Compare and contrast the three theories of language acquisition.

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a lot that we still do not know about the systematic process of language acquisition as it occurs in the brain. Then again, there is a lot that we do not know about brain activity as it is. What we do know is that language acquisition is a process that occurs in stages: some of which are more critical than others, but each is very important.

Since we lack a complete map of the process, we use other methods to extract as much information as we can to determine possible ways that the process takes place. This is how the theories that we are about to compare came about.

1. Nativist theory: the gist of this theory is that all of us have a genetic pre-disposition to learn languages. It is an inherent ability, which means that we are born with it. According to this theory, our brain has a linguistic corpus, or mechanism, which was dubbed by Noam Chomsky as the "Language Acquisition Device" (LAD). As such, this "language machine" would convert sounds and symbols into meaning the way that another human organ converts substances into energy. This theory also states that there is something called a universal grammar, or a finite set of rules (which are not the same in every language), that determines how our brain processes meaning. 

2. The interactionist approach, which is based out of sociocultural theory, basically states that language ability is innate, but the way that it develops is by the human need of communicating with others. As such, we use language differently, from person to person, because we develop internal rules and monitoring when we express ourselves from situation to situation. 

3. Behavioral theories, such as those proposed by B.F. Skinner, are based on environmental input. The notion is that we have the innate capability to communicate, but what is really important is how it develops and how we adapt language to our needs. In behavioral theory, less weight is given to the nature of language. Rather, development is everything; our motivation to speak and communicate likely comes from the input of the environment more so than from internal processes. According to behavioral theories, nurture plays a higher role than nature in the process of communication and language development. 

For more information on theories of acquisition be sure to check out:

  • Stephen Krashen
  • B.F. Skinner
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Howard Gardener (Theories of motivation)
  • Lev Vygotsky
  • Albert Bandura (Social Learning Theory)
  • D.A. Wilkins

eNotes has a great study guide in Second Language Acquisition theory. Be sure to look for it too!


stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The three theories of language acquisition hold that language develops in children as a result of: 1) imitation of language being used by adults and older children around the young child; 2) reinforcement of language attempts by the young child; and 3) nativism, or a neurological predisposition allowing for the development of language when a child's neurological development reaches the proper stage.

All of these theories assume that the child is capable of developing and maturing, whether independently or with support and stimulation from the environment around the child. All are addressing the development of ordinary, conversational language through casual means, not a formal study of a language and its application and use.

The imitation theory contends that children acquire language by imitating the speech of others. The problem with this theory is that children quickly begin using words in phrases and sentences that they have not heard from an adult, so they are not imitating in this use of language.

The theory based on reinforcement contends that children receive positive reinforcement for correct or appropriate attempts to use language and negative reinforcement in response to mistakes. This theory does not explain why children enjoy talking to themselves without any feedback or reaction, and it does not address the research that shows many adults tend to reinforce the meaning of a child's verbal language rather than the grammatical content of the language.

The nativism theory holds that

the human brain has a built-in language acquisition device, or LAD, that analyzes the parts of speech in the language that a child hears.

This theory holds that children will begin to acquire language, regardless of imitation or reinforcement, when their brain has developed to the needed stage.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are four theories that attempt to explain the process of language acquisition: behaviorist theory, innateness, cognitive theory, and interactionist theory. Whereas each of these theories refers to children as the subject matter, they differ greatly in terms of concept.

Skinner’s behaviorism theory asserts that children learn language through imitation of their parents and caregivers. Successful attempts are rewarded by either praise or by giving the child what they want. Unsuccessful attempts are ignored and thus forgotten.

Chomsky, who proposed innateness, states that children have an inborn faculty for acquiring language, known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). According to him, language acquisition is biological, and a child has innate grammatical categories that facilitate language development through to adulthood.

According to Piaget's cognitive theory, language acquisition is part of a child’s cognitive development. He states that a child must first understand a concept before they can acquire a language to express that particular concept.

Finally, the interactionist theory affirms that since language exists for the primary purpose of communication, then children can only learn language through interaction with their parents, caregivers, or older children. The acquisition is achieved through child-directed speech, in which caregivers tailor their articulation when communicating with children.