How we acquire language can still be considered a mystery. There have been different responses which intended to answer the question of what the process of first language acquisition is about. Bloomfield, for example, believed that language was behaviour and that “the child initiated the process almost accidentally” (Cook and Newson, 1996). Adult’s reaction and reinforcement were crucial in this process. Then, B. F. Skinner tried to explain acquisition as stimulus-bound. For him language behaviour was determined by both stimuli and responses that were to be reinforced accordingly. Finally, Noam Chomsky’s ideas emerged and appeared to be superior to the ones the other authors had proposed. His innateness theory of language as built-in in the new born baby’s mind seems to be the best explanation.
Firstly, Chomsky declares that children are already born with knowledge of what language is about, in other words, they come with a Universal Grammar (UG) in their minds. This knowledge is constituted by different principles and parameters that allow every human being “regardless of intelligence, size, race, sex, class, or other variables” (Cook and Newson, 1996) to acquire a language. This explains why the acquisition of Chinese, English or Sesotho can be tackled by any child in any part of the world.
Secondly, he explains that these principles and parameters are inside a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) (See figure 2), a kind of black box in which different processes take place. In this way “children can hear a number of sentences said by their parents, (Primary linguistic Data), they process these within their black box and finally they acquire linguistic competence in the language or a Generative Grammar” (Cook and Newson, 1996).
|Fig. 2. The LAD/UG/Blackbox Model|
However, this competence does not entail a simple process for the child. At first the new-born baby knows nothing about the language he is going to be exposed to. Chomsky calls this the Zero State or S0. Thanks to child’s LAD, experience is processed, and a new more advanced state of the language is constructed. Thus, he goes through a sequence of stages until he becomes an adult native speaker and has full knowledge of the language (Steady State or Ss). (See figure 3).
|Fig. 3. The states metaphor in L1 acquisition - Zero to Final states|
Then, Chomsky explains why acquisition does not depend on adults to shape their children verbal repertoire through a careful reinforcement system as Skinner’s proposes in his theory. He says that language is stimulus-free. That is the reason why a child can understand and produce sentences which he has never heard before. He is able to do this because of creativity which allows us to respond differently to any stimulus.
In the process of a first language acquisition “parameter-setting allows the child to acquire the circumscribed variation between languages” (Cook and Newson, 1996). Chomsky claims that parameters, which are like switches in the mind (see figure 4), turn in order to suit the language being exposed to. Then, for example, they are set to pro-drop or non-pro-drop according to the linguistic data. The first position takes place in those languages such as Spanish or Italian in which pronouns or subjects can be omitted because they can be inferred from the context. The second one occurs when languages do not allow pronouns or subjects to be dropped as in English or Swedish.
|Fig. 4. Setting the Head Feature Parameter to "left". The "Wh-Displacement Parameter is intended to distinguish languages that allow displaced Wh-words from those that do not. English, allows Wh-words in Wh-questions. From: http://language-theory.pl/language733.html|
In this way Chomsky explains what happens in the mind of the child when acquiring a language. However, one weak point of his theory may be that it appears to be based on hypothesis which cannot be fully observed or checked. Thus, it will never be possible to open a child’s head to prove them true or false. Apart from that, new theories can emerge also based on hypothesis and try to explain first language acquisition in different ways.
|Fig. 5. Hypothesis, Laws and Theories|
Another weakness of Chomsky’s theory may be that it does not explain how the social context of the child also influences the process of acquiring a language, even though he does not deny it. Perhaps, language is not stimulus-bound but sometimes it may be influenced by the external world of the child to determine what the topics of new and creative utterances will be about. Thus, by including the social context in his UG theory Chomsky would offer a broader explanation of reality.
|Fig. 6. The importance of children's social context|
Cook, V. & Newson, M. (1996). General Concepts of Language Acquisition. In Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction, 3, 75-132.
Listen to Noam Chomsky himself. In this video he tells us how much his UG theory may have changed. Then, he explains his theory in a very simple language.