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Language Acquisition Concept and Theories


One of the most important topics in cognitive studies is language acquisition. A number of theories have attempted to explore the different conceptualization of language as a fundamental uniqueness that separates humans from other animals and non-living things (Pinker& Bloom, 1990). Similarly, Pinker (1994) recognizes language as a vehicle which engineers humans to know other people’s thoughts, and therefore, he reasons that the two (language and thought) are closely related. He adds that when one speaks his/her thoughts, he depicts some language. Else, he notes that a child’s first language is often times learnt well enough in the earlier periods of his life without having to be taught in school. With this astonishment, he believes children language acquisition has received a lot of attention in scholarly circles and debates (Pinker, 1994).

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Indeed, accordingly, acquisition of language goes beyond it being interesting, but is an answer to the study of cognitive science. The recognition here is the many facets that language acquisition studies come with. These include Modularity, Human Uniqueness, Language and Thought, and Language and Innateness.

Historically, the scientific study of language and the way it is learnt began in the late 1950s, supposedly the time around which cognitive studies were launched. Pinker observes that the anchor of this was when Noam Chomsky reviewed Skinner’s verbal behavior (Pinker, 1994).

Understanding Language Acquisition

Language acquisition can be understood biologically. The understanding here is that human language came to be based upon the unique adaptations that the body and mind developed during the process of evolution (Pinker& Bloom, 1990).

Language and Evolution

Pinker (2000) begins by indicating that human’s vocal tracks appear to have been modified to respond to the demands of evolution. In addition, this is the basis of speech. Pinker (2000), citing Lieberman (1984) argues that the larynx is at the base of the throats and that the vocal tracts have a sharp right angle bend that creates two independently modified cavities.

The process/course of Language Acquisition

Pink and Bloom (1990) assert that a number of scholars and thinkers alike, have kept diaries of children’s speech for a long time, and it was only later that children’s speech began to be analyzed in developmental psychology. Language acquisition begins at a very early stage in human’s life span. This usually stems initially with Sound Patterns. Pinker notes that within the earliest five years of an individual’s existence, children acquire control of speech musculature and sensitivity to the phonetic distinctions in the maiden mother tongue. In addition, children acquire these skills even before they know or understand any words, and therefore at this stage, they only relate sound to meaning (Kuhl, 1992).

When a child is almost hitting one-year age mark, he slowly begins to muster and understand words, and eventually produce them. Interestingly, at this stage they produce the word in ‘isolation’, that is one word at a time, with this period lasting two to twelve months. The words they produce at this stage are similar the world over and include words such as baba, baby among others, and others such as up, off, eat (Pinker& Bloom, 1990).

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At about the time a child is 1 year and 6 months, two changes in language acquisition occurs. One is that there is an increase in vocabulary growth and two is that primitive syntax emerges. When Vocabulary growth increases, the child systematically starts learning “words at a rate of one every two waking hours, and will keep learning that rate or faster through adolescence” (Pinker, 1994). Primitive syntax on the other hand involves ‘two word strings’; examples of such include expressions such as ‘see baby’, ‘more hot‘, among others. These two-word expressions, Pinker notes, are similar the world over; for instance, everywhere, children reject and request for activities and therefore ask about who, what and where (Pinker& Bloom, 1990).

Overall, “these sequences already reflect the language being acquired: in 95% of them, the words are properly ordered” (Ingram, 1989). More interestingly is the fact that before they put the words, they can at this stage fathom a sentence by use of syntax. Notably is the fact that the struggle and output depends on the complexity of the sentence at this stage.

Between the time Children are almost going through year two up to mid of year three of age, language evolves to fluency and blossoms into good grammatical expressions and the reasons for this rapidity is still subject of research to today. At this stage, the length of the sentences that the children produce increase steadily and the number of syntax types increases steadily as well (Pinker& Bloom, 1990).

Pinker (1994), notes that children may differ in language development by a span of 1 year. Regardless, the stages they go through in language development remain the same and many children acquire and can speak complex sentences before their second age. At the stage of grammar explosion, the sentences get longer and more complex, even though at age three children’s may have grammatical challenges of one nature or the other (Pinker, 1994).

Language System and Its maturation

A number of scholars have observed that as language circuits mature in a child’s early years so is language acquisition, i.e. a child masters language development from the initial years of his/her birth and the process continues as the child’s brain develops during his/her life (Pinker, 1994). He notes that it is usually nerve cell degenerate shortly before birth, and it is also during this time that they are allocated to brain. However, he observes that an individuals “head size, brain weight, and thickness of the cerebral cortex” continue to rapidly increase over the first year of birth (Pinker, 1994).

White matter is not fully complete until after the child gets to nine months of age. The emergence of synapses will continue and reach climax when one is between 9 months to 2 years; however, this is usually dependent relative on the brain region. The development process continues and as the synapses wither, adolescence sets, with the individual showing signs of transforming from childhood to adulthood.

What accrues here, accordingly therefore is that perhaps “first words, and grammar require minimum levels of brain size, long-distance connections, or extra synapses, particularly in the language centers of the brain” (Pinker, 1994). In addition, the assumption can also be that these changes are the rationale behind the low ability to learn language overtime as people age over a lifespan (Pinker, 1994).

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This probably explains why most people in their adulthood cannot master foreign languages especially in their native accent and especially in the language aspect of phonology, and this is what leads to what is now popularly called referred to as foreign accent. No teaching or amount of correction can usually undo the errors that characterizes ‘foreign accent’. However, as Pinker notes, there exists differences depending on one’s efforts, attitudes, degree of exposure, teaching quality, and sometimes, plain talent. However, there is no empirical evidence that adduces learning of words as people age (Pinker, 1994).

Explaining Language Acquisition: Learnerbility Theory

Several theories have been developed in understanding language acquisition. One such theory is the learnerbility theory. This is a computer mathematical theory of language, which deals with learning procedures for children in acquiring grammar, riding on language evidence and exposure. For instance, a learning procedure is taken as an infinite loop running through endless tings of inputs, which are grammatical as chosen from a particular language. This theory by Gold largely shows that innate knowledge of universal grammar assists in learning (Pullum, 2000).


Language acquisition is a complicated issue that needs an elaborate research and study; indeed, some of the tenets of this issue have been addressed in this paper. It is a very central issue in understanding human growth and development. It captures a number of conceptualizations that relate directly to the Universal versus Context Specific development modules, as well as nature versus nurture controversy. Moreover, attempts to understand language scientifically has brought a number of frustrations, with a number of break thoughts as well. All in all, it is important to note that language acquisition begins from the initial periods of a child’s development and continues as the child grows.


Kuhl, P. K. (1992). Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Acquisition. Neuron Review. Web.

Pinker, S. (1994). Language Leanerbility and Language Development. Cambridge: Havard University Press. Web.

Pinker, S. (2000). Language Acquisition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web.

Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Science. Web.

Pullum, G. (2000). Learnerbilty. New York. Web.

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