Dan Slobin Analysis

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Analysing the ease, rapidity and uniformity of a complex, rule governed native language acquisition on the basis of sometimes, a rather slender database, by mere infants led Dan Slobin to hypothesize language or specifically natural language is an inherent human trait and can be grouped with other tasks like walking, grasping objects and recognising faces. He further elaborated his theory, pinpointing to similarities in native language acquisition by children growing up in varied speech communities. Underpinning this proposal are four assumptions. Firstly, that the basis of acquiring an initial rule dominant sound system is embedded in human specie along with a variety of simple cognitive abilities. Secondly, that this ability encompasses children acquiring any natural human language. Thirdly, infants will successfully acquire their speech community’s sound utterances irrespective of the socio-cultural composition. Fourthly, this learning will automatically occur irrespective of varying cognitive abilities and individual preferred styles of interaction with surrounding stimuli. Unfortunately, these characteristics of ease and rapidity of first language acquisition (FLA) does not automatically transfer to second language learning (SLL). Learning a second language still resides in the cognitive domain but evolves into a complex cognitive skill, as several factors like subject’s existing developed cognitive organisational structures, socio- cultural constituents, psychological and affective composition and diversity in individual learning styles mingle and interplay with an altered input. This paper will examine four assumptions supporting the FLA hypothesis propagated by Slobin, followed by a critical analysis of each one’s availability or the lack of it, to the learners of second language, referring to relevant linguistic theories.

Arguing against the innatist linguistic theory, proposed by Noam Chomsky (1965), which conceives of a Language Acquisition Device, existing prior to a baby’s interaction with the surrounding world, and as a psycholinguistic answer to his challenge that “knowledge of grammatical structures cannot arise by application of step by step inductive operations….of any sorts that has been developed within linguistics, psychology, or philosophy” (1965, p.58), Dan Slobin proposed cognition based “Operating Principle”(OP). O P denotes the “procedures” or “strategies” employed by Language Making Capacity (Slobin, 1971, 1973, 1982) of a child and is rooted in the cognitive domain. OPs are crucial prerequisite, internal structures employed to recognise the physical and social events programmed in incoming speech utterances. They are also a necessary ingredient for the perception, analysis and manipulation of language in a manner which will lead to an efficient acquisition of surrounding language. This acquisition process assimilates and accommodates the input to the existing structures. Endowed with an intrinsic definition of the general structure and function of language, the child actively attempts to comprehend the linguistic input. Research point to both cognitive and linguistic development to be interdependent as Bloom (1976, p.36) argued “an explanation of language development depends upon an explanation of the cognitive underpinnings of language.” Functional linguist like Kuno (1986) and linguists searching for distributional regularities across linguistic systems such as Greenberg (1978) and Hawkins (1983) have supported Slobin’s OP approach. However, as Bowerman (1988, pg.1281) pointed out that “What is missing from the OP approach is a theory of grammar: a conception of how surface variability is constrained by deeper syntactic principles, and the account of how children’s obedience to these principles guides their construction of a grammar for a particular language.”

Linguist have almost unanimously consented that the skill of learning a language whether it is first or second resides in the...
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