Some will bring the nature versus nurture debate even to this part of psychology. However, most of today’s researchers are beginning to find that both nature and nurture play an important role in early childhood development, including language acquisition. Receptive language comes before expressive language, which explains why young children will follow instructions even if they do not verbally respond to them.
It is also equally relevant to note that cognitive psychology is a relatively new field when compared to other disciplines within psychology. Therefore, as society and human beings continue to evolve so does our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of language acquisition, the thought process, and other aspects of the human mind.
A child’s mind has often been compared to a sponge; absorbing all information, both helpful and harmful. However, that is not the only aspect of early childhood behavioral patterns and language learning. Through careful observation and extensive research, researchers have found that infants seem to have personality traits, even ones that differ greatly from that of their parents. This proves that not all behavior and language are learned from environmental factors.
Looking at both sides of the spectrum and listening to various ideas and theories is what will allow us to determine our own understanding of the subject.
Theories of Language Acquisition
During the course of the past fifty years, several theories were devised to explain language acquisition in children. Some of the more popular theories are as follows.
The behaviorist theories suggest that children imitate adults. It states that their parents reinforce correct speech and are praised when they have spoken correctly. The individual most associated with this theory is Burrhus Frederic Skinner. However, it seems incorrect to associate Skinner with this theory as many psychologists during his time and even before his time believed that this was true.
The behaviorist theory has some very large flaws, however. The questions that many modern psychologists ask are:
The nativist theories suggest that a child’s brain contains special language learning mechanisms at birth. There is strong evidence to support this theory. In 1981, Derek Bickerton studied immigrant populations with parents who spoke “pidgin-English” or grammatically incorrect English. Their children spoke neither English nor the syntax-less version of their parents. Instead, they developed their own grammatically rich language now known as Hawaii Creole English.
The emergentist theories, also known as cognitive language theories, suggest that neither nature nor nurture is responsible for language development and that both work together while the child is developing their linguistic skills.
The relational frame theory, also known as the interaction theory, suggests that children acquire language purely through interacting with their environment. It separates itself from the behaviorist theories by defining a learning process known as derived relational responding. This theory opposes the nativist theory by stating that there are no such language learning mechanisms in the brain.