How Children Learn Language

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HOW CHILDREN LEARN LANGUAGE

By : Ahmadrawi

The writer can be contacted at:

scholars.assist@gmail.com

1. OVERVIEW
The exact way in which millions of developing children get to the point where they can produce and understand millions of words and make sentences out of it is the subject of a heated debate in the psycholinguistic field. According to Saxton (2010,p.18), the study on how children learn language can be traced back to the German biologist, Tiedermann, in 1787. However, up until the late 1950’s, it is generally agreed that approach to child language research is at best haphazardly organized. Research for example was often limited to a generally informal observations (for example research done by Lukens,1894) or diary studies which were conducted by researchers on their own children (for example as were done by Taine,1877 and Marsden,1902). The total number of research on child language done prior to 1952 was significantly small. Leopold (1952 cited in Saxton,2010,p.18) had conducted a bibliographic survey of child language studies covering every possible source he could find including works in language other than English. In his survey above, Leopold found that the total number of research on child language from a period spanning a century amounted to just 746 published works. In the late 1950s however, this figure has grown exponentially due to the works by two Boston based academics-Roger Brown and Noam Chomsky (Saxton,2010,p.18). Chomsky, in particular, is instrumental in formulating a theory which fuelled the debate on children language acquisition. The debate referred above is commonly called the “Nature versus Nurture” debate in psycholinguistics literature and Chomsky theory that fuelled the debate is his Nativism theory or Innate theory of language development. 2. THE NATURE VERSUS NURTURE DEBATE

The nature against nurture debate centered around the polemic of whether language is partly due to nature or wholly due to learning or nurture. The polemic is not new in that it has been discussed for centuries, for examples, it was the topic of one’s of Plato’s dialogue, the Cratylus. The modern treatment of the polemic was ignited by Chomsky 1959’s scathing review of Verbal Behavior, a 1957 book by the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner (Aitchison,2008,p.8). The effect of the debate between these two academicians is so profound to the extent that the modern version of the nature versus nurture debate is known as the Chomsky-Skinner Debate (Harris,1992,p.2). In his 1957 book, Skinner proposed that young children learn language the same way they learn everything else : through imitation, reinforcement, and other established principles of conditioning (Weiten,2011, p.326). In other words, Skinner proposed that young children learn their “verbal behaviour” using the same ordinary learning mechanisms (i.e. association and induction) they use to learn other behaviours-which by the way, are the same learning mechanisms used by rats and pigeons (Tomasello,2003,p.2). Skinner’s claim , in fact, was based on his work with rats and pigeons. He had proved that, given time, rats and pigeons could be trained to perform an amazing variety of seemingly complex tasks, as long as two basic requirements are adhered to- firstly, the tasks must be broken down into a number of carefully graduated steps and secondly the animals must be repeatedly rewarded. Skinner’s typical experiment involves a rat which was put in a box containing a bar. If it pressed the bar, it would be rewarded with a pellet of food. There was no stimulus for the rat to press the bar i.e. it pressed the bar on its own will. The first time, it possibly did so accidentally, when the rat found that the food arrived, it pressed the bar again. Eventually, the rat learned that if it was hungry, it could obtain the food by pressing the bar. Then the task was made more difficult. The rat would only be rewarded if it pressed the bar while a light...
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