How Children Learn Language

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The author of the book “How Children Learn Language” talks about the various concepts and ideas that have been proposed to explain how children start understanding and conversing in any given language. The author starts off by introducing the key concepts of language acquisition by children that are currently in vogue, and looks at these concepts in some detail. He then goes on to offers his view on why these key concepts, currently widely held, may not be able to sufficiently explain how children learn a language.  The author goes further to introduce a new idea, called the acquisition device, which he explains in great detail, and states why in his opinion this is probably the primary mechanism by which children are able to learn their first language.

A couple of key concepts which the author looks into include imitation and teaching. Under the idea of teaching as a way in which children learn language, he considers the role of recasts, which are automatic responses that parents give to their children thus ‘providing alternative sentences against which children can measure their own immature utterances’, the degree to which these recasts contribute to language acquisition by children, and the timing during the learning process when they are most beneficial. The author also brings up the notion of motherese, which is a ‘type of speech characterized by slow, careful articulation and the use of basic vocabulary items, short sentences and somewhat exaggerated intonation’ and considers what part it has to play in the learning of language by children. He then brings to light the function of genetics in language acquisition, which he ties up with the idea of language acquisition by the existence of an acquisition device, like a black box, in the brains of children. This acquisition device is supposed to be responsible for how a child’s brain reacts when it is exposed to speech such that eventually the child becomes fluent in language three years down the line. He offers two views on the role of this acquisition device; one, that its sole purpose is to assist children in learning language, and the other, that it functions in helping children learn not only language but also other stuff. He concludes by discussing the learning process itself, in which he focuses on a well-known learning procedure called generalization, and also happens to mention a learning strategy called the “Principle of Contrast” and how it can be linked to the concept of recasts.


The author when talking about imitation as a possible theory of language learning brings out the argument that even though human beings’ capacity to imitate speech far exceeds that of other primates, it still is not advanced enough to allow children to imitate all manners of speech. It does allow a child to copy words spoken by adults but it does not, for example, enable them to imitate sentences. I tend to feel this is true. Studies have shown that only around 5-40% of children’s utterances are imitations. And even though (Karmiloff-Smith, 1995) points out that children display a wide range of cognitive skills right from a young age, I think that these cognitive skills are limited mostly to imitation of behavior and only minimally extend to imitation of speech.

When talking about teaching as a means by which children acquire language, the author is quick to point out how this is unlikely to contribute significantly to the learning of language. He states that on one hand parents only occasionally attempt to correct their children, and on the other hand children are not so responsive to corrections. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, was of the opinion that learning and teaching went hand-in-hand in helping a child acquire language skills. However, his focus seemed to be more on classroom-oriented teaching in older children. I’m of the opinion that teaching is to some extent an important part of language acquisition by children, my argument being that whereas teaching of language by the correction method may not always be so successful, with repeated instructions a child should eventually be able to pick up the corrections a parent is making. Recasts, where a parent makes corrections to a child’s utterances unconsciously, do support the notion that teaching has some role to play in helping a child learn his first language. In fact, in one long term study, children had a high rate of success of almost 100% when exposed to recasts compared to a low success rate of only about 40% when not corrected by recasts.

The author offers a more positive view on the contribution of motherese, which is a slow and careful articulation of speech with restricted vocabulary, short sentences and repetitions, to the aspect of language acquisition in children. Infants and children appear to be more attracted by motherese as opposed to adult-type of speech. However he also mentions that in some cultures and communities motherese is not used at all, yet children still grow up learning language. Yet for any child to le.............

Type: Essay || Words: 1703 Rating || Excellent

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