Language Acquasition Essay

This essay has a total of 3284 words and 12 pages.

Language Acquasition

How do children acquire language? What are the processes of language acquisition? How do
infants respond to speech? Language acquisition is the process of learning a native or a
second language. Although how children learn to speak is not perfectly understood, most
explanations involve both the observations that children copy what they hear and the
inference that human beings have a natural aptitude for understanding grammar. Children
usually learn the sounds and vocabulary of their native language through imitation, (which
helps them learn to pronounce words correctly), and grammar is seldom taught to them, but
instead that they rapidly acquire the ability to speak grammatically. Though, not all
children learn by imitation alone. Children will produce forms of language that adults
never say. For example, "I spilled milk on hisself" or "Debbie wants a cookie". This
demonstrates that children have the desire to speak correctly and have self-motivating
traits to communicate. This supports the theory of Noam Chomsky (1972)-that children are
able to learn grammar of a particular language because all intelligible languages are
founded on a deep structure of universal grammatical rules that corresponds to an innate
capacity of the human brain. Adults learning a second language pass through some of the
same stages, as do children learning their native language. In the first part of this
paper I will describe the process of language acquisition. The second part will review how
infants respond to speech.

Language is multifaceted. It contains both verbal and non-verbal aspects that children
seem to acquire quickly. Before birth, virtually all the neurons (nerve cells) are formed,
and they migrate into their proper locations in the brain in the infant. When a baby is
born, it can see and hear and smell and respond to touch, but their perceptions are
limited at such a young age. The brain stem, a primitive region that controls vital
functions like heartbeat and breathing, has completed its wiring. Elsewhere the
connections between neurons are wispy and weak. But over the first few months of life, the
brain's higher centers explode with new synapses. "For the large majority of people, the
dominant area in language processing is in the middle of the left hemisphere of the brain,
in particular in Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area" (Siegler, 1998, p. 142). This helps an
infant to be biologically prepared to face the stages of language acquisition. According
to the textbook "Children's Thinking", written by Robert S. Siegler (1998) there are four
main components to language acquisition. These components are phonology, semantics
(meaning), grammar (syntax), and communication (pragmatics). Phonology is the study of how
speech sounds are organized and how they function. It is the main linguistic
accomplishment during the first year of life. The phonology of language refers to
fundamental sounds units and the rules for combining them. Each language has a certain
number of sounds called phonemes. Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound that affects the
meaning of a word. Infants are able to identify hundreds of variations of sounds. For
example, an infant who is 6 months old can detect the difference between "ma" and "pa".
According to Siegler (1998), "most children do not gain full phonological competence until
roughly school age"(p. 147). An infant's first year is mainly receiving messages but also
working on being able to produce messages. As they physically develop, infants form the
ability to make sounds. Some of these initial sounds are cooing, vowel-like utterances
occasionally accompanied by consonants and babbling, which are consonant-vowel
combinations (Siegler, 1998). During the first 6 months of life, physiological changes,
such as the shape of oral cavity, tongue development, motor control of lips, and tooth
eruption, also take place that contribute to speech development. One of the infant's tasks
is to identify phonemes or the melodies of parent's voice patterns. According to the film,
Discovering Psychology: Language Development (2001), infants show an early sensitivity to
prosody, which is fluctuations of the voice, patterns of intonations, and melodies/rhythms
in speech that communicate the meaning that's contributes the context. This rise-fall
theory of melodies is universal across cultures. Infants read adults patterns of speech
associated within a context and learn the meaning of language. For example, if a child
were about to engage in a dangerous situation, such as crawling by a flight of stairs, a
mother would convey her message by telling her infant to "Stop! No! Don't do that!" in a
louder voice and in a sharp tone. In contrast, a melody that may be comforting to the
infant is when the mother is using "motherese", such as before they are to fall asleep to
help the infant feel secure and safe. This helps infants to learn the phonology of their
language and prepares them for the next stage of learning, which is semantics.

