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Theories Of Language Acquisition

This essay will deal with three theories of language acquisition: the linguistic theory, behaviourist theory and social interactionist theory. Each theory will include an explanation of the theory, a look at whether it is nativist or empirical, whether the evidence is more focused on competence or performance, the evidence supporting and criticising the theories and examples of how the theories apply to the areas of speech and language therapy will also be looked at.
The concept of a language faculty was first proposed by Noam Chomsky in 1976 and suggested that humans have an innate knowledge of grammar which has two levels of linguistic processing; deep structure and surface structure. Level one incorporates phrase structure rules which are the basic relationships underlying all sentence organisation in all languages. Level two incorporates transformational rules that govern the rearrangement of the phrase structure rules based on a specific structure. He suggested that humans have a language acquisition device -replaced by Universal Grammar in his later work- that allows us to create symbols and organise communicative expressions. Harley (2008). He argues that it is acquired at a time when the child’s intellectual capabilities are not yet developed and therefore cannot be dependent on cognition. Harley (2008) Recently Chomsky has revised some of his previous claims and his more recent approaches are the Minimalist Program and the Principles and Parameters theory.
Chomsky refers to the idea of parameter setting to explain the acquisition of different languages, that exposure to a specific language is constrained by switches that are set off within a certain environment. Harley (2008). An example of a parameter setting is whether a language is pro-drop or not. If a child is exposed to a pro-drop language such as Italian or Spanish they automatically know that they are allowed to drop the pronoun, whereas an English language learner will have the parameter setting at non-pro-drop, and keep the pronoun. According to Chomsky, as cited in Harley (2008) the language faculty should involve a cognitive system that holds information, and a performance system that can use this information.
Competence-which is a person’s knowledge of language involving the rules of grammar-, is favoured over performance within linguistic theory. The focus of language learning in linguistic theory is on the child. Unlike in behaviourism, the environment does not shape or train verbal behaviour. Berko Gleason (2005). Nativists follow the idea that language is much too complex a process to learn and that it is learnt at such a fast rate, that it would be impossible for it not to be innate.
Lenneberg’s critical period hypothesis states that language development occurs during a critical period of a child’s life and that certain linguistic events must take place in order for it to progress. Harley (2008). However, evidence from second language acquisition research shows that this can be true for phonological and syntactic development, but research has shown that it is not a perfect test of the critical theory hypothesis overall, as second language learners will have already acquired a first language. Harley (2008).
Supporting evidence cross-linguistically shows that regardless of the word order of a language, subject-object order is followed by children, which proves the existence of a language acquisition device universally. Berko Gleason (2005). If children are deprived of linguistic input during the critical period, studies have shown they are unable to acquire language normally, as is the case with “Genie”. Genie was a normal child who suffered extreme abuse in her home and spent most of her time tied up in isolation, so she was unexposed to speech from a young age. Because of this abuse, she was deprived physically and socially and her linguistic skills were undeveloped. When she was taken into care at almost 14 years of age, Genie was taught language but she never reached full fluency. She learned certain syntactic structures but her case proves that a limited amount of language can be learnt once the critical period has been passed. Harley (2008)
Contrary evidence claims that just language alone is not sufficient to acquire language, that input is necessary and that the influence of environmental factors cannot be ignored. Pinker’s (1984) poverty of stimulus idea offers that just because someone cannot imagine how a particular behaviour might have been learned, it does not mean it was not learned. Berko Gleason (2005) Chomsky does not focus on the link between syntax and semantics though he does refer to it in his book ‘Syntactic structures’ with the quote “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” which shows an example of a syntactically correct sentence lacking meaning.
In terms of how linguistic theory applies to the area of speech and language therapy, an explanation of aphasia and agrammatism is necessary. Aphasia is a language disorder that results from brain damage caused by disease, stroke or brain trauma. The main characteristics of one type of aphasia, Broca’s, are; the speech being telegraphic, which means that articles, conjunctions, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and pronouns and morphological inflections are omitted. Agrammatism is a feature of Broca´s aphasia and the various linguistic theories that deal with agrammatism are; trace deletion hypothesis, theta assigning principle, double dependency hypothesis and tree pruning hypothesis. Edwards (2005).One of these theories, the tree pruning hypothesis, is an example of how the syntax of a language can be affected. The impairment occurs on the highest nodes of the syntactic tree and in English, this means that Wh questions and yes/no questions are affected, although in other languages, it can vary. The impairments are in word order, in embedded clauses and inflection for tense. Edwards (2005). While a syntactic explanation for language impairments in Broca´s aphasia and agrammatism can show what needs to be worked on in therapy, the exact nature of the deficits are different depending on whether it is a production or comprehension deficit so the speech and language therapy case management plan would have to be modified depending on which one it is.
