How do children learn new words?

   This semester, I am taking a course called Child Language Acquisition which is about how children learn(acquire) their langauge(s). Even though my actual interest was about how we acquire second languages, I took this since SLA was not offered this semester. Anyhow, I think I really like this course, mainly because the actual way children acquire languages is pretty different from the myths that people usually believe (e.g. They mainly rely on their parents/teachers or corrections). Today, I would like to focus on children’s lexical acquisition which is how they learn new words.

Observation Theory and Imitation Theory

   Two common beliefs of people on how children acquire languages are based on Observation Theory and Imitation Theory. First, I’ll explain about the Observation Theory. It’s the belief that children learn a new word by actually looking at an object or an action that the word is referring to. Imagine a situation where a mom is pointing at a rabbit and say “Gavagai!” Now, what is the child’s interpretation to Mom’s “Gavagai!”? A common belief would be that the child will learn that gavagai is an animal that the mom is pointing at. Wait… But how do we know that the mom meant a rabbit? What if gavagai means ‘to point’, huh?

   You’re right. It could have also meant the rabbit’s ear or other parts. There are just too many possibilities of what gavagai means and we call this the Problem of Induction. Also, think about less observable words, such as ‘to sleep’, ‘to love’, ‘to think’. How do you make those words observable so you can show them to children? Lexical acquisition must be about something more than just observing things and actions. Moreover, blind children who are in the absence of visual cues also obtain the full acquisition of words. Therefore, the Observation Theory is not sufficient to explain it all.

   Now, let’s talk about the Imitation Theory. This, in fact, was one of the earliest theories in CLA and what most people believe. It claims that children learn words by imitating adults’ speech. We experience a lot of moments where the mom keeps saying “mama” and the child finally is able to follow their mom’s “mama.” Yes, imitation may be a part of lexical acquisition. But, children, when they reach a certain age, are able to produce many, many different novel sentences. It won’t be the case where children heard all those sentences from other people since the number of unique sentences they can make is just infinite.

   There’s one more evidence that refutes the Imitation Theory that I would like to discuss. It’s the children’s tendency to overgeneralize (overregularize) the grammar rules. Generally, children extend the grammatical rules to irregular words. For instance, they will say ‘goed’ as the past tense form of the verb ‘go’. See (Marcus, G., Pinker, S., Ullman, M., Hollander, M., Rosen, T., Xu, F., & Clahsen, H., 1992).

Ability to acquire languages is an innate ability

   Finally, it’s the time to talk about the Universal Grammar, the prevailing theory in the world of linguistics right now. UG explains that there is some kind of innate principles, or an imaginary Language Acquisition Device (LAD), that trigger L1 (First Language) acquisition. I would like to point out three evidence for this idea.

   First of all, language acquisition is effortless. You never tried so hard to learn your native language. It’s just a naturally acquired knowledge which is different from learning skills like math, playing instruments that you have to put time and efforts into. Additionally, whether you are raised by talkative parents or deaf parents, and educated or uneducated do not affect the result of language acquisition. There’s a uniformity in success of acquiring your first language regardless of your surroundings. Moreover, there is a predetermined schedule for acquiring syntax, which goes like “Negation -> Tense -> Agreement -> Question”. For example, children might make mistakes, such as “She don’t go,” since they haven’t learned agreement yet. However, children who already know how to form questions never make mistakes like “Do she go?” as agreement is learned before question-forming.

   Actually, there are many other experiments and studies that bolster the theory of Universal Grammar. But now, I will stop here because my :shit: is knocking on my rectum. To be continued in the future posts…

Written on March 9, 2017