Piaget –

Theories About Language Acquisition

Vygotsky’s theory: The sociocultural approach

Soviet psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky believed that the development of language and thought in children develop independently. Subsequently, children begin to develop private speech. In other words, they talk to themselves in order to resolve problems and relax in the face of tension. Language, therefore, becomes an instrument to regulate conduct.

By the time children reach the age of 4, the confluence of language and thought begins. Children manage to go from external private speech to internal speech.

From that point on, language becomes more intellectual and thoughts are verbalized. In other words, there’s a confluence between language and thought. So, according to Vigotsky, language, which begins as a social phenomenon, ends up being an individual intrapsychic phenomenon.

“A word void of thought is a dead thing, the same way that a thought not accompanied by words remains in the shadows.”

– Vygotsky –

What to keep in mind regarding theories about language acquisition

Considering the most recognized points of these different theories about language acquisition, we can conclude that children possess an innate capacity that predisposes them to language learning. Furthermore, in order for language to develop correctly, children need an adequate environment that allows for the development of both language and thought.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.