Language is one of the major forms of cognition that distinguishes humans from other species on the planet. Representatives of many other species tend to rely on sounds produced by voice as means of communication, some species even use partially learned systems of vocalisations; however, humans are the only species worldwide that is known to employ a limited system of sounds and symbols for the purpose of expressing and communicating an unlimited number of ideas and notions of varied complexity put into phrases and sentences or exclaimed using diverse words and speech sounds (Lemetyinen, 2012).
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As unique as this ability is when contrasted in humans and in other species, it is also remarkably innate for the former. In particular, as specified in the research by Rowland and Noble (2010), scientists could find and test the ability to comprehend and master complex language in children of increasingly young age; to be more precise, infants of only 12 months of age demonstrate the capacity to sense grammar mechanisms and understand sentences of causative structure (for example, depicting one character going something to another – such as a bear hugging a fox in a picture).
There exist multiple theoretical approaches to the acquisition of language, its development, and a mechanism or a device that allows human children subdivide and group the sounds they hear into words, sentences, and comprehend grammatical structures allowing them eventually to produce language using it for communication.
Theoretical Approaches to Language Acquisition
The research on language development in children, as well as the theories of language acquisition and multilingualism, has been going on for over six decades; however, throughout this time, the researchers and theorists have only developed more perspectives and drifted further apart from one another in points of view rather than approached to a certain common truth or a conclusion (Lemetyinen, 2012).
Some of the first attempts to explain the acquisition of language occurred in the 1950s when B. F. Skinner focused on this subject. As a behaviourist, Skinner argued that the acquisition of language by children happens due to the external reinforcement leading to the associating words with their meanings; to be more precise, Skinner stated that since the correct grammatical forms and utterances are reinforced by the surrounding individuals, children grow to realise which ways of communication are more effective (Lemetyinen, 2012).
Noam Chomsky was one of the major critics of Skinner’s approach in the 1960s. According to Chomsky’s perspective, the mechanism of language acquisition mechanism was universal and allowed processing infinite number of sentences, structures, and words which would not be possible just through the reinforced language input (Lemetyinen, 2012). Chomsky’s theory is based on the concept of the universal grammar where the basic categories such those of a noun and a verb were at the basis of the language comprehension and processing in adults, as well as the language development in children (Lemetyinen, 2012). According to this theory, children are equipped with a capacity of the correct combining of the basic categories and putting them into viable sentences.
Further, David Crystal made a contribution to the theory of language acquisition by dividing the cognitive process underlying it into the stages based on the goals of the children such as speaking to get someone’s attention, to acquire something they want, or to draw attention of something they want; overall, Crystal argues that the linguistic rule was the basis of language acquisition in children (Salim & Mehawesh, 2014).
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Multilinguism and its Cognitive Effect
When it comes to multilingualism, scientists report interesting results. In particular, Peal and Lambert (1962) sought for the correlations between multilingualism and intelligence. There exists a significant body of research that finds that bilingual adults tend to have a weaker language capacity in the two languages that their monolingual peers in their only languages (Bialystok, Craik, & Luk, 2012).
As a result, the authors expected to observe that during their battery tests, bilingual children would show lower language test results than monolingual students of the same age; however, the actual findings demonstrated that the bilingual learners were superior to their monolingual peers not only in language tests but also in all the tests linked to the comprehension of symbols (Peal & Lambert, 1962).
In that way, it is possible to associate multilingualism with a higher level of intelligence and an enhanced learning capacity. This could be the case because the children growing up in bilingual environments tend to have to process a much larger amount of language-related information and learn to categorise it and distinguish between the symbols and words of different languages – the tasks that are less complex for the children from monolingual families and environments.
In addition, Peal and Lambert (1962) also found that during their battery tests, the bilingual children demonstrated better results in nonlinguistic tests the primary task of which was to ignore misleading information. Based on this evidence, it is possible to make a conclusion that growing up in a multilingual environment, the children tend to be surrounded by two or more forms of linguistic information which they have the capacity to decode; as a result, this activity provides the children with practice of focusing different kinds of information, quickly organising it into categories and being able to focus on the one that was required at any particular moment.
For instance, when asked a question using one of their native languages, a multilingual child will be able to answer using several different languages and can pick which one to use based on the specific situation.
