WILLIAM O’GRADY | SOOK WHAN CHO
First language acquisition
The only language [people] ever speak perfectly is the
one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach
NOTHING IS MORE important to a child’s development than the acquisition of language. Most children acquire language quickly and effortlessly, giving the impression that the entire process is simple and straightforward. However, the true extent of children’s achievement becomes evident when we compare their success with the difficulties encountered by adults who try to learn a second language. Understanding how children the world over are able to master the complexities of human language in the space of a few short years has become one of the major goals of contemporary linguistic research.
This chapter provides a brief overview of the progress that has been made in this area. We will begin by considering the research strategies used by linguists and psychologists in the study of linguistic development. We will then describe some of the major findings concerning children’s acquisition of the various parts of their language—phonology, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and semantics. The chapter concludes with a brief examination of the contribution of the linguistic environment to language acquisition, the relationship between the emergence of language and cognitive development, and the possible existence of inborn linguistic knowledge.
The study of language acquisition
Although we commonly refer to the emergence of language in children as ‘language acquisition’, the end result of this process is actually a grammar—the mental system that allows people to speak and understand a language. There are at least two reasons for believing that the development of linguistic skills must involve the acquisition of a grammar. First, mature language users are able to produce and understand an unlimited number of novel sentences. This can only happen if, as children, they have acquired the grammar for their language. Simple memorization of a fixed inventory of words and sentences would not equip learners to deal with previously unheard utterances—a basic requisite of normal language use.
First language acquisition
A second indication that children acquire grammatical rules comes from their speech errors, which often provide valuable clues about how the acquisition process works. Even run-of-the-mill errors such as *doed, *runned, and *goed can be informative. Since adults don’t talk that way, such errors tell us that children don’t just imitate what they hear. Rather, they create rules of their own to capture the regularities that they observe in the speech of those around them.
Because language acquisition involves the emergence of a grammar, its study is closely tied to the type of linguistic analysis with which we have been concerned in preceding chapters. Indeed, linguists and psychologists studying language acquisition must often look to the study of phonology, morphology, and syntax for help in identifying and describing the grammatical system that children acquire during the first years of life.
The majority of research on the acquisition of language focuses on children’s early utterances, the order in which they emerge, and the kinds of errors they contain. Two complementary methods of data collection are used—naturalistic observation and experimentation.
In the naturalistic approach, investigators observe and record children’s spontaneous utterances. One type of naturalistic investigation is the so-called diary study, in which a researcher (often a parent) keeps daily notes on a child’s linguistic progress. Here’s a short example, drawn from a diary tracking a child’s early vocabulary development. Date
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