Cognitive Approaches

Language acquisition

How are linguistic units derived from patterns of language use? How do children acquire language?

Much work in child language acquisition in the 1970s was influenced by Piaget and by the cognitive revolution in psychology, so that the field of language acquisition had a strong functional/cognitive strand through this period that persists to the present.

Also during the 1970s, Chomsky made the strong claim of innateness of the linguistic capacity leading to a great debate in the field of acquisition that still reverberates today. His idea of acquisition as a 'logical problem' rather than an empirical problem as well as his view of acquisition as a matter of minor parameter-setting operations on an innate set of rules, were rejected by many. Those, including functionally and cognitively oriented researchers, saw the problem as one of learning, not fundamentally different from other kinds of learning.

1. Empirical findings in language acquisition

Since the early studies in developmental psycholinguistics (empirical study of first language acquisition), one of the key cross-linguistic findings to have emerged is that infants’ earliest language appears to be item-based rather than rule-based: infants first acquire specific item-based units (words), then more complex item-based units (pairs and then strings of words), before developing more abstract grammatical knowledge.
When a child first produces identifiable units of language around the age of 12 months (one-word stage), these units are individual lexical items. In terms of function, they are equivalent to whole phrases of adult language in terms of communicative intention. This is why these early words are known as holophrases and can have a whole range of goal-directed communicative intentions.
The item-based structure of first language acquisition is also revealed at the two-word stage, which emerges at around 18 months. After producing holophrases children move on to multi-word expressions (e.g. ball table), in which the child connects two units of equal status to produce a more linguistically complex utterance. The majority of early multi-word utterances however, exhibits functional asymmetry, meaning that the expressions contain a relatively stable element with slots that can be filled in: I wanna X! More X!...
Rather than containing two words of equal status, children tend to build words around a functionally more salient and stable word. Tomasello calls expressions like these utterance schemas or pivot schemas, the pivot being the obligatory element X.
Furthermore, Tomasello argues that early child speech lacks innovation and that the constructions and utterance schemas children use are highly dependent on what they have actually heard (instead of having emerged from abstract underlying rules)

2. The cognitive view: sociocognitive mechanisms in language acquisition

According to Tomasello, when children acquire language, they actually acquire constructions. As the complexity and abstractness of these constructions increase, linguistic creativity begins to emerge. According to this view, the creativity exhibited by young children in their early language happens because they are constructing utterances out of various already mastered pieces of language in ways appropriate to the current usage event.
This view of language acquisition is called emergentism and stands in direct opposition to nativism. The claim here then is that acquiring a language involves a huge amount of learning. What then, are the cognitive abilities that children bring to this process of language acquisition?
Research in cognitive science has led CLs to argue that children come equipped with a battery of domain-general (not specific to language but valid for a range of cognitive domains) sociocognitive skills which can be grouped into two kinds: The pattern-finding ability and the intention-reading ability.

Research has shown that infants as old as 8 month can find patterns in the auditory stream that constitutes language and that they are exposed to (tested infants would look more at a stimuli they were familiar with).
However, since our primate cousins show this ability as well, Tomasello claims that in order to acquire a language, another set of skills is required: intention-reading abilities.

While pattern-finding abilities allow the identification of patterns, intention-reading skills enable them to actually make use of the patterns they recognise.
This stage then involves connecting meaning to form which gives rise to the form-meaning pairing that make up our knowledge of a language. This process takes place when, around one year, children begin to understand that the people around them are intentional agents: their actions are deliberate and can be influenced. The emergence of this understanding allows children to read the intentions of the people surrounding them.
In opposition to pattern-finding skills, this is actually something that is species-specific,i.e. only humans possess a whole set of these abilities.
Tomasello argues that our intention-reading skills consist of three specific interrelated phenomena:

  • Joint attention frames (Child and parent focussing on e.g. the same object, facilitating cognition of communicative intention)
  • Understanding of communicative intentions (Child recognises that others are intentional agents that use language with the intention to communicate)
  • Role reversal intentions (Learning that people behave intentionally and imitating this behaviour)

According to this view, language acquisition is contextually embedded and a specific kind of cultural learning

3. Comparing the generative view of language acquisition (nativist approach)

The nativist hypothesis:
Until the 1960s, the main influence on developmental psychology was the theory of behaviourism: learning as stimulus-response behaviour.
In his book “verbal behaviour” (1957), Skinner states that children learn language by imitation, a sort of stimulus-response mechanism conditioned by positive reinforcement. Chomsky, in his review of Skinner’s book, argued that some aspects of language are too abstract to be learned:
"poverty of stimulus argument"
language is too complex to be acquired from the impoverished input to which children are exposed.

How do children produce utterance that they have never heard before? And why do they make errors that do not occur in the input they are exposed to?

Chomsky’s theory was the first mentalist or cognitive theory of human language, in the sense that it attempted to explore the psychological representation of language and to integrate findings in relation to the human mind and cognition.
Tomasello claims that this theory stemmed from logical reasoning rather than empirical evidence.

Chomsky claims that children can produce sentences like (1) but do not make mistakes as in (2) because they must have some innate knowledge of grammatical structures and rules. Tomasello on the opposite claims that they would not make these mistakes because they do not hear sentence like these.

  • (1) The man is bald
    • Is the man bald?
  • (2) The man who is running is bald
    • Is the man who running is bald?