In that way, multilingualism carries a set of cognitive benefits that could be possible due to the increased intelligence capacity that is driven by the ability to have several active languages at the same time (Marian and Shook, 2012).
Differently put, while a multilingual person is using one of their languages, the others remain active. As explained by Marian and Spivey (2003), the language processing happens gradually as the sounds of a word are heard; meaning that the words are not comprehended as solid blocks of information but are decoded sound by sound. In other words, hearing a specific sound, a human brain will activate all the known words starting with this sound; in multilingual individuals, the base of available words is larger, and as a result, their brains have to accomplish a more significant amount of processing and recognition within the same time as the brain of a monolingual person (Marian & Spivey, 2003).
Language Acquisition Device
The concept of language acquisition device (LAD) was proposed by Noam Chomsky and stands for the mechanism responsible for the encoding of the principles of language, grammar, and its organisation into the brain of a child (Wen, 2013). The idea of LAD is based on the fact that regardless of the complexity of languages worldwide, by the age of six or seven, all children become relatively fluent in their native languages regardless of their intellectual capacities (Wen, 2013).
In addition, the capacity for mastering language in many children develops faster than other abilities and skills; being able to speak according to the basic rules by the age of four, children only need to expand their vocabulary and practice more complex sentences and structures – this is accomplished due to their innate LAD. Moreover, the need to master more than one language (for instance, when a child is growing up in a multilingual family) or having a particularly complex language as the native one, does not impair children’s learning and development or slow down their mastery of other skills parallel to their language acquisition (Wen, 2013).
In addition, the learning and development of new languages may happen faster and smoother than the acquisition of the first one; this is the case because of the Universal Grammar that stands for the presence of the basic grammatical categories in all of the world’s languages (Wen, 2013). Language development is systemic and is based on the interaction of multiple factors of physical, cognitive, and social nature (Umera-Okeke, 2012). Such systems are absent in the development of animals as well as in their social environments.
Relationships between Language Acquisition Mechanisms, Language Development and Multilinguism
In human children, the acquisition and development of language is described as majorly powered by social interactions. In particular, as specified by Crystal, children’s use of language is based on their goals to draw someone’s attention, receive a certain service, or achieve a certain goal (for instance, infants may use sounds and point at objects in order to ask someone to give them the objects).
Moreover, language acquisition and development is analysed by means of various systems that allow monitoring the children’s physical ad cognitive development associated with certain milestones in language acquisition (Umera-Okeke, 2012).
In that way, a conclusion can be made that there exists a form of organisation in how children learn their native languages and with what speed. Moreover, young infants aged about twelve months are known to be able to comprehend simple grammatical structures such as interactions between objects or individuals. Even with the presence of a basic understanding of simple causative connections, animals are unable to express them or use vocalisations in order to communicate specific messages. Also, animals lack the understanding of the categories of the universal grammar that are widely used in all human languages.
Moreover, even though languages belong to various language families and originate from areas that are located very far away from one another geographically – they still have this common feature of grammatical categories (Lemetyinen, 2012). This fact could serve as the basis for a conclusion that human cognition, communication, and self-expression have been based on these categories throughout the entire history of civilisation. As a result, it is possible to state that humans have a specific language acquisition device that is innate and natural for all people and is unique only to our species out of all the living beings on this planet.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240-250. Web.
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Lemetyinen, H. (2012). Language acquisition. Web.
Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. Cerebrum, 13, 1-10.
Marian V., & Spivey, M. (2003). Bilingual and monolingual processing of competing lexical items. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24(2),173–193.
Peal E., & Lambert, W. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs, 76, 1–23.
Rowland, C. F., & Noble, C. L. (2010). The role of syntactic structure in children’s sentence comprehension: Evidence from the dative. Language Learning and Development, 7(1), 55-75.
Salim, J. A., & Mehawesh, M. (2013). Stages in language acquisition: A case study. English Language and Literature Studies, 4(4), 16-24.
Wen, H. (2013). Chomsky’s language development theories: rescuing parents out of dilemma. International Journal of Learning & Development, 3(3), 148-153.
Umera-Okeke, N. P., & Umera-Okeke, R. K. (2012). The psycholinguistics of early childhood language acquisition. INTERNET AFRREV: An International Online Multi-disciplinary Journal, 1(1), 7-14.