1.1 Introduction

Although there are several theories of language acquisition, this work briefly explains only three of them. The theories discussed in this chapter are the behaviourist theory, the Chomskyan theory and the interactionist theory. This discussion has shown that each of the mentioned theories can be used to account for the acquisition of certain language aspects. For example, while the behaviourist explanations may be very useful in describing the acquisition of routine aspects of language, the Chomskyan expositions can be utilised to explain the learning of the more complex language structures. Finally, the interactionist approach to language acquisition seems plausible to account for understanding how children relate form to meaning, interaction in conversations, and how to use language appropriately.


Language is a very complicated system, yet children use their first language effectively before they even enter school. They acquire the intricate system of language without teaching because children do not have to be taught how to talk. The scientific study of language has tried to account for what children do when they are acquiring or learning a language. The study of how children acquire their first language has promoted considerable research. The term of first language acquisition is used mainly to describe the process of acquiring a mother tongue, but child may acquire two languages right from the beginning. Here we may still speak of a first language acquisition except that two languages are first. In other words we can say that a language is first if it is learned first; otherwise it is second. The distinction is clear when the acquisition of the second starts after the acquisition of the first is complete (Klein 1986). Second language acquisition is of similar importance to linguists and psychologists.


The research in these fields has resulted in the formulation of several different theories which all focus on the topic of language acquisition but from rather distinct angles. To investigate this human phenomenon, the following sources provide useful background (Lado 1964; Chomsky 1968, 1972; Long 1985; Klein 1986; Cook and Newson 1988; Lightbown and Spada 1993; Pinker 1994; Stern 1996; Flynn et al 1998; Bratels 1999; Davies A. and Catherine E. 2004).


The purpose of this work is to briefly outline four different theories of language acquisition and to see how each one can be used to account for the acquisition of certain aspects of language. The project is divided into four main sections and a conclusion. In section (1) I will explain briefly the way behaviourists dealt with language acquisition. In section (2) I will discuss the Chomskyan view of language acquisition. In section (3) I will give a brief explanation about how the interactionists deal with the phenomena of first and second language acquisition. Although there are other proposed theories of language acquisition, this chapter concentrates only on three of them. Moreover, the theories which will be presented in this project assume that first and second language acquisition are similar. The particular research issue related to this project is to look at some theories of language acquisition and how to seek a combination of them in order to gain the maximum benefit in using them to explain language acquisition.


1.2 The Behaviourist Theory

1.2.1 First Language Acquisition

The behaviourists consider first language acquisition as a matter of imitation and habit formation. Children imitate what they hear and they are encouraged to do so. They continue to imitate and practice the words and sentences until they form habits of correct usage (Lightbown and Spada 1993:1). Unlike a parrot, children select to imitate patterns that they are currently learning. In other words, children choose what to imitate on the basis of the available input to which they are exposed (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 3). The behaviourists’ account of first language acquisition presents a helpful approach to understand how children acquire certain regular and routine aspects of language. However, acquiring the complicated system of language requires a different type of explanation (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 7) and we will see later some of the theoretical views that are different from the behaviourist approach to language.


1.2.2 Second Language Acquisition

Behaviourists believe that learning is a process of habit formation. Habits are formed by receiving the linguistic data from the surrounding environment and by the reinforcement received for the good attempts made to repeat or imitate certain patterns.

Because behaviourists consider language maturation as a matter of forming habits, they assume that a learner acquiring a second language begins with habits related to the first language. These habits influence those required for second language acquisition, and the learner has to form new habits (Lado1964 in Lightbown and Spada 1993: 23).


The behaviourists treat errors in second language acquisition as interference from first language habits. This psychological learning theory is often related to what is called the ‘contrastive analysis hypothesis’. The proponents of this hypothesis claim that if similarities between two languages exist, the language learner will acquire the second language more easily, but if differences are encountered the acquisition of the target language will be more difficult (Klein 1986: 25). Whereas it may be true that the first language has an influence on learning the second, it is also suggested that the learner uses the knowledge already acquired in learning another language (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 23). Lightbown and Spada (1993: 23) point out that the behaviourist explanation of second language acquisition is incomplete. It seems that the behaviourist theory is inadequate because it has three major flaws related to the imitation and reinforcement perspectives. These problems are summarised below.

Children create words which do not exist in the adult language like ‘nana’ for ‘banana’.

