I do not attempt in this chapter the rather Gargantuan task of surveying what is known about the child's acquisition of a first language. The amount of information that has accumulated, especially in the last two decades, is formidable. Furthermore, excellent accounts of first-language acquisition exist elsewhere (especially Brown, 1973a; Lindfors, 1980). The aim is a more modest one: to provide background and perspective for the discussion that follows in subsequent chapters of the child's acquisition of a second language.
This chapter has four sections. First, I examine different ways of looking at the language acquisition process and at the skills that the child is thought to bring to this task. Then I turn to a consideration of just what it is that the child must accomplish in order to acquire a language. A discussion of the linguistic environment of the child language learner follows. Finally, a brief overview is presented of the developmental stages characteristic of first- language acquisition.
Descriptions of the language development process and of the child's linguistic capabilities differ depending on the epistemological stance one adopts. Usually a distinction is drawn between the rationalist and the empiricist positions. The rationalist regards cognitive abilities as given. Experience does not teach directly; it activates an innate capacity. We know the world as we do, because we are biologically structured to know it in this