The understanding of howlanguage is acquired, and the role the brain plays in the language acquisitionprocess are crucial because the development of language is considered a crucialelement of human development. The analysis of language development isintrinsically connected with one’s awareness of how human beings or humanbrains perceive, learn, control, and coordinate elaborate behaviour. The studyof language development, therefore, involves research on motor, perceptual, andcognitive development.
This paper reviews the three major theories of languageacquisition, namely, behaviouristic, psycholinguistic, and interactionist andexamines the biological component of language acquisition and the brain’s rolein the language development process.The development oflanguage is generally considered to be determined by factors in both theenvironment and a person’s neurobiological make-up. Theories of languageacquisition fall within three major schools of thought, namely, thebehavioristic, the psycholinguistic (also referred to as nativistic ormentalistic), and the interactionist (also referred to as cognitive) perspectives.This paper defines each of these perspectives and examines the biologicalcomponent of language, accepted by the psycholinguistic and interactionistproponents alike. In examining the biological component of language, this paperalso discusses the critical period for language acquisition, theories oflanguage development from the biological perspective, as well as informationfrom studies ofindividuals with neurological or biological dysfunction. Thestudy of the language development of persons with specific types of braindamage or other biological disturbances has provided much information regardingthe brain’s role in the language process. Finally, this paper discusses howthese innate, biological factors, influence the acquisition of language. The first perspective oflanguage acquisition to be discussed in this paper is the behaviouristicposition (SKINNER, 1987), which builds on learning principles to explainlanguage acquisition.
Behaviourists believe that the learner begins with noknowledge of language but possesses the competence to learn it. Specifically,they contend that one learns through the reinforcement of imitation. Forinstance, infants repeat words or babbles after their parents without having aclear knowledge of the meaning of those words. This reinforcement ofbabblingand the shaping ofvocal behaviour account for the very first stage of leaming.The child’s babbling will later tum into words that will subsequently beassociated with meanings and promote communication. According to thebehaviouristic perspective, language is acquired from factors in theenvironment Behaviourists believe that the development of language is afunction of stimulus, response, and reinforcement2.
Behaviourists view thelanguage learner as a language producingmachine. Language input is made available to the learner in the form ofstimuli/ feedback. In the behaviouristic model, the learner is passive, and theenvironment is the determining factor. Another perspective of language learningis the psycholinguistic position. The proponents of this approach argue thatthe leaner is the grand initiator of all language learning. The learnerpossesses an innate capacity for dealing with language and activates a theoryor process of grammar (grammatical theory) to help understand and produce aninnumerable number of phrases or sentences. Language input is, therefore, oflittle consequence other than being only a trigger of the innate mentalprocesses to begin language formation. Psycholinguists claim that none of the learner’soutput can be explained in terms of the characteristics of the input Instead,the learner is biologically predisposed to learn languages as the braindevelops, and the environment simply triggers its emergence.
Noam Chomsky(1965, 1980, 2005Y, the most famous ofthe psycholinguists, calledthis innate orbiological component the Language AcquisitionDevice (LAD). A third perspectiveis that of the interactionists. Proponents of the interactionistic perspectiveclaim that the development of language is the result of interaction between thelearner’s mental abilities and the linguistic environment (see for exampleCHAPMAN, 2000; HUITT; HUMMEL, 2003; PIAGET, 1954, 1999). The learner acquireslanguage through the interaction ofperceptual-cognitive capacities andexperiences. The learner’s environment and neurological maturation determinelearning.
Therefore, language and thought are simultaneously developed as thelearner passes through a series of fixed developmental stages requiring moreand more complex strategies of cognitive organization. Interactionists considerthe capacity for learning language to be innate. Interactionists claim that thelearner must internalize linguistic structures from the environment and mustbecome aware of the social function of communication. Thus, the important dataare not only the utterances produced by the learner, but the discourse whichlearner and caretaker (e.g., father and/or mother) jointly construct. Piaget(1954, 1999; PIAGET; INHELDER, 1969), the major proponent of theinteractionistic position, believed that the child’s environment andneurological maturation determine learning.
As a result, language developmentprograms based on the interactionistic perspective are based on two ideas:”(a) meaning is brought to a child’s language through interaction with theenvironment, and (b) the child uses speech to control the environment”(MERCER, 1997, p.418).In summary, the abovediscussion shows that these three perspectives overlap and complement eachother. While behaviourists claim that learning is the result of input from thelinguistic environment, psycholinguists believe that language input works onlyas a trigger ofthe innate mental processes that is responsible for languageformation. This means that the linguistic environment contributes little tolanguage learning.
Interactionists, on the other hand, combine thebehaviouristic and the psycholinguistic perspectives, as they believe that theinteraction between the learner’s mental abilities and the linguistic environmentpromotes the development of language.