In contrast to the linguistic emphasis on language use, the behavioural emphasis was mainly developed by the psychologist BF Skinner in his book ‘Verbal Behaviour’ (1957).His basic premise is that children learn to talk because of imitation and reinforcement.
Despite many variants of hypotheses concerning behaviourism, most theories consist of the idea that language is a subset of a behaviour which is learned through connections between a stimulus and a response. Owens (2008). They agree that there are some internal connections with language learning in the brain yet disagree with the idea of specific internal structures and suggest further research is necessary to understand the processes. Berko Gleason (2005)
In comparison to linguistic theory where the focus is on competence, performance is highlighted more in behaviourism. Skinner (1957) described language as being something we do and that it is a learned behaviour like any other skill. Contrary to nativists, he claimed that syntactic forms were not important and defined language as verbal behaviour since a child is unable to create a rule and thus shaped by external stimuli (parents).
The idea that language is a learnt behaviour opposes that of nativism. Skinner (1957) claimed that parental reinforcement allows a child to acquire language and that it is a process of imitation that a child must work at. In this model, children are seen as passive recipients of language training and it is suggested by Skinner that the child has no active role in acquisition. According to Whitehurst and Novak (1973) after a lot of trial-and-error modelling the adult role-models in the environment-by shaping and imitation training-reinforcement and punishment will improve children’s speech output. An example of this reinforcement is soothing or attending to the child when they produce correct speech sounds. It is said that with enough sound samples, the child will learn a word association pattern rather than rules of grammar. Owens (2008). What is suggested is that language behaviour is shaped by the environment and not governed by rules or maturation, unlike in Chomsky’s generativist approach.
Supporting evidence for behaviourism include studies of both disordered and normal children. Since Skinner’s research, environmental input is considered an essential part of the acquisition of language, despite Chomsky’s conclusion that Skinner’s work was premature. Owens (2008). Lovaas’s (1977) advancement with behavioural modification of children with autism has shown that techniques such as shaping and reinforcement assist children with restricted speech abilities. It should be noted that despite this discovery, it is unclear how the acquisition process differs between normal and disordered children. In a 1968 study by Palermo and Eberhart, adults were shown to follow the same learning patterns as children, when they were taught an artificial language.
Evidence against behaviourism shows that while lab studies on adults show positive results, they do not provide a full explanation on how children acquire language since they are not done in a child’s environment. Adults also provide a poor model of imitation as their grammar is full of errors, dialects and slang. What this shows is that children do not copy parents because how could they select correct speech over erroneous speech? Additionally, research by Brown and Hanlon from 1970 shows that children are not punished or rewarded for using certain utterances and the main focus of correction or reward is more on the semantics than the syntax. What this shows is that in behaviourism, input is focused on excessively and is inadequate at explaining the full gamut of what is required to learn a language. Berko Gleason (2005)
As previously mentioned, behaviourism has been useful in speech and language therapy in the area of autism. With the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), communication for children with autism can be vastly improved and act as an aid in devising strategies for solving issues and improving the standard of living for people.
The interactionist approach puts forward the idea that a variety of factors influence the language development of a child, while using a mix of the linguistic and behavioural approaches. There are three different approaches concerning interactionism; Piaget’s cognitive theory, information processing and the social interactionist theory. Piaget’s interactive approach focuses on constructivism, which is the idea that linguistic structures are the emergent properties of language. His idea that children’s processes are essentially different to adults would also have an effect on language acquisition. The second approach sees cognition as being computational, deriving patterns from data while assuming the mind as a type of software and the brain as hardware. The third approach is one that will be focused on here and it concerns the social interactionist theory.
According to Vygotsky (1962) cognitive and social factors can influence the development of language acquisition, which in turn can have a reciprocal influence on cognition and social abilities. Social interactionists believe that children influence their parents in their acquisition of language and that they and the language environment work together as a dynamic system. Berko Gleason (2005)
In terms of competence and performance, interactionists need more performance input than what is suggested by generativists. Parents must provide the communication aids that children need in order to acquire language. According to Vygotsky (1962) language is only initially something used for young children to interact socially and is only developed over time to become something else. Interactionists also believe that maturation and cognition are an essential part of language acquisition and that until a child is at a certain level of cognition; they will be unable to acquire language.
