Language Acquisition

language acquisition, the process of learning a native or a second language. The acquisition of native languages is studied primarily by developmental psychologists and psycholinguists. Although how children learn to speak is not perfectly understood, most explanations involve both the observation that children copy what they hear and the inference that human beings have a natural aptitude for understanding grammar. While children usually learn the sounds and vocabulary of their native language through imitation, grammar is seldom taught to them explicitly; that they nonetheless rapidly acquire the ability to speak grammatically supports the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and other proponents of transformational grammar. According to this view, children are able to learn the "superficial" grammar of a particular language because all intelligible languages are founded on a "deep structure" of grammatical rules that are universal and that correspond to an innate capacity of the human brain. Stages in the acquisition of a native language can be measured by the increasing complexity and originality of a child's utterances. Children at first may overgeneralize grammatical rules and say, for example, goed (meaning went), a form they are unlikely to have heard, suggesting that they have intuited or deduced complex grammatical rules (here, how to conjugate regular verbs) and failed only to learn exceptions that cannot be predicted from a knowledge of the grammar alone. The acquisition of second or foreign languages is studied primarily by applied linguists. People learning a second language pass through some of the same stages, including overgeneralization, as do children learning their native language. However, people rarely become as fluent in a second language as in their native tongue. Some linguists see the earliest years of childhood as a critical period, after which the brain loses much of its facility for assimilating new languages. Most traditional methods for learning a second language involve some systematic approach to the analysis and comprehension of grammar as well as to the memorization of vocabulary. The cognitive approach, increasingly favored by experts in language acquisition, emphasizes extemporaneous conversation, immersion, and other techniques intended to simulate the environment in which most people acquire their native language as children.

See J. C. Richards, Error Analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition (1974); R. Andersen, ed., New Dimensions in Second Language Acquisition Research (1981); D. W. Carroll, Psychology of Language (1986); A. Radford, Syntactic Theory and the Acquisition of English Syntax (1990).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Language Acquisition: Selected full-text books and articles

The Onset of Language By Nobuo Masataka Cambridge University Press, 2003
The Interactional Instinct: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language By Namhee Lee; Lisa Mikesell; Anna Dina L. Joaquin; Andrea W. Mates; John H. Schumann Oxford University Press, 2009
Cognitive and Behavioral Approaches to Language Acquisition: Conceptual and Empirical Intersections By Dale, Rick The Behavior Analyst Today, Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Children's Discourse: Person, Space and Time across Languages By Maya Hickmann Cambridge University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: "Some Main Theoretical Issues in Theories of Language Acquisition" begins on p. 21
Language Acquisition in Linguistically Diverse Societies By Winter, Suzanne M Childhood Education, Vol. 87, No. 4, Summer 2011
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory By Trevor A. Harley Psychology Press, 2001 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Language Development"
Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders By C. Addison Stone; Elaine R. Silliman; Barbara J. Ehren; Kenn Apel Guilford Press, 2004
Action Meets Word: How Children Learn Verbs By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek; Roberta Michnick Golinkoff Oxford University Press, 2006
Mechanisms of Language Acquisition By Brian MacWhinney Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987
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