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How Do Human Infants Acquire a Language?

Verbal communication is a singular characteristic exclusive to the human species. This fact triggered many subsequent questions among linguists concerning the nature of human abilities to acquire a language, a large portion of them being on the border of linguistics, philosophy, neurobiology, and psychology. The topic has proved to be of great interest to many prolific linguistic scholars of today, and, therefore, several theories of language acquisition have been proposed. They include behaviorism, innateness, socio-cultural, interactionist, and others, with every theory having its strong points and weaknesses. Therefore, language acquisition is a complex issue that, although studied by many scholars, has many scientific gaps, is characterized by conflicting descriptions, and remains open to research by the next generation.

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One of the first explanations of language acquisition in children to arise was the one utilizing the Behaviorist approach, founded by J.B. Watson. It constitutes a branch of philosophical and psychological thought that involved names like Pavlov, Skinner, and the philosopher Locke. Çakıroğlu (2018) notes that according to one of the leading proponents of this theory, Skinner, language skills development is a natural process based on a person’s own experience. Thus, the Behaviorists do not believe in the need for any factors other than direct practice in language learning. However, this theory does not consider the biological and neurological aspects and cannot answer the question in its entirety.

Another major line of thought is Chomsky’s theory of the innateness of language, also called the linguistic approach, which is on the other side of the spectrum from the behaviorists. Çakıroğlu (2018) asserts that according to this theory, humans possess a predisposition and an innate ability to language. Contrary to the Behaviorists, with their belief language is a skill, Chomsky postulates language as a human-only feature.

In practice, mastering a language is an incredibly comprehensive process. An example is my observation of my niece’s speech development from birth. The first sound of the baby is screaming, which is a non-verbal signal. Subsequently, at 2-3 months, the child begins to make sounds, in which it is already possible to distinguish specific prototypes of future phonemic structures. Closer to the year, the baby, with enthusiasm, tries to pronounce the first words. At 1.5 years old, a real breakthrough occurs, and the child’s vocabulary is expanding rapidly, and at 2 years old, children try to pronounce the first phrases. At about 3 years old, they begin to speak with more complex structures and whole sentences. As they grow older, the child builds up vocabulary. Thus, language acquisition continues for several years, gradually becoming more complicated.

The above example can be compared with the linguistic approach, which experientially proves to be one with the most objective claims to becoming a universally accepted explanation for infant language acquisition. Torkildsen and Horst (2019) claim that to acquire the language, children simply needed exposure to it. The ability to take apart a running stream of sounds and start extracting meaningful words from it can only be explained by humans’ innate predisposition to verbal language.

The further development of speech skills can already be described using the behaviorist approach since language acquisition is also associated with constant practice, including audio perception, reading books, and watching videos. Thus, in practice, language acquisition has features of various theories, even which are considered to be opposite.

The human ability to pick up verbal communicative skills is truly astonishing. Although the question of how the human species arrived at such a state of evolution remains open, an enormous amount of work has been done to study language acquisition in infancy. The methods and theories based on them differ immensely, with many contradicting one another, so it becomes impossible to distill a single unified theory that would explain the extraordinary speed at which infants can learn a language. Based on the above examples, it can be concluded that language acquisition theories complement each other, and with their help, the development of speech skills can be described most fully.

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Works Cited

Çakıroğlu, Ahmed. “The Language Acquisition Approaches and the Development of Literacy Skills in Children.” International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, vol. 11, no. 2, 2018, pp. 201-206.

Torkildsen, Janne von Koss and Jessica Horst, editors. International Handbook of Language Acquisition. Taylor & Francis, 2019.

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