The acquisition of language “is doubtless the greatest intellectual feat any one of us is ever required to perform.” (Leonard Bloomfield)
Every child has the capacity to learn, more precisely to acquire any human language. Language is an instinct and not a learned skill such as playing the guitar or riding a bicycle. But how do children acquire language? Do they learn by imitation? Do adults teach them? Do they learn by reinforcement? This article examines language learning, comprehension, and genesis by children and provides insights into the ways in which children extract, manipulate, and create the complex structures that exist within natural languages.
How do infants learn the units of their native language so rapidly? One interesting approach to answering this question is to present infants with miniature artificial languages that embody specific aspects of natural language structure. Once the infant is familiarized with a sample of this language, a new sample, or a sample from a different language, is presented to him/her. Subtle measures of surprise (e.g., duration of looking toward the source of new sounds) are then used to assess whether the infant perceives the new sample as more of the same, or something different. In this fashion, we can ask what the infant extracted from the artificial language, which can lead to insights regarding the learning mechanisms underlying the earliest stages of language acquisition.
No less determined, researchers are assembling a variety of methodologies to uncover certain mechanisms underlying language acquisition. Months before infants utter their first words, their early language-learning mechanisms can be examined by recording subtle responses to new combinations of sounds. Once children begin to link words together, experiments using real-time measures of language processing can reveal the ways linguistic and nonlinguistic information are integrated during listening. Natural experiments in which children are faced with minimal language exposure can reveal the extent of inborn language-learning capacities and their effect on language creation and change. As these techniques and others probing the child’s mind are developed and findings thereof are integrated, they reveal the child’s solution to the embroilment of learning a language.
Noam Chomsky believes that children are born with an inherited ability to learn any human language. He argues that certain linguistic structures which children use so accurately must be already imprinted on the child’s mind. Chomsky believes that every child has a ‘language acquisition device’ or LAD which encodes the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures into the child’s brain. Children then only have to learn new vocabulary and apply the syntactic structures from the LAD to form sentences. Chomsky points out that a child could not possibly learn a language through imitation alone, because the language spoken around the same is highly irregular – adults’ speech is often broken up and sometimes even ungrammatical. Chomsky’s theory applies to all languages as they all contain nouns, verbs, consonants and vowels and children appear to be ‘hard-wired’ to acquire the grammar. Every language is extremely complex, often with subtle distinctions which even native speakers are unaware of. However, all children, regardless of their intellectual ability, become fluent in their native language within five or six years.
These examples of language learning, processing, and creation represent just a few of the many developments between birth and linguistic maturity. During this period, children discover the raw materials in the sounds (or gestures) of their language, learn how they are assembled into longer strings, and map these combinations onto meaning. These processes unfold simultaneously, requiring children to integrate their capacities as they learn, and to discover the code of communication that surrounds them. Despite the many layers of complexity, each currently beyond the reach of modern computers, young children readily solve the linguistic puzzles facing them, even surpassing their input when it lacks the expected structure.