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Language and Cognition

Theories of Language Acquisition

The Structure of Language

Language and Nonhuman Primates

The nature vs. nurture debate extends to the topic of language acquisition. Today, most researchers acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role in language acquisition. However, some researchers emphasize the influences of learning on language acquisition, while others emphasize the biological influences.

Environmental Influences on Language Acquisition

A major proponent of the idea that language depends largely on environment was the behaviorist B. F. Skinner (see pages 145 and 276 for more information on Skinner). He believed that language is acquired through principles of conditioning, including association, imitation, and reinforcement.

According to this view, children learn words by associating sounds with objects, actions, and events. They also learn words and syntax by imitating others. Adults enable children to learn words and syntax by reinforcing correct speech.

Critics of this idea argue that a behaviorist explanation is inadequate. They maintain several arguments:

  • Learning cannot account for the rapid rate at which children acquire language.
  • There can be an infinite number of sentences in a language. All these sentences cannot be learned by imitation.
  • Children make errors, such as overregularizing verbs. For example, a child may say Billy hitted me, incorrectly adding the usual past tense suffix -ed to hit. Errors like these can’t result from imitation, since adults generally use correct verb forms.
  • Children acquire language skills even though adults do not consistently correct their syntax.

Biological Influences on Language Acquisition

The main proponent of the view that biological influences bring about language development is the well-known linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argues that human brains have a language acquisition device (LAD), an innate mechanism or process that allows children to develop language skills. According to this view, all children are born with a universal grammar, which makes them receptive to the common features of all languages. Because of this hard-wired background in grammar, children easily pick up a language when they are exposed to its particular grammar.

Evidence for an innate human capacity to acquire language skills comes from the following observations:

  • The stages of language development occur at about the same ages in most children, even though different children experience very different environments.
  • Children’s language development follows a similar pattern across cultures.
  • Children generally acquire language skills quickly and effortlessly.
  • Deaf children who have not been exposed to a language may make up their own language. These new languages resemble each other in sentence structure, even when they are created in different cultures.

Language, Culture, and Thought

Researchers have differing views about the extent to which language and culture influence the way people think. In the 1950s, Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. He said language determines the way people think. For example, Whorf said that Eskimo people and English-speaking people think about snow differently because the Eskimo language has many more words for snow than the English language does.

Most subsequent research has not supported Whorf’s hypothesis. Researchers do acknowledge, however, that language can influence thought in subtle ways. For example, the use of sexist terminology may influence how people think about women. Two ways that people commonly use language to influence thinking are semantic slanting and name calling.

Semantic Slanting

Semantic slanting is a way of making statements so that they will evoke specific emotional responses.

Example: Military personnel use the term “preemptive counterattack” rather than “invasion,” since “invasion” is likely to produce more negative feelings in people.

Name Calling

Name calling is a strategy of labeling people in order to influence their thinking. In anticipatory name calling, it is implied that if someone thinks in a particular way, he or she will receive an unfavorable label.

Example: On the day a student buys a new desk, he might say, “Only a slob would pile junk on a desk like this.” This might help ensure that his roommate keeps it free of junk.

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