Child Language Theories

Child Language Theories


Halliday's Seven Functions

Halliday (1975) believed children are motivated to acquire language because it serves certain purposes or functions for them. He identified seven functions that language has for children in their early years.

Instrumental - child uses language to express its needs. e.g."Want biscuit"
Regulatory - language is used to tell others what to do. e.g."Pick me"
Interactional - language is used to make contact with others and to form relationships. e.g."Love you Daddy"
Personal - language is used to express feelings, opinions and individual identity. e.g."Me good girl"
Heuristic - language is used to gain knowlege about the environment. e.g."What dog doing?"
•Imaginative - language is used to tell stories and jokes, and to create an imaginary environment. e.g."Its a dinosaur..Roar"
Representational - child uses language to convey facts and information. e.g."Big car"

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Examiner Tip!

The fact that some children's utterances are short doesn't mean they are unsophisticated. Don't assume that just because an utterance is grammatically simple that it is basic in meaning. You will be rewarded in exams if you can look at a range of examples of child language data and explain how the features of language are used in different ways.

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Behaviourist/ Imitation

This theory is especially associated with Skinner (1957) and regards language as similar to other kinds of human behaviour: if we do something and it has positive, pleasurable consequences, we are more likely to do it again; however if it has negative, unpleasant consequences, we are less likely to repeat the action.

This approach argues that children acquire language by imitating the speech of others. When a child produces words successfully it receives approval and encouragement, and this motivates the child to repeat the behaviour. This reinforcement shapes the child's use of language and ensures that it develops successfully.

Clearly, some children do copy their parents or carers as many children pick up labels for new objects, local accents and dialects, or even swear words from those around them.

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Behaviourist/ Imitation - Criticisms

Chomsky says......All children of all backgrounds and languages tend to go through similar stages at around the same time. If imitation was taking place, children would go through these stages at radically different times, depending on the input they received. He also pointed to the fact that children produce utterances they could never have heard before "linguistic creativity"and make mistakes "virtuous errors" that suggest they have an inbuilt grasp.

The "poverty of the stimulus"which Chomsky also discusses, suggests that the language children hear is so fragmented and often grammatically non-standard, that children can't hope to copy it and learn "correct" adult speech.

Nelson (1970) says......Children resist correction, so the whole idea of negative reinforcement would seem to fall to bits. e.g. Child: I feed the birds / Mum: No, you fed the birds / Child: No, I feed the birds all by myself.

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Nativist/ Innateness

This theory is especially associated with Chomsky (1965) and he argues that children have an innate (inborn) ability to extract the rules underlying language from the words they hear being spoken around them. He called this ability the 'Language Acquisition Device' (LAD).

According to Chomsky, different language have different surface structures, but they all share the same deep structure. For example, utterances containing a subject, verb and object are common to all languages.

Children are said to possess an innate awareness of this deep structure, and this explains why they are able to develop language proficiency so rapidly: from birth their brains are ready to analyse what they hear and to understand how the language system of the society they have been born into works.

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Nativist/ Innateness - Criticisms

Recent research suggests that Chomsky overstated the poverty of children's input: many researchers suggest that 90%+ of the language children hear is of standard grammar, rather than the fragmented utterances Chomsky implied.

Social Interaction says......Too much emphasis has been placed on what's inbuilt and not enough on the importance of interaction between child and carer. e.g. Lenneberg - Critical Period Hypothesis (0-5 years). Chomsky, along with Pinker now proposes a "principles and parameters" model which consists of "switches" that will be turned on or off depending on children's exposure to common rules of their native language.

Behaviourists (Skinner) says......Children's development of regional accents and imitation of vocabulary is evidence that innateness isn't the only element of child language acquisition.

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This theory is especially associated with Piaget who suggests that Cognitive Development (the development of mental abilities and skills) is the overriding influence on the development of language. Stages in language acquisition are said to be linked to stages in cognitive development:

  • The development of object permanence, which is the ability to understand that objects have an independent existence. Children appear to believe that if an object is out of sight it ceases to exist. Once children have realized that objects have an independent existence, the next step is to learn the names for those objects.
  • The linguistic development (the use of comparative adjectives) is another example. Children who are not yet able to do this usually describe objects as "long'" or "short", whereas children who understand the task use comparative terms such as "longer" and "shorter".
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Cognitive - Criticisms

Nativist theories tend to sit fairly closely to cognitive theories, but some argue that language development is unique and shouldn't be linked too closely to wider processes of child development. Many don't support the view that language and cognition are closely related.

Children often get past tense endings right a long time before they grasp the concept fully, so its highly unlikely that children learn concepts first and then language afterwards.

Children with particular medical conditions like autistic spectrum disorders often have highly advanced language skills but weaker conceptual understanding.

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Input/ Social Interaction

This theory is especially associated with Bruner who suggests that interaction with a child helps them develop a grasp of not only the meanings of words, but also the practical realities of communication; turn-taking, pragmatics and non-verbal communication. He believes it scaffolds children's language development. He called this the LASS (Language Acquisition Support System).

Parents and caregivers are often seen to expand and develop their children's utterances rather than correct them for grammar or vocabulary, helping the child develop at at natural pace while providing models for their communication. e.g. Child: Me saw doggie / Mum: I know, it's a big brown dog, isn't it?

Feral children seem to support the role of interaction in CLA (Child Language Acquisition) such as the cases of Jim or Genie.

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Input/ Social Interaction - Criticisms

Chomsky says......All children of all backgrounds and languages tend to go through similar stages at around the same time thus supporting the idea that language acquisition is innate. If interaction were so significant, children would go through these stages at radically different times, depending on the in put and support they received.

Some cultures such as Samoa and Papua New Guinea don't use CDS (Child Directed Speech)yet their children still acquire language in stages at similar rates.

Interaction can't be the only factor in CLA, as children receive wildly different levels of input. It is probably an important factor, but language - in some form or another - is probably innate.

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