Children make errors that are not heard in the adult speech. Children make errors like saying “goed” instead of “went” or “cutted” instead of “cut”. These errors are important because they show us that children are not only imitating but they are also generalising rules of the language. Children here seem to be constructing a grammar not just imitating.

What parents and other adults seem to do is to reinforce children for being truthful. For example if a child produces a grammatically correct sentence such as “the cat wants to eat”, parents tend to correct the child if the sentence is untrue, as in “no John, the cat does not want to eat. It just ate”. However, if the child’s sentence is true but it is ungrammatical, such as “Faraj goed to school yesterday”, parents often answer “yes, he did” without correcting the wrong “goed”. Even if parents and adults correct the grammaticality of the children’s utterances, children tend to be determined to continue generating the same grammatical mistakes. There is no doubt that imitation, memorisation and practice do explain the acquisition of certain aspects of language such as word meanings and some language habits. However, imitation and habit formation alone cannot account for the intricate knowledge that children acquire.

Because of the facts mentioned above, psycholinguistics and other language acquisition researchers have turned to what they claim to be more adequate theories of language acquisition.


1.3 The Chomskyan Theory

According to behaviourism, learning consists of associating a stimulus with a response. In the late 1950s and 60s, behaviourist learning theory was confronted with some serious and ultimately fatal challenges. First the linguist John Gracia and others performed a number of experiments whose results nevertheless contradicted fundamental behaviourist assumptions. Second, the linguist Noam Chomsky called attention to the fact that virtually every sentence that a person pronounces or comprehends is a novel combination of words uttered for the first time in history. Therefore, a language is not just a store of responses, but the brain must have a programme that can generate an infinite number of sentences out of a limited list of words. That programme may be called a mental grammar. The second fundamental fact is that children can develop these grammars by processing the linguistic input and that they can understand and construct sentences that they have never heard before. Therefore, he argued, children must be endowed with a set of principles and parameters that are common to all human languages, a universal grammar, that tells them how to infer the syntactic structures out of the language of adults (Pinker 1994: 22).


The proper way to think of universal grammar (UG) is as an innate mental organ specific to the species. Just as our eyes and ears allow us to receive and decode electromagnetic radiation and vibration within certain bandwidths, so does the human language faculty (UG) enable us to receive and understand information governed by certain formal constraints and principles.


Building on the earlier work of his teacher Zelling Harris (Stern 1996), Chomsky and his colleagues and students studied language and its structure and discovered that language is both creative and rule-governed. After proposing a theory of its structure, they tried to develop a theory of language acquisition. They proposed that children have a natural endowment that enables them to acquire language in a limited time with no instruction at all. This assumption is called ‘the innateness hypothesis’ which says that children are genetically endowed with a device in the brain responsible for language production, acquisition and maybe comprehension too. This device is called the ‘language faculty’. Current linguists call it ‘universal grammar’ or UG for short. UG consists of all the principles that cannot be acquired through experience. UG theorists argue that all humans have a built-in programme which consists of a set of principles and parameters that tell children what sort of sounds and grammar, are or are not possible in human language. Thus UG facilitates the children’s task of language learning by restricting the possibilities available to them. Principles show children what is possible in a language and what is not. Parameters are possible options from which one can choose in learning one language or another. For example languages vary on what can be relativised in relative clauses (Flynn et al 1998): a) subject, b) object, c) indirect object, d) object of preposition, e) genitive, f) object of comparison.


All human languages begin with the first option and use subject relative clauses, but other languages have different possible options of relative clauses. However, if one type of relative clause is possible in a given language, then all the other ones to the left must be possible too. There is no language in which object of preposition relative clauses are found but not object relative clauses. Accordingly, children only have to set their parameters on the farthest type of relative clause to the right that is possible in their language. They do no have to learn each kind separately. Therefore, a UG-analysis of second language acquisition could help teachers. It has been suggested that researchers could tell teachers when the parameters are set similarly or differently for both the first and second languages. If the settings, for example for relative clauses, were the same, then the teacher would not need to concentrate on this aspect of language (Bratels, 1999).