Semantics is the meaning of words or combination of words. It is the meaning in a
language. Shortly before babies have their first birthday, they begin to understand words,
and around that birthday, they start to produce them (Clark, 1993). Usually, when an
infant produces their first words, they refer to "objects and actions that interest them,
that they are relatively concrete, and that they want" (Siegler, 1998, p. 149). This
one-word stage lasts about 12 months to18 months. Most of the words infants produce are
objects: food (juice, cookie), body parts (eyes, nose), vehicles (car, boat, plane), toys
(blocks, doll), animals (cat, dog), and people (baby, mama/dada). At this time children
usually intertwine the use of gestures and words to call attention to an object or an
event, most often issuing a command or a request. According to Bee (2000), an infant who
wants something or doesn't want something will manipulate their parent to change their
surroundings. For example, "A baby who wants you to hand her favorite toy may stretch and
reach for it, opening and closing her hand, making whining sounds or other heartrending
noises" (Bee, 2000, p. 230-231). For another example, a child might throw their bottle
down to show that they no longer want it or they may point at specific objects they want
the parent to see. Children will also use gestures as well as one-word phrases. This is
called holophrases. Siegler (1998) quote holophrases "express the meaning of the entire
phrases" (p. 149). In this case, a child would say "ball" to communicate that they "want
the ball" or "the dog took the ball". Around 18 months, language changes in two ways.
Vocabulary growth increases and the child begins to learn words at a rate of one every two
waking hours, and will keep learning that rate or faster through adolescence (Clark,
1993). This is called "language explosion".

Primitive syntax begins with two-word sentences such as "all gone", "all messy", "I sit",
"no bed", and "see baby". Grammatical use is needed when a child has knowledge of more
than one word in order to convey their message and they tend to acquire many of the
grammatical rules as they begin to produce sentences. "…Young children are motivated to
learn grammar, even when they can communicate well without learning them and are not
corrected for grammatical errors" (Siegler, 1998, p. 157). The child utterances in this
two-word stage are described as telegraphic because they contain only the elements
necessary for getting the message across, leaving out modifiers and prepositions (Bee,
2000). Syntax is important because the child learns to combine words correctly of
grammatically. It is at this stage that the child learns to express internal states and
also to direct the actions of others. "…Children seem to evidence a sophisticated
understanding of so-called motivational mental states, such as intentions and desires, by
18 to 24 months of age" (Sabbagh & Baldwin, 2001, p. 1055). Children have desires to learn
how to speak grammatically correctly and they speak correctly when the "grammatical
markings" are produced where they should be or where they expected them to be within a
sentence (Siegler, 1998). Furthermore, children showed better word learning when the
speaker was knowledgeable (Sabbagh &Baldwin, 2001).

In Sabbagh and Baldwin's study (2001), a speaker was labeled "ignorant" if the speaker
showed uncertainty toward a toy. A speaker was labeled "knowledgeable" if they did not
show uncertainty toward the toy but only showed that he has not made a decision yet. For
example, in the uncertainty condition, the experimenter said, "my friend said one of these
toys she made is a modi, but I don't know which one." In the knowledgeable condition, the
experimenter said, "I would really like to call one of these toys a modi, but I don't know
which one." The results indicated that 3 and 4 year olds did not show word learning when
the speaker showed signs of ignorance. "Four-year-olds base their word learning on
inferences about a speaker's knowledge state, and not on the speakers hesitancy.
3-year-olds did not appear to do the same… the 3-year-olds showed poorer evidence than
the 4-year olds, showing that 3-year olds word learning was based on hesitancy" (Sabbagh &
Baldwin, 2001, p. 1066).

Pragmatics is the rules for using language effectively within a social context. For
example, when a preschooler yells out "Give me that book!" she may be unaware that this
"order" to her teacher is socially unacceptable. Parents play a significant role in
teaching the child what is socially acceptable and what is not. They do this by reminding
the child to always say "Thank you", "Please", "Excuse me", and "I'm sorry" and to use
other socially acceptable manners. Parents also act as models by acting out what they are
requesting from the child. According to the film, Discovering Psychology: Language
Development (2001), there are 3 features that comprise the rules of conversation which
are, opening conservation, the willingness to converse ("Hi-"Hello"); understanding the
unwritten rules of turn taking in a conservation; and closing a conservation by mutual
agreements ("Bye"-"Bye"). If conservation is not mutual, a speaker or party may leave
feeling distressed or confused. Normal children can differ by a year or more in their rate
of language development, though the stages they pass through are generally the same
regardless of how compressed they seem. In addition, "if children have parents who talk to
them often, read to them regularly, and use a wide range of words in their speech, they
begin to talk sooner, develop larger vocabularies, use more complex sentences, and learn
to read more readily when they reach school age" (Bee, 2000, p. 245).
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