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“DD, how do you learn mommy’s language?” I asked her.

DD looked at me puzzled, with her beautiful big eyes open. She doesn’t know, of course. And actually babies don’t learn languages, they acquire them.

How do babies acquire languages?

That is the one-million-dollar question (find out more one-million-dollar questions in this blog!) that has long intrigued linguists, biologist, psychologists, educators and alike. During the past century scientists and researchers have proposed numerous theories based on their points of view of languages.

Generally speaking, language acquisition theories have centered on “nature” vs. “nurture”, also known as nativism vs. empiricism.

The nativist theories assert that much of the capacity of language learning in human is “innate”. Babies are born with sensitivity to particular distributional, rhythmical, and temporal patterns unique to aspects of natural language structure, according to Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, professor, director, and senior Scientist of the “Genes, Mind & fNIRS Brain Imaging Laboratory for Language, Bilingualism, and Child Development ” of the University of Toronto Scarborough and the University of Toronto ((for more information, please visit http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~petitto/langAc.html).

If the input language contains these specific patterns, babies will then attempt to produce them—regardless of whether the language comes as speech, sign language, or some other ways of having language.

Put another way, babies are born with a propensity to acquire languages. As long as the language input has the above crucial properties, human babies will attempt to acquire them.

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Contrary to nativism, the doctrine of empiricism holds that knowledge comes from experience rather than from biological and genetic programming. There are a number of empiricist theories, including behaviorism, cognitive theories, social interactionism and others.

Behaviorism held that language is essentially a habit, a behavior like any other, which is mastered through general learning principles. These principles include imitation, reinforcement and punishment (correction). Children are essentially “interested bystanders”, brining no special abilities or innate mechanisms to bear on the language acquisition process.

Cognitive theories emphasize the importance of meaning, learning and understanding. Researcher Jean Piaget viewed the child as in constant interaction with their environment. Interaction helps child’s cognitive development, and language is one outcome of more fundamental changes in cognitive abilities.

Social-interactionists theorize the importance of child-caregiver interactions in children’s language acquisition process. They have focused, for instance, on the characteristics of the language used within these interactions, on what is called child-directed speech (or motherese, or baby talk).

This type of speech, while varying in shape and form and not used in all speech communities in the same way, is believed to help attract the child’s attention to problematic forms and to actively involve him/her into the conversation.

Researchers from this camp also documented the importance of frequency of language input children receive and found out a clear relationship between the language which children hear and the language which they produce.

While there is long-standing debate about the relative importance of nature and nurture in human’s language development, scientists tend to agree that both are critical.

And that is what I think too.

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In my opinion, both “instinct” and “environment” play an important role in babies’ language acquisition. First, it is clear that children must be exposed to a language that is systematic in nature. I cannot imagine DD will speak Chinese fluently if everything she is exposed to is random utterances.

Second, I think how children are exposed to a language influences their language acquisition abilities. If they are provided an environment rich in language experiences (e.g. name things around them, describe specific functions of things around them, language play), if they are consistently exposed to the correct use of the language in many different linguistic contexts (e.g. reinforcement, correction), and if they are actively engaging in interacting with others (e.g. self-corrections, questions, imitations), children learn to relate language to the sound/meaning relationship and to the purpose it represents, understand the rules of grammar, gain knowledge of how to use the language, and eventually develop their own linguistic competence. 

Third, I think positive feedback, such as rewards, encouragement, tolerance to mistakes, and a low level of pressure, are better equipped for success in children’s language acquisition. If they are given many opportunities to communicate, if they feel more motivated and accepted, and if they develop self-confidence and a good self-image to present themselves socially, children will tend to acquire the language in a much more effective way.

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P.S. The class notes of Dr. phil. Günther Lampert, an English linguistics professor in Mainz University, was used for reference during writing this article and I would like to give a special thanks to Dr. phil. Günther Lampert.

Related posts:
More resources on bilingualism and its effects
Bilingualism and cognitive development
Being bilingual boosts brain power
Never too early to learn second tongue
Pre- and perinatal education
Parents: child’s life-time teachers


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