Critically discuss the position that reinforcement plays no significant part in first language acquisition.
This essay will critically evaluate the position that reinforcement plays no significant role in first language acquisition. Reinforcement can be defined as any activity, either a reward-positive, or punishment-negative reinforcement, intended to strengthen or extinguish a response or behaviour, making it’s occurrence more or less probable, intense or frequent (McGraw-hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine, 2002). First language acquisition refers to the process of one learning their first language (Clark, 2000). The aim of this essay is to critically analyse the role in which reinforcement plays in first language acquisition through existing literature and experiments, and from this gather significant results and findings to accurately answer this question. This will involve extensive research on how children learn a system that requires mastery of the sound system, a huge vocabulary, grammatical rules, meanings, and rules for usage, as well as articulatory skill, auditory discrimination, memory storage, recognition, and retrieval. What may be innate and what learned in this complex task has long intrigued psychologists, linguists and philosophers (Bloom, 1993).
Due to the anti-behaviourist trends in recent decades in the area of language acquisition, there has been major doubt on the impact of reinforcement during first language acquisition (Moerk, 1983). Roger Brown, one of the founders of the modern study of language development, identified a framework based on stages to understand and predict the path that normal expression language development usually takes (Bowen, 1998). Brown provided authoritative assertions on the insignificance of the absence of mother-child interactions without independent evaluations (Moerk, 1983). To reassess these evaluations, the transcripts of Brown were reanalysed and an experiment was designed using samples of two children’s, Adam and Eve, interactions with their mothers. Adam was between 27 and 35 months old and Eve between 18 and 27 months during the time of data collection. Thirty-nine teaching techniques of the mothers and thirty-seven learning strategies of the children were differentiated. The teaching techniques included conditioned positive reinforcement, obvious linguistic corrections, conditioned punishment, several forms of less obvious corrections, and various forms of modelling. Frequencies of techniques as well as frequencies of specific linguistic constructions in the input were counted. Patterns of interactions were established by means of transitional probabilities between the techniques and strategies. The interactions between the mothers and the children exhibited not only a considerable degree of structure, that is, the patterns occurred with a frequency that by far surpassed chance co-occurrences, but they also appeared largely to be instructionally highly meaningful. Since only a small part of the differentiated phenomena could be readily accounted for by learning theoretical conceptualizations, it is furthermore concluded that these conceptualizations do not seem to be sufficient though they appear to be necessary to account for some aspects of language acquisition (Moerk, 1983).
The debate of the process of language acquisition has been largely argued over for the last 50 years. Stimulated by Chomsky’s (1959) review of Skinner’s (1957) Verbal Behaviour, Chomsky argued that Skinner’s assumptions of the environmental factors could not account for language acquisition. It is easy to see how this issue remains unresolved when we look at simple examples such as pets which are brought up in household’s, obviously all animals lack the ability to learn a language therefore rejecting the idea that environmental factors play a role in language acquisition. While on the other hand children from different parts of the world grow up learning...
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