Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. Language acquisition usually refers to first language acquisition, which studies infants' acquisition of their native language, rather than second language acquisition that deals with acquisition in both children and adults of additional languages.
There have been debates throughout history on how humans or rather infants acquire or learn language. The first known theory in history has come from Plato; he felt that the word-meaning mapping in some form was innate. Sanskrit grammarians debated over twelve centuries whether meaning was god-given (possibly innate) or was learned from older convention - e.g. a child learning the word for cow by listening to trusted speakers talking about cows. In modern times, empiricists argued that knowledge language emerge ultimately from abstracted sense impressions. Under Behaviourism, it was argued that language may be learned through a form of operant conditioning. This behaviourist idea was strongly attacked by Noam Chomsky in a review article in 1959, calling it ‘largely mythology’ and a ‘serious delusion’. Instead, Chomsky argued for a more theoretical approach, based on a study of syntax.
There are 3 general approaches that have been identified with which is the social interactionism with its theory consists of a number of hypotheses on language acquisition. These hypotheses deal with written, spoken, or visual social tools which consist of complex systems of symbols and rules on language acquisition and development. They are the language behaviours that nature provides innately and the behaviours that are realized by environmental exposure, which is nurture. The second approach is the relational frame theory that provides a wholly selectionist/learning account of the origin and development of language competence and complexity. Based upon the principles of Skinnerian behaviorism, RFT posits that children acquire language purely through interacting with the environment. The third approach is Emergentism theories which posit that language acquisition is a cognitive process that emerges from the interaction of biological pressures and the environment. According to these theories, neither nature nor nurture alone is sufficient to trigger language learning; both of these influences must work together in order to allow children to acquire a language.
Children first acquire language as infants by hearing the language from their immediate surroundings such as their parents. They have their own complex way of communication which is crying to show unpleasant means and smiling or cooing to show pleasant means. Infants are aware of sounds and their potential significance. By four months of age, babies can read lips and discriminate speech sounds. By six months, infants turn to more language-like which is babbling or consonant-vowel sequences. Infants use appropriate stress and intonation to express meaning and to distinguish among such things as statements, questions and commands. The relationship between babbling and words is non linear which indicates babbling as 60-80% during 10-11 months of age but decreases in 2-4 months later; words increased from 10-20% to 40-50% during this and there is a point where this line will cross each other’s path. Once this occurs, there seems to be a drop-off in the amount of babbling.
Children use words to fulfill a number of functions such as refer to objects, such as ba for bottle. This indicates a wide range of grammatical functions, such as commands (I want my bottle) or serves social functions, such as bye and hi. One word in child language can refer to 2 words in adults’ language. Children often use overextension – 1 word refers to many things such as bear to refer to a stuffed toy lion and a picture of a tiger or a physical object placed on a head (e.g., a book) can be referred to as a hat. They also use under extension - using words with more restricted meanings than the word has in adult usage. Children’s speech sounds and pronunciation are not exactly identical to that of adult speech. They often substitutes because children clearly can perceive a difference, although they do not make the difference in their own speech. Then, their speech becomes telegraphic: much like the ones commonly used when sending a telegram. Children go through the same developmental stages, although not necessarily at the same rate.
The studies of second language acquisition are only 40–45 years which is considered a young field. It examines how second languages are learned and the acquisition of a language beyond the native language and also how learners create a new language system with only limited exposure to a second language. This is then expanded into 3 schools of thoughts which are the main characteristics of language learning which is behaviourism, cognitivisim and constructivism. Behaviourism emerged in 1940s and 1950s and focuses only on the objectively observable aspects of learning. Learning is based on human responses that can be perceived, recorded and measured. It used the scientific approach. In teaching, we need to teach students good habits to learn. There are two typical models which is Classical conditioning (Pavlov’s dog) and Operant conditioning (Skinner’s boxes). Conditioning is a 3-stage procedure which is stimulus, response & reinforcement. Educational approaches of this school includes applied behavior analysis, curriculum based measurement and direct instruction. Notable behaviorists are Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner who is famous for his book, Verbal Behavior.
The second school of thoughts is cognitivism which looks beyond behaviour to explain brain-based learning. It requires significance of meaning, understanding, and knowing. Cognitivists criticises behaviorists for being too dependent on overt behavior to explain learning. They also consider how human memory works to promote learning such as the ability of short term and long term memory. There are two key assumptions which are that the memory system is an active organised processor of information and that prior knowledge plays an important role in learning. Aspects of cognitivism can be found in learning how to learn, social role acquisition, intelligence, learning and memory as related to age. Notable cognitivists are like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen.
The third school of thoughts is constructivism which is a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge or experience. It is very personal in that it internalised concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world contexts. Knowledge is constructed when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks. It promotes a student's free exploration within a given framework or structure. Teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems. Aspects of constructivism can be found in self-directed learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, situated cognition, reflective practice and religious practice. Notable constructivists include Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Immanuel Kant.