Similar to behaviourists, the environment is where interactionists believe language skills appear, but more emphasis is placed on social development than on Piaget’s cognitive development. Non-linguistic elements (turn-taking, mutual gaze and joint attention) are necessary for social development along with motherese, or child-directed speech (CDS) which is a specific way of speaking to children that differs to how adults communicate with one another. Bruner, as cited in Harley (2008) claims language development occurs within a language acquisition socialization system (LASS) which contains these innate non-linguistic elements.
In positively evaluating this theory, those in favour, believe that CDS is an assisting factor in child language acquisition. This is confirmed by studies of fourteen different languages and proves that infants have preference over this kind of speech. In a study by De Casper and Fifer from 1980, infants are found to prefer their own Mother’s CDS over another Mother’s CDS. Berko Gleason (2005). In a study cited in Berko Gleason (2005), by Tomasello and Farrar from (1986), it appears that Mothers who focus on the object of their child’s gaze have children who speak their first words earlier and also have larger vocabularies. Despite positive evidence from studies, detailed analysis on how development is influenced by social interactions is insufficient.
As already mentioned, evidence suggests further testing is needed in the area of social interactionism. An explanation for the lack of detail is provided by Berko Gleason (2005) and suggests two of the issues with this theory are that it does not exist in all languages, and it has not been in existence for the same length of time as other theories, so may not have the counter evidence to compare it to. To date, studies have shown the difference of features between CDS and adult-like speech, yet the existence of these patterns does not prove the assistance in the acquisition of language for children. A suggestion is made by Baker and Nelson, cited in Berko Gleason (2005) that it is difficult to know whether language development is caused by parents’ lack of communication or childrens’. Research of language delays in neglected children suggest that the childrens’ impairments may de-motivate parents with the result being neglectful parenting.
An example where social interactionism can assist in the area of speech and language therapy is the previously mentioned example of Genie. Genie’s experience of neglect highlights the evidence that the correct environment is necessary for language learning, that a specific social context is required for normal language learning to occur. This knowledge can assist in the assessment and evaluation of a neglected child. Another example, such as the Hanen programme, is based on the social interactionist model where parents facilitate language learning in everyday situations, but as it requires a lot of parental input at home, it may be a difficult kind of intervention to apply in practice.
To conclude the social interactionist analysis, this approach takes from both the linguistic theory in terms of children having an innate specialized language device and from the behaviourist theory; it values the influence of the environment on language acquisition.
This essay looked at three theories of language acquisition: the linguistic theory, behaviourist theory and social interactionist theory. Each theory included an explanation of the theory, discussed whether it took a nativist or empirical approach and whether the evidence was more focused on competence or performance. The evidence supporting and criticising the theories was included along with examples of how the theories applied to the areas of speech and language therapy.

Reggio Emilia Approach Analysis

Children are explorers and love to investigate what is going on around them. Imagine if their whole day was spent in an environment with beauty formed by their own creativity? Having the opportunity to play with natural and open ended materials of their own interests, guidance from educators to construct their learning and thinking on exciting topics, and most importantly having their families be greatly involved in their day, the learning outcomes of each child would be concrete and long lasting. These are the kinds of opportunities provided by educators from the Reggio Emilia Approach, found by researcher and teacher Loris Malguzzi. “Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known” (Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children, ch. 3, by Carolyn Edwards (1993).
This essay will be discussing what the Reggio Emilia Approach is, and which constructivist theories influence the Reggio Emilia curriculum. It will also uncover the curriculum elements and key programming used in the approach and lastly how its approach supports the six principles of the ELECT document used in Ontario. The topics discussed in this paper will be based on the research found in the book Authentic Childhood Experiencing Reggio Emilia in the Classroom by Susan Fraser and also online sources.
First of all, what is the Reggio Emilia Approach? This question arises amongst many people like, researchers in child studies, parents looking for childcare, educators looking to work, the government when looking to see statistics to see what curriculum model has a successful outcome of quality childcare and many more persons who are interested in what different childcare approaches provide. In relation to this, the Reggio Emilia Approach was found by an early education specialist from a town in North Italy called Reggio Emilia his name was Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994). Malaguzzi’s vision attracts the world through his play and project based curriculum, children play and educators guide their play into projects that interest them.
The approach is a combination of principles that build the child centred environment and curriculum. “Collaboration” is when everyone works together and includes parents, educators, communities and the children; “the image of the child-conceptualizing an image of the child as competent, inventive, and full of ideas” (Fraser, 2000, Page 8). The “environment” is known as the third teacher as it is carefully set up by educators to challenge the child’s curiosity and learning. “Documenting” is a display of what the child’s experiences are shown through language and creativity. “Provocation” is when educators listen carefully to what the children are saying and further guide the thoughts and accomplishments. Plans and investigations are also made by everyone involved, which is known as “progettazione”. A unique principle found in the Reggio Emilia approach is the “one hundred languages of children” which means that the children use many different resources and materials to “make symbolic representations of ideas that may arise” (Fraser, 2000, Page 8). The principles from the Reggio Emilia Approach also include uninterrupted play. As a whole it is an exciting learning environment for the children, educators and parents all co-learning together.
