How Do We Acquire and Develop Language?
Factors of Language Acquisition
It is believed that through evolution, humans acquired the use of language 100 thousand years ago. Scientists, specifically psychologists, are looking at several factors that can unravel the mystery of how we acquired the use of language. These factors include biological and environmental influences.
Biological Influences. Noam Chomsky proposed in 1975 that the universality of grammar indicates that language is biologically prewired. Research shows that children all over the world reach language milestones at about the same time and in the same order despite language variations, and in spite of differences in culture. For instance, some cultures never talk to infants until 1 year old. Obviously, imitation is not enough to explain this kind of learning occurring worldwide. Additionally, specific brain regions are found to be implicated with the use of language. Phonology and syntax mainly occurs in the left hemisphere. Broca's area and Wernicke's area are especially responsible for both speech production and language comprehension. Lastly, the notion of critical period appears to be applicable even in language. For example, the wild boy of Aveyron in France was discovered running nude through the woods in 1979. He was captured at 11 years old, and believed to be living alone for 6 years. After a number of years since his capture, he never learned to communicate effectively.
Environmental Influences. Many psychologists view language as environmentally determined. According to B. F. Skinner in 1957, language is also a behavior that can be learned through the principles of reinforcement. Albert Bandura in 1977 also believes that language can also be considered as a behavior that can be best learned through imitation. These behavioral perspectives about language, however, are met with many compelling criticisms. First, even children as young as 2 years old are capable of going beyond what they learned, that is, they can be spontaneous and noble when communicating, which implies that they acquire language not through simple, plain imitation. Second, Roger Brown points out in 1973 that parents also reinforce incorrect use of language in their children. For example, parents usually laugh when their children commit language errors. In spite of these criticisms, the value of environmental influences in language acquisition and development remains high. Huttenlocher and others found in 1991 that 2-year olds who were exposed to language by their primary caregives as infants have substantially better language skills than their counterparts. Additionally, Hart and Risley found in 1995 that children from middle-income professional families are substantially exposed to language more than the children from welfare families. Children from professional middle-income families are spoken to by their parents twice as much in an hour than the welfare children, and that they heard 2,100 words compared to the 600 words that the welfare children heard. Consequently, these children know 13 million more words than their counterparts at age 4.
The following milestones in language development is the average, and does not necessarily depict the normal range.
- 0 to 6 months: cooing, babbling, and the ability to discriminate vowels. Cooing, babbling, and repeating syllables (i.e., "bababa" or "dadada") are activities that probably help babies exercise their vocal chords because it is even present in deaf babies. At this age, babies also have the ability to distinguish all sounds of human speech. They respond differently when the language they hear is different from what they usually hear.
- 6 to 12 months: specialization of babbling in the native language, ability to detect word boundaries, and ability to greet and name important people, familiar animals, vehicles, toys, food, body parts, clothes, and household items. According to Clark in 1983, the first sets of vocabulary and the ability to greet are human characteristics that haven't changed much even after 60 years.
- 12 to 18 months: understands 50+ words.
- 18 to 24 months: understands 200+ words, ability to combine 2 words, using language to communicate - identification (see cart), location (ball there), repetition (more jump), nonexistence (mouse gone), negation (not dog), possession (my doll), attribution (red toy), agent-action (papa kiss), agent-direct object (hug you), action-indirect object (tell mama), action-instrument (write pen), and question (what name?).
- 2 years old: rapid increase of vocabulary, correct use of plurals, use of past tense and some prepositions.
- 3 to 4 years old: 3-4 morphemes in a sentence, use of wh- and yes/no questions, negatives and imperatives, and awareness of pragmatics.
- 5 to 6 years old: ability to understand 10,000 words, and to construct simple sentences to make up a paragraph or a story.
- 6 to 8 years old: less grammatical errors, better conversational skills.
- 11 to 14 years old: understanding abstract words, complex grammatical forms, the functions of words in a sentence, metaphors, and satires.
- 15 to 20 years old: understanding adult literature.
The Role of Education in Language
Education has the primary and most significant contribution in developing language use from generation to generation. It propels the basic linguistic foundation formed at home by purportedly increasing vocabulary, teaching sophisticated language rules, and by providing opportunities to develop and apply learned language skills. Two important areas in education today that relates to the development of language are massively being studied by many psychologists because of the many controversies surrounding them. These areas are teaching a second language, and teaching reading and comprehension.
Teaching a second language is an important concern in the United States because around 10 million US children are immigrants and thus are not native English speakers. These children will soon make up the next generation of American citizens, and their future main concern is to succeed in a culture with English as its dominant language. Research shows that early exposure to both the native and English language is optimal, indicating that children actually learn faster than adolescents and adults. Adults often make faster initial progress although children's eventual success is more significant compared to adults'. 3- to 7-year old Chinese, Korean, and native English speakers score more similarly on grammar test than older children and adults. 10- to 12-year olds are also significantly less able to pronounce the correct accent compared to their younger counterparts. Aside from teaching English as a second language to immigrants, US education is also concerned that unlike other nations, most US high school students graduate knowing only English, compared to most Russians below 40 years old today who learned English when they were 9 years old, thus giving them competitive edge in conducting business and pursuing studies in the global arena.
Concerns relating to teaching a second language sparked several valid recommendations from psychologists. Naeyc suggests in 1996 that educators should be made aware that learning a second language is not easy; it takes 2 to 3 years to attain verbal proficiency, and 4 years or more to apply learned language skills in reading, writing, and understanding academic content; and that these difficulties might stem from the fact that immigrant children possess cognitive, linguistic and emotional connection to their native language. Additionally, Perez in 2004 recommends that teaching a second language shouldn't be hard and cold, that is, educators should be sensitive to the implication of asking or forcing immigrants to communicate using a second language.
The role of education in developing language skills from generation to generation is not limited to verbal usage; it also involves written usage as well. Critical to written language is the ability to read and comprehend. In order for us to read well, we must possess the abilities to reason abstractly and induce from parts to whole. Although individuals with Williams Syndrome can identify, spell, and express words verbally, they lack the capacities to comprehend any reading material. Stories, paragraphs and sentences should always be read out to them.
Teaching reading and comprehension is often done in two ways: using the basic skills-and-phonetics approach, and the whole-language approach. The first approach teaches the phonological rules first. It ensures that children can actually read words first before stories and poems are introduced. Research shows that the basic skills-and-phonetics is the best approach to teaching reading. However, the whole-language approach is better at developing comprehension. In this approach, reading materials are massively utilized and integrated with other language skills (such as listening and writing), other subjects, and other activities (like discussions and debates). Most educators nowadays practice the first approach mainly and some uses the second approach as a supplement. Several research studies have been conducted about teaching reading and improving comprehension. According to a comprehensive review by the National Reading Panel in 2000 about research studies conducted on reading, the most effective phonological awareness training involves blending and segmentation. Blending is combining separate phonemes, while segmentation is dividing morphemes into phonemes (e.g., "sleep" = "s" + "lip" [leep], and vice versa). The National Reading Panel also emphasizes the importance of guided oral reading, in which the student read words out loud with appropriate guidance and immediate correction feedback from the teacher. According to Stahl in 2002, the results of such basic phonological awareness training are significantly better when it is integrated with writing and reading (or hearing stories), and when the training is done in smaller groups. Lastly, when it comes to reading comprehension, Pressley suggests the following strategies in 2003 - monitoring the progress of one's reading, and periodically summarizing what has been read.