AQA English Language Child Language Acquisition Theorists


Chomsky and Innateness

Noam Chomsky first proposed the idea of innateness in the 1950s, though he has changed his ideas many times since then. This school of thought believes that when we are born, the capacity and apparatus for language learning are already there- MacNeil, a linguist who believed this, coined the LAD (Language Acquisition Device), a part of the brain which allows for language learning.

To support Chomsky's ideas is the fact that children all over the world go through very similar stages in language learning, regardless or the differences in the language or in intelligence, and nearly every child ends up as a successful language user. The innateness principle also accounts for the idea of linguistic creativity- where children can come up with expressions that they have never heard before rather than just imitating what they hear. We must also remember that Chomsky does not presume that everyine will learn language whatever- the brain, he says, is like a computer with software installed: you have to input data to get anything out.

However, cases of "feral children" such as Genie have been used to dispute Chomsky's ideas- language cannot be innate, as it has proved impossible to teach these children language. Other linguists such as Lenneberg in 1976 have suggested the Critical Period Hypothesis- the idea that language acquisition can only take place normally within a fixed period of time, normally before puberty.

1 of 9

Skinner and Behaviourism

In 1959 BF Skinner published "Verbal Behaviour", a book promoting the school of thought basically the opposite to Chomsky's ideas. Behaviourism is an approach to psychology which states that if a behaviour is reinforced, it will be strengthened, while if it is punished, it will be weakened. Operant conditioning uses a desirable reinforcer after a "good" behaviour is shown or a punisher after a "bad" behaviour. Skinner believed that language is just another learned behaviour.

Positive reinforcement- giving a desirable reinforcer after an individual shows "good" behaviour. For example, praising a child for correctly naming an object.

Punishment- giving an unpleasant stimulus or removing a rewarding stimulus when a "bad" behaviour is shown. For example, correcting a child when they say something gramatically incorrect.

However, there are several problems with Skinner's theories. Firstly, children are not rats or pigeons, the two animals he experimented on, and may not respond in the same way. Secondly, Brown, Cazden and Bellugi (

2 of 9

Piaget and the Cognitive Approach

The Swiss linguist Jean Piaget, who researched in the 1920s, claimed that it is cognition, rather than language, which develops in stages. Without this cognition, language cannot develop- a child cannot linguistically articulate concepts they do not understand (eg, they cannot use superlatives such as bigger and biggest without havong grasped the concept of relative sizes, or use adverbs of time such as yesterday or tomorrow without understanding how time passes.) This can account for the common phenomenon of children who have previously been able to use Standard forms but who then suddenly seem to regress and make errors in their speech. Piaget would put this down to the child in their earlier stages simply mimicking the correct speech they hear from adults, but later using their own cognitive understanding to form sentences- as this hs not yet fully developed, the child makes errors.

Piaget also put forward the notion of egocentricity. Young children are unable to separate their own perspective from those of other people- their world still revolves around themself. As children develop, this normally passes as children learn to adapt their remarks to take into consideration the listener.

There are some problems with Piaget's theories. Some children with cognitive problems manage to use language way beyond their apparent understanding. While language and cognition are clearly linked, language is different from other aspects of a child's development.

3 of 9

Bruner, Vygotsky and Social Interactionism

Bruner's approach is possibly the most credible language theory in this topic. He puts forward that the interactions between a child and their carer are crucial in their development and help the child gain important abilities such as turn taking in conversation. This is called "scaffolding"- the adult supports the child's development by exposing them to language, but the child acquires language for themselves through the interaction they have with them.

Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, created the sociocultural model. He believed that all language development in children is visible in two stages. First, the child observes the interaction between other people and then the behavior develops inside the child. This means that the child first observes the adults around him communicating amongst themselves and then later develops the ability himself to communicate. Vygotsky also theorized that a child learns best when interacting with those around him to solve a problem. At first, the adult interacting with the child is responsible for leading the child, and eventually, the child becomes more capable of problem solving on his own. This is true with language, as the adult first talks at the child and eventually the child learns to respond in turn.

See more at:

4 of 9

Halliday's Functions

The linguist M Halliday identified 7 functions or purposes of children's speech. These are:

Instrumental- language used to fulfil a need of the speaker (eg "Want a drink")

Regulatory- language used to influence the behaviour of others, persuasive (eg "Can we go park?")

Interactional- used to develop social relationships and ease the process of interaction (eg "Love you")

Personal- language used to express something about the speaker such as identity, announcing opneself to the world (eg "I called Charlie")

Representational- language used to relay or request information (eg "There doggie")

Heuristic- language used to learn and explore the environment though questions and answers or the kind of running commentary children often give while playing (eg "What's that?")

Imaginative- language used to play imaginary games/role play or tell stories (eg I'm a princess")

5 of 9

Other spoken language theories

Berko and Brown- the fis phenomenon These linguists spoke to a child who referred to a toy fish as "fis" When an adult asked "Is this your fis?" the child replied "No, it's a fis." However, when asked "Is this your fish?" the child replied "Yes, my fis." This suggests that children do not hear their errors as others hear them and so it may not be worth correcting them. It also suggests that cognitive development can precede correct phonological and linguistic development- the child knew what the object was and could apply the correct noun, even if they could not pronounce it.

Brown, Cazden and Bellugi found that parents are more likely to respond to the truth value of what their child says than whether it is grammatically correct. For example, a parent is more likely to praise a child who says "There doggie" for correctly naming the animal than correct them to "there is a dog."

6 of 9

Kroll's Stages of Writing Development

Preparation- up to 6 years old. The child learns basic motor skills and some principles of spelling and orthography.

Consolidation- 7/8 years. Writing is similar to spoken language in register- informal and colloquial, as the child has not devloped a complete awareness of genre conventions. Simple sentences or a string of clauses joined together by simple conjuctions "and" or "then" etc

Differentiation- 9/10 years. Awareness of writing as separate from speech emerges, as well as a stronger understanding of different genres. Writing for different audiences and purposes becomes more automatic.

Integration- mid teens. The writer has established a "personal voice" in writing which is controlled and makes appropriate linguistic choices.

7 of 9

Rothery's Categories

Rothery defined several categories which children's writing can fall into. They are roughly chronological- as children develop an awareness of different genres as well as their own writing style, they progress into the later categories, though obviously this depends on purpose and audience,

Observation/Comment- the writer makes an observation followed by a comment, or mixes the two.

Recount- a simple chronological sequence of events, similar to early reports of events done at school (what I did over the summer etc)

Report- factual description of events or things which tends not to be chronological.

Narrative- story genre with a plotline of events occuring and being resolved.

8 of 9

Barclay's Stages of Writing Development

Scribbling- child makes random marks on a page. They learn motor skills such as holding a pen and rules of English orthography

Mock Handwriting- Children draw shapes and some letter like forms (pseudo-letters) beginning to emerge- emergent writing.

Mock Letters- random letters are produced but the sounds do not match the symbols with no awareness of spacing.

Conventional Letters- the child begins to match sounds with letters. Often single letters are used to represent whole words and read as if they are an entire word

Invented Spelling- Most words are spelt phonetically though some simple or familiar words are correct

Appropriate Spelling- Sentences become more complex, spelling more often correct and writing more legible]

Correct Spelling- most words spelt correctly, older children use joined up writing.

9 of 9




Um I'm afraid only 70% is not good enough for my kids so I am afraid I'm not going to use your site

Similar English Language resources:

See all English Language resources »See all Child language acquisition resources »