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Our brief description of the structure of language should indicate the enormity of the task confronting a child learning to speak. He must master not only the proper pronunciation of words, but also their meaning and the infinite number of ways that they may be combined into sentences to express thoughts.

How the child accomplishes this task in such a brief time (4-5 years) has been a subject of great interest to psychologists.

The common-sense assumption is that the child learns to speak by limitation. By mimicking what his parents say, and practicing these speech forms, he gradually modifies his speech until it approximates adult language.


Until recently this view was held by many psychologists; the acquisition of language could be explained by the principles of classical and operant conditioning (Skinner, 1957).

Now, under the impetus of recent work in linguistics and psycholinguistics, a quite different picture of child language has emerged. This new view proposes certain innate, or built-in, mechanisms for processing language, which enable the child to construct his own “rules” for language usage. These rules form the child’s “theory” of how language works; the child modifies his theory until he arrives at one that permits him to correctly generate adult language.

According to this viewpoint, the same rules appear in the same sequence for all children and are little affected by conditions in the environment- provided the child receives some exposure to the language.

Thus, all normal children acquire a native language; it is not a skill that must be taught. In contrast to language, some skills (such as swimming, reading, or arithmetic) may not be mastered despite considerable Instruction.


The view of language acquisition that emphasizes the role of learning has been most closely identified with the behavlorlstlc, or S-R, approach to psychology, The view that stresses the development of rules based on certain Innate capacities Is more closely associated with cognitive psychology.

In this section we will examine the development of a child’s language, noting evidence bearing on each of these views of language acquisition.

Babbling and Initial Words:

During the first months of life vocalization is very limited, but at about six months infants begin to produce an immense variety of sounds in increasingly complex combinations. The repetition of the syllables resembling those used in adult speech is called babbling.


During the early babbling stage infants are able to produce most of the sounds that form the basis of language-including sounds used in languages other than their own. Experiments have shown that the babbling of a Chinese baby cannot be distinguished from that of a Russian or English infant during this period (Alkinson, MacWhinney and Stoel, 1970).

By about nine months the range of babbled sounds narrows, and the infant begins to concentrate on those sounds that will appear in his first words. In a sense, the child stops experimenting with sound and concentrates on those syllables that are to form the initial words.

Regardless of the child’s native language, the first words consist of a front consonant, p, m, b, or t (produced with the tongue in the front of the mouth), and a back vowel, e or a (produced with the tongue in the back).

This undoubtedly is the reason why the words for mama and papa are so similar in many languages. This is also why English children say tut before cut; Swedish children say tata before kata; and Japanese children say ta before ka (McNeill, 1970). Interestingly enough, back consonants such as k and g, which the child cannot yet use properly in words, may appear correctly in vocal play.


There seems to be a difference between spontaneously producing a sound and producing it voluntarily. A child who uses only p, m, and an in speech will at the same time use many other sounds in non speech (Kakobson, 1968).

Words and Meaning:

To produce a word sound is one accomplishment, but more is required before the word has meaning-before it stands as a symbol for something else. How do children learn to associate words with particular objects and events?

In the simplest case the parent repeatedly names an object with which the child is familiar, for example, saying doll every time the hands the child his doll though repeated pairing of the word with the object. The child learns to associate the two.


An example that is more readily observable in the child’s behavior is the parent’s saying no and simultaneously slapping the child’s hand when he reaches for a forbidden object.

The hand-withdrawal response, which was originally elicited by the slap, is soon elicited by the word alone. An observer would say that the child had learned the meaning of the word no. You can recognize this situation as an example of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning may also play a role in the child’s learning to associate word sounds and meaning. If the child produces a sound that approximates a word-for example, muk (mik) or oukay (cookie)-the parent may hasten to provide the food, the thinks is being requested, thus increasing the likelihood that the child will produce a similar sound when hungry.

Although some of the child’s early words may have an adult meaning, studies indicate that the child’s use and interpretation of most of his early words differ considerably from those of an adult.

When a child first uses a word, he tends to overextend it to include much more than the adult meaning. For example, the word doggie (first Lenard in reference to a dog) may subsequently be used to refer to all animals with four legs or all small animals that move, or all objects that are furry. This is the problem we discussed in the section on concept formation.

Over extension occurs because the child is using only one or two features as a criterion. Gradually the child narrows his meaning by adding specific features. Thus, if the concept of doggie includes all four-legged animals and the next word learned is cow, the child must add another feature to his criterion.

For cow how might add the feature of sound or size (large compared to dogs, or shape (horns, udder). At the same time he is probably adding more features to his concept of doggie (e.g., barks relatively small, furry, etc.). As he learns more words that take over part of the domain he had reserved for dogs (e.g., cats are also relatively small and furry) he narrows his meaning of the word until it finally approaches the adult meaning.

By three or four years of age the child’s overextensions of meaning are less obvious, but closely related words may still be confused. With word pairs such as more-less, tall-short, same-different, and before-after, the meaning of one of the words is initially extended to cover both.

The average three year old does not differentiate more from less; rather they are treated as synonyms. He can correctly point to the tree that has more apples on it. When asked to point to the tree with fewer apples, he is apt to indicate the one that has more. He seems to know that less refers to quantity, but interprets it the same as more.

Studies have shown similar results with other word pairs that represent opposite ends of a dimension. Children at first respond to same and different as it they both meant same, and to after as if both meanly before. Only as specific features are added to the meaning of each word in the pair do the two become differentiated (E. Clark, 1973).

Thus we see that children acquire the meaning of words by a gradual process of discrimination, proceeding from those more general features that characterize the word to specific ones.

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