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 observation 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, and grammar is seldom taught to them; that they rapidly acquire the ability to speak grammatically. This supports the theory of Noam Chomsky (1959). that children are able to learn the 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 only dimly. 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. This helps an infant to be biologically prepared to face the stages of language acquisition.
According to the textbook Child Development: A Thematic Approach, 3rd Edition (D. Bukatko & M.W. Daehler, 1996, p. 252) there are four main components to language acquisition. These components are phonology, semantics, syntax and 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 six months old can detect the difference between ma and pa.
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. 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 infants task is to identify phonemes. According to the textbook (D.Bukatko & M.W. Daehler, 1996, p. 202) infants show an early sensitivity to prosody, which is patterns of intonation, stress, and rhythm that communicate meaning in speech; the fluctuations of the voice. For example, raising your voice to ask a question or lowering it to let the infant know you are serious. 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. Shortly before babies have their first birthday, they begin to understand words, and around that birthday, they start to produce them (Clark, 1993). Words are usually produced in isolation. This one-word stage can last from two months to a year. Children’s first words are similar all over the planet. About half the words are for objects: food (juice, cookie), body parts (eye, nose), clothing (diaper, sock), vehicles (car, boat), toys (doll, block), and household items (bottle, light, animals (dog, kitty), and people (dada, baby). At this time children usually start to use gestures to call attention to an object or event defined as protodeclarative communication. Protoimperative communication is the use of a gesture to issue a command or request. For example a child throws his bottle down to show that they no longer want it or they point at specific objects they want the parent to see.
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). Primitive syntax begins with two-word strings such as all dry, all messy, all wet, I sit, I shut, no bed, no pee, see baby and see pretty. 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. Syntax is important because the child learns to combine words correctly or grammatically. It is at this stage the child learns to express internal states and also to direct the actions of others.
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” and “Please” and to use other socially acceptable manners. They also act as models by acting out what they are requesting from the child.
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 stretched out or compressed they seem.
Infants respond to speech in various ways. Infants communicate through crying, fussing, smiling, body movements, and other nonverbal behaviors. With repeated interactions, their parents, families, and other significant caregivers interpret the meaning of these signals and respond accordingly. Both participants, parents and child, are part of a unique conversation. For example, a typical conversation a parent may say is “Look at daddy. Look at daddy.” The infant’s face turns in the direction of the voice and daddy exclaims, “She’s looking at me! She’s looking at me!” This is called a language-body conversation because the parent speaks and the infant answers with a physical response such as looking, smiling, laughing, turning, walking, reaching, grasping, holding, sitting, running, and so forth.
These conversations continue for many months before the child utters anything more intelligible than “mommy” or “daddy.” Although the infant is not yet speaking, the child is imprinting a linguistic map of how the language works. Silently, the child is internalizing the patterns and sounds of the target language. When the child has decoded enough of the target language, speaking appears spontaneously. The infant’s speech will not be perfect, but gradually, the child’s utterances will approximate more and more that of a native speaker.
Through these early exchanges, infants discover that their behaviors regarding language have a powerful effect on their caregivers and they soon develop more efficient ways to communicate.
In a study, found in an article on the Internet, the author reports, Peter Jusczyk (1997) found that at 4 1/2 months, babies respond to their own names. But the response is largely undifferentiated from other kinds of speech, just like a child might respond to “Hi”, without knowing what it means. Infants can be offered certain nonsense words or sounds and will appear excited because it is part of a routine that has been established by parent and the infant.
The understanding and use of language to communicate begins early in life. Babies initially interact with their world by:
·Crying and squealing to show hunger or pain.
·Exploring objects by banging them together, throwing, or mouthing them.
·Copying other people’s actions e.g. Waving bye-bye.
·Blowing raspberries, to show excitement and pleasure.
·Using their faces to communicate e.g. Smiling, frowning.
Hearing is an important factor in a child’s ability to develop normal speech and language skills. Newborns build a foundation for these skills by hearing voices and environmental sounds. If hearing loss is not detected at this early stage, a child’s language development is significantly delayed (Chen 1999). Frequently, parents are the first to notice a problem with their child’s hearing. If a child is not responding appropriately to audio stimulus, the parent may want to request a hearing test and other evaluations. Hearing loss affects speech and language development, which inevitably impacts academic performance and communication skills. A child’s communication is considered delayed when the child is noticeably behind his or her peers in the acquisition of speech and/or language skills. Speech disorders refer to difficulties producing speech sounds or problems with voice quality. They might be characterized by an interruption in the flow or rhythm of speech, such as stuttering, which is called dysfluency. Speech disorders may be problems with the way sounds are formed, called articulation or phonological disorders, or they may be difficulties with the pitch, volume or quality of the voice.
Right from birth, all of the senses are operational. Babies reacts to pain, heat, cold and certainly, to touch. The newborn seems to distinguish certain kinds of sounds, smells, and even tastes. Language acquisition seems to happen at lightning speed. The challenge in this paper was explaining how kids pick up language so rapidly. There are many questions about when infants start to hear and respond to sound. Colleagues credit Peter Jusczyk (1997) for being one of the key experimentalists to bridge the gap between the study of infant speech perception and language development. It is his belief that “the very seeds of language learning, in fact, start to develop in the womb.” Just last week, in the U.S. alone, some 77,000 newborns began the miraculous process of wiring their brains for a lifetime of learning. During a child’s development, there are a series of time periods, or “windows,” in which a child can best learn or refine a particular ability, such as speech. After this time period is over it becomes much more difficult, sometimes impossible, for the child to learn the same thing.
With this in mind, it is important for researchers to continue to observe and learn about language acquisition. Where it starts (the womb) to what critical periods an infant or child will have the greatest window of opportunity is very important if we are going to overcome some of the language disabilities that we have. In a world where babies are born prematurely and mothers are having drug exposed and positive toxic babies, it is imperative that the research continues.
Chen, Deborah, Ph.D. (1999) Learning to Communicate: Communications Issue XII, California State University, Northridge
Chomsky, N. (1981) Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Foris Publications.
Clark, E. V. (1993) The Lexicon in Acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press
Jusczyk, Peter (1997) Johns Hopkins University. Mama! Dada! Origin of Language Pegged At 6 Months. Released: 16 February 1999