Do you know what word you first spoke? Have you ever considered how many words you have learned over your lifetime? Many psychologists estimate we learn around 3,500 words a year between our first birthday and before we are 30. We grow from infants without language to chatterboxes with a gift for gab, and researchers are fascinated by how this happens.
Psychologists have different theories on language acquisition, or the process by which we learn to speak, write, or even use sign language in meaningful ways to communicate.
Theories of Language Acquisition
Behaviorists, like B.F. Skinner (who lived from 1904-1990), argued that language acquisition and development are learned behaviors. Behaviorists believe we learn by associating events, known as classical conditioning. We also learn through rewards and punishments, a process known as operant conditioning. Another aspect of behaviorism is that we learn by observation and imitation.
How do these theories of learning apply to language acquisition? Over repeated exposures, infants may learn to associate an object with a sound or word for that object. When an infant babbles ‘dada,’ the infant is rewarded by smiling and happy parents who cheer and reward their child’s efforts at communicating. And infants may learn language by observing caregivers and imitating their sounds.
Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky (born in 1928) has added to how behaviorists like Skinner think about language development. Chomsky believes that infants and children learn language at a speed that cannot simply be explained by the laws of behaviorism. According to Chomsky, children learning language put words together in new ways, creating meaningful sentences they have never heard before. Chomsky argues that children learn rules of language and apply them in their own way, often inaccurately at first. Because children would not have heard adults using rules of language so inaccurately, Chomsky came up with another theory on language development.
Chomsky’s linguistic theory states that we are born with an innate ability to learn language, and with little guidance, children will naturally learn language. Chomsky argues we must be born with a language acquisition device, an area in our brains that makes learning language a natural event. As evidence, he points to the idea that children all over the world learn language in similar ways, regardless of their culture or the language they learn to speak.
Recent research on language seeks to understand whether or not humans have a critical period for acquiring language. As we age, language acquisition becomes more difficult, especially for adults learning a new language. Children learning new languages outperform adults learning new languages in terms of learning vocabulary, applying rules of grammar, and speaking with the correct accent. The critical period hypothesisstates that we have a time frame for learning new language, and once that time is over, language acquisition becomes much more difficult.