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Reaction Paper: “First Language Acquisition”
Camila González R. – Camila Inostroza E.
First language acquisition has always been a recurrent topic, not only for linguists, but
also for psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and for teachers of a second language;
because language is more than just communicating with others or conveying a specific
message, it is a direct link with our culture, society and the understanding of our human
nature. Language is a complex thing. Language acquisition researchers have analyzed
language from a behaviorist point of view focusing on the child, the environment and the
language itself but not as human innate cognitive ability. The language learning journey
begins with a baby babbling, then the uttering of the very first word, later they produce twoword sentences and three-word sentences, and from this point on language learning becomes a
non stopping growth that leaves researchers filled with questions: How do children develop
the capacity to understand and speak the language that surrounds them? How is it that they
acquire and come to master their first language? Is it the environment or is it the child? Just to
name a few and for teachers of a second language this kind of information will allow them to
modify, adjust, and/or plan adequately the methodologies and techniques they use to teach a
second language. If they know how language is naturally acquire they will try to provide
similar characteristics to their second language setting.
This reaction paper will focus on the main ideas from the appointed chapters and it will
provide a critical analysis of their presentation and arguments on first language acquisition
First language acquisition research presented on the chapters by Brown and Larsen
focused mainly on the ideas of the Behaviorist theory that ruled the first stages of research and
the Cognitive theory that is a more modern view of the issue; even though, contributions were
made from different fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and linguistics which
gave language brand new aspects to analyze that clearly influenced its acquisition. First, the
Behaviorist theory aimed to explain the reason why children learn a language so easily. It is
mentioned in both texts that they do so through imitation and on the basis of stimulus and
response; however, both Larsen and Brown texts present solid arguments that undermine this
theory leading to the discredit of it. The reasons and arguments Larsen gives are to be taken
into great consideration because in order to develop language learning, children have a special
cognitive capacity, which is part of human beings only as Slobin (1979) asks and answers
“Does the child have strategies which were specifically evolved for the task of language
acquisition, or can one account for this process on the basis of more human general cognitive
capacities?... I suspect that both general cognitive principles and principles specific to
language are at play in the child´s construction of his language”. Moreover, as the text
explains, if it was not for this cognitive capacity that is within every person we would not be
the only species that can learn a language or even speak. We would see apes, dolphins and
other animals learning languages, and that is not what happens. Another major point the
authors highlight is Chomsky’s theory called “Generative Grammar”, which is described as a
set of rules we acquire that can be applied in order to create innumerous sentences and we are
able to acquire them because we are born with a genetic capacity of perception of language,
“…certain modes of perception, categorizing abilities, and other language-related mechanisms
are biologically determined” (Lenneberg, 1967) and as Gleitman and Wanner (1982) noted
“children appear to approach language learning equipped with conceptual interpretative
abilities fro categorizing the world...Learners are biased to map each semantic idea in the
linguistic unit word”. Another of Chomsky´s contributions to the Cognitive theory in which
other fields of research also contributed is “Universal Grammar”; that is, children have to
learn what are the functions of the particular language they are immerse in, since every human
being is part of a community and participates from it; therefore it is essential for them to learn
because of social interaction what Hymes (1970) called “communicative competence”, using
language according to a social context or circumstance. In other words, children just have to
adjust their cognitive capacity to the language they hear and most importantly if there is a
good mixture for an overall representation or model of language acquisition should involve as
Rice (2000), explains it “any satisfactory model of language development must be compatible
with how children learn; their ability to perceive, conceptualize, store, and access information;
and their motivation”.
First language acquisition supported, in early stages of research, a behaviorist point of
view because their reasoning had visible evidence: when a baby babbles, for example “ma
ma”, whoever is around him/her, will positively reinforce this language act that will lead to the
baby´s repetition of the sound, which was basically the basis of their argument, stimulus
coming from the child´s environment provokes a response on the child´s acquisition of the
language; but on the downside of this approach, there is an underestimation of the human
ability of acquiring a language, we learn fast, we learn at a similar pace, we do more than just
imitate and we do not merely depend on environment reinforcement. There is a new
understanding of language acquisition based on a cognitive point of view: humans have a
unique adaptation to acquire language and it is because of an innate ability that we do not
merely imitate minimal inputs and repeat what we are told, as humans we are able to
understand what surrounds us and interact with others even if we were deaf.
These amounts of research can sometimes be overwhelming and it can leave you with
more questions than answers; therefore, as teachers we are compelled to investigate and clarify
our doubts when it comes to teaching. The most important issue that concerns us as teachers of
a second language is the approach/es we should follow that best suit the reality of our
community, in order to teach English as naturally as possible so students do not feel frustrated
and obliged to learn. What strategies to use to activate that specific cognitive ability with
which they learnt their first language? Another question that could have been left unanswered
by the authors in the texts is how exactly humans manage to learn a language if it has been
proven that it is not through imitation of their parents. We could also wonder why it is that
behaviorism can be applied so well in children’s early stages but not once they have developed
their language skills and utterances as grown-up children after they have reached a certain
level of their language. These issues have made us want to go further in research.
Language acquisition in children has had a variety of professional views that have tried
to unveil the mystery of how a newborn can understand the function of the language they are
immerse in with only their brain, which made us determine that there is one main reason, a
special cognitive capacity. We have made our own analysis regarding the major points
portrayed in the chapters; we have understood that language is not used only for
communicating but also to give it meaning going from a superficial idea to a deeper one. We
have also learnt that language acquisition has always been an issue that has somewhat
disturbed important researchers, such as Chomsky, Rice, Pinker among many others that have
dedicated their entire lives to discover the “myth” that surrounds human language. We have
seen that children are born with an innate capacity to acquire language and that learning it by
imitation or a correction from their parents is not what makes us in some way superior to
animals. We are the only species of all diversity of species that actually has languages to
communicate with each other, animals only make sounds that can eventually mean something
they know by their instinct but not because they have a special capacity, that part belongs to
humans. Finally, we must acknowledge that this is a very interesting topic and as such it
should be taken in a dreadfully earnest way. This topic could lead us to a further investigation
on our own in order to find out the real reason for what several researchers have named as a
special cognitive capacity.