As a second point, let’s discuss which theories influence the Reggio Emilia curriculum. For instance in a Montessori school the philosophy will be of Maria Montessori and the day will be planned out using didactic materials and sequential steps based on her research on child studies. The Reggio Emilia Approach is not just based on one philosophy like the Montessori but it is actually based on a number of different philosophers. including Jean Piaget’s theory for the sequences of cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky theory for the social aspects of learning and the importance of play, Jean Dewey’s theory for the role of play, human nature and “viewing the child in the context of the family and society” (Fraser,2000, Page14), Hugh Gardiner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory on the environment, Barbara Biber’s theory included collaboration and positive self image, and there may be more. As a result of having so many philosophies combined in the Reggio Emilia Approach, it is known to be a model, focusing on the whole child, development, environment, play, family involvement, self image controlled by educators really understanding how to guide children to express their feelings, and how children use their multiple intelligence and symbolic language.
The third topic this paper is addressing, what are the curriculum elements and key programming used in Reggio Emilia Schools? Curriculum is what the children learn from and the experiences they have when being cared for in a child care centre. Key programming is the goals and schedules that a school may have.
Traditionally a lot of early childcare centres would plan what toys and activities the children would play with and then help and teach the children how to use them or how to do an activity and then a report may be written to show parents how the child is getting along according to the child’s development stage.
In the Reggio Emilia Approach the curriculum is very different to traditional teacher taught curriculums. It is planned by what the children are interested in while playing and engaging in activities of their choice.
Assessment is used to plan what to do in the classroom based on a child’s interests. Its role in the project process is to learn the children’s behaviours, to discover children’s interests, to revisit projects with the children, to gain knowledge on the children’s capabilities and as a tool to study children. The Reggio Approach suggests that by assessing projects over and over again, children understand their own questions. It also stresses that parents, children and educators are co-learners.
Additionally the rationale for educators is to assess alongside the children. Educators facilitate rather than directing the children. Educators assess by observing and stepping in or stepping back whenever they need to. They also ask important questions that challenge the children to figure things out by their own curiosity.
Documentation is also used to plan the Reggio Approach. Here there are many different methods of documentation from simple note form to “the more sophisticated electronic equipment, such as digital cameras, webs, audio recorders, and video recorders” (Fraser, 2000, Page 83) depending on what kind of observations are being made. The different observational techniques are running records which are the method used more often, time sampling, art displays, event sampling, anecdotal records, tape recording, sequences of photographs, displays of projects, and video tapes. In the Reggio Approach documentation is used as soon as something happens, The diary of Laura a diary taken from a Reggio Centre in Italy states that teachers work closely with the children taking notes, recording observations they think have meaning toward the learning of that child.
Documentation is done when needed there’s not only specific timings, notes can be taken at any time, Documentation is done to further assessment and planning towards projects that children want to start or are already working towards.
The Reggio Emilia Approach does not have an organized planned curriculum it is actually very spontaneous and is built according to individual or group interests of the children. To emphasize that the curriculum is spontaneous and is planned on the interest of the children educators use different methods of observations at any time. There are many ways to observe in the Reggio Approach. Note taking is one way to observe, they also use diaries to write reflections on observations, photography, videos, audio, written, watching play and careful listening to conversations. Parental observations are taken at home and noted. The rationale for the parent assessments are that they know their children best and children are carefully observed on how the environment is used. The Reggio Emilia Approach suggests that children speak one hundred symbolic languages and they use observations to determine and understand what these languages are. To clarify, observations are used for assessment, documentation, planning and implementing the curriculum. With this in mind the educator’s role is to guide the natural curiosity and learning of the children, and the environment is known as the third teacher. “The children are little researchers. They can and want to communicate with the surrounding world” (Reggio Emilia Philosophy,
There are many factors that have to be taken into account when it comes to the role of observations and implementing. “The decision to carry out observations is usually the result of a question that has arisen about a child or a group of children and their behaviour or activities in the centre”. (Fraser, 2000, Page 81) Similarly, other factors have important roles in implementing the learning process, for example time is important. Children need lots of time to work on ongoing projects. In the Reggio Emilia Approach there are no time limits on projects. Children work on projects as long as they are still interested. Space and layout is carefully set up for dramatic play, water play, block play, physical and manipulation, art and creativity, outdoor play, and quiet time area. This encourages social skills, problem solving skills, making personal choices and team work methods. “Teachers carefully organize spaces for small and large group projects and small intimate spaces for one, two and three children”. (About Reggio Emilia philosophy, The environment is made to look beautiful and inviting.