So, the children acquiring their mother language have some universal principles that they do not have to learn; they are already there in their brains. Other specific language rules have to be worked out by processing the speech of adults they hear. By forming hypotheses about the speech of adults and then testing them, children set the parameters which represent the specific properties upon which languages vary. But when we compare how the Chomskyan theory deals with first and second language acquisition, we come up with three distinct views. First language acquisition has only one form within the Chomskyan theory (Cook and Newson, 1998). We have the speech of adults, UG, and finally a competence in a given language. From figure (1) below we see that children have a direct access to UG. Children hear the speech of adults, process it in the UG device, and then have their first language competence.

  Figure (1): First language Acquisition[1]

In second language acquisition however, children can have either a direct or indirect access to UG, or else have no access at all. If they have a direct access, then learning a second language can be viewed similarly as when acquiring a mother tongue. But it may happen that children have an indirect access to UG. They have the knowledge of the first language, and thus, can utilise it in learning a second language. They can transfer positively to the second language that is being learnt. This view of second language acquisition is illustrated in figure (2) below.
Figure (2): Indirect Access to UG


Although all the studies (Flynn et al 1988) show that UG has at least some effect on second language acquisition, there is no consensus regarding the difficulty learner still have when acquiring the second language grammar if they have access to UG, or why they have difficulty. Since UG theory in second language acquisition is well developed, studies in the future should be directed to encounter the difficulties learners would have if they have access to UG rather than justifying the existence of UG theoretically. However, many others (Flynn et al 1988) also point out that while justifications of UG in interlanguage prevail, what we still lack is an explicit learning theory.


The third view of second language learning is having no access to UG at all. The proponents of this view claim that a given second language can be learnt from a grammar book or from drills. Linguists in support of this assumption claim that second language learners have the abilities to reinterpret the principles of their first language to suit the target language, but parameters are not resettable. They are transferred to the new learnt language. To account for second language learning without UG, the advocators of this view have turned to alternatives that look at learning “as general problem solving combined with the knowledge of the L1” (Cook and Newson, 1998).

In this section a brief outline of how the Chomskyan theory deals with language acquisition was presented. The next section will focus on the interactionist view of language acquisition.


1.4 The Interactionist Theory

1.4.1 First Language Acquisition

The theory under discussion concentrates on the relation between the linguistic environment and the child’s mental capacities. The interactionists claim that language maturation is a result of the complex interplay between the unique human faculties and the environment in which the child grows up. Unlike generative linguists, the interactionists argue that the modification of speech to suit the abilities of the learner  is an essential component of the  language acquisition process (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 13-14; Davies and Elder 2004: 518). Many interactionist researchers have studied the adult modified speech used to address children and noticed that this type of speech involves slower simple sentences, repetition and paraphrase. They have also found that conversation is often restricted to the child’s environment and that adults often repeat children’s speech in a syntactic correct way.

It is extremely difficult to say whether the modification of children speech by adults is important. Children who do not receive such modified speech will still acquire language, but they may also access this type of input when they are with their siblings or other adults (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 14). To the interactionist, the importance lies in the speech interaction in which the adult estimates the level of language the child is capable of processing. The significance of child-adult interaction seems to be clear when examining the unusual cases in which it is missing.


1.4.2 Second Language Acquisition

As indicated above, a crucial element in the process of language acquisition is the modified input to which learners are exposed and the way native speakers interact with learners. Proponents of the interactionist view (Long 1985) claim that interactional modification makes input comprehensible which, in turn, facilitates and promotes acquisition. Therefore, interactional modification must be necessary for language acquisition. Long argues that there are no cases of acquiring a second language from natives without the modification of speech in some way. In fact, research shows that native speakers modify their speech when they talk with non-native speakers (Lightbown and Spada 1993: 30). Research which has been carried out to examine these claims proved that conversational tuning can aid comprehension, but no research provided conclusive evidence that comprehensible input causes or explains acquisition (Davies and Elder 2004: 518).


1.5 Conclusion

Three different theories of language acquisition were briefly discussed in this project, namely the Behaviourist theory, the Chomskyan theory and the interactionist theory. There is no doubt that children do imitate and practice, and that practice explains the acquisition of some aspects of language such as word meanings and some language routines. However, imitation and practice alone cannot account for the acquisition of the intricate knowledge that children eventually acquire. The acquisition of such complicated data seems to depend on children’s possession of a very intricate built-in knowledge which allows them to process the language they hear.


To benefit from the three theories’ expositions is to see that each can be used to explain a distinct aspect of language acquisition. Behaviourist explanations may account for routine aspects, while Chomskyan views appear to be considerably