Another factor in implementing the curriculum process is that the resources that are provided by the educator, another important role of the educator. Materials are carefully chosen they can be natural materials, toys, games, water play, creative materials, open ended materials, blocks, puzzles, books, sand toys, or even dress up clothes for dramatic play. Children use the materials so they can play and further their learning. To manipulate and start the process of projects the educators use positive language and encouragement to help children learn how to express their emotions.
Educators plan team meetings to discuss the observations and planning. Parents are always welcome to join or help make decisions. Meetings are used to plan what materials need to be taken out, how the environment should be set up, what is needed for projects that are emerging and also what things need to be changed.
The Reggio Emilia Approach is very similar to the emergent curriculum. A lot of the factors used in Reggio are used in the emergent curriculum, but the emergent curriculum emphasizes development and interest and Reggio emphasizes on interest.
The final point to discuss in this paper is about how the Reggio Emilia Approach uses all six principles of the ELECT document.
In the Reggio Emilia Approach there is a link to the first principle of the ELECT document which is “Early child development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behavior and health” An example of this is that diaries are shown to parents, each project is based on being child centered and play based which means that it has to be developmentally appropriate, each assessment is done to figure out the interests of the child and each child is observed to their own developmental stage and long term projects are used so educators can see how children are growing and are developing their learning. Also there are various philosophies used in the Reggio Approach one in particular linked to the different stages and sequences of development are the philosophy of Piaget.
The second principle of the ELECT document is “Partnerships with families and communities strengthen the ability of early childhood settings to meet the needs of children”. The link to the Reggio Emilia Approach to the second principle are that parents work as co learners with educators and children in the Reggio Emilia approach and photographs are displayed around the centre for the children to have a reminder of home.
The third principle of the ELECT document is “Respect for diversity, equity and inclusion are prerequisites for honoring children’s rights, optimal development and learning:. The next link to The Reggio Emilia Approach is parents are important, one influence is the philosophy of Bronfenbrenner, “everyone involved -children, parents and teacher pay an integral part in what is known as the circle of we” (Fraser, page.102) Reggio centre’s respect and support families, cultures and all diverse situations, in addition to this, the Approach also brings families together, learning about the different families, cultures, food and dressing up.
The fourth principle of the ELECT document is “A planned curriculum supports early learning”. This principle is met by the projects that take place in the Reggio schools, projects are worked on in depth and detail, the child centered approach and children’s interest plan the curriculum. “The Reggio Emilia Approach can be defined therefore as “contextual”, that is, it is determined by the dialogue among children, teachers and the environment surrounding them” (The Reggio Emilia Approach – Truly listening to young children,
The fifth principle is “Play is a means to early learning that capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity and exuberance”, this principle is linked to the Reggio Emilia Approach The Reggio Approach is play based and has the same philosophy to the ELECT and the Emergent which is that children learn and grow through different types of play.
“The word “play” is not a frequently used word in The Reggio Approach, although as seen above, spontaneous play and play valued as “meaningful learning” figure among the goals for learning and development. (The Reggio Emilia Approach – Truly listening to young children,, in addition to this the Reggio Emilia Approach also states that play is used to depict 100 different languages through symbolic languages.
The last principle, principle six is “Knowledgeable, responsive early childhood professionals are essential”. This principle is also linked to Reggio Emilia’s Approach, as Reggio Centers have teachers with extensive staff development; teachers make goals for them self and teachers also learn alongside the children enhancing their understanding of children. Another example of this principle is that the educators of Reggio schools sometimes are not qualified but learn from the other teachers and through each daily experience with the children.
In conclusion to this paper it shows that it can take a number of philosophy’s to create a high quality model, and that not just one philosophy is better than another, but each philosophy actually compliments one another, similarly it proves that children don’t necessarily need to be taught by a teacher but can learn by having the opportunity to construct their own learning through a child centered approach. In addition this paper also shows that the role of play, culture, parents, educators, the environment, observations, assessment, documentation, and planning are all very important to implement a child’s learning to make up a model like the Reggio Emilia Approach. Finally this paper proves that the Reggio Emilia Approach follows an emergent curriculum that can link to all six principles of the framework provided by the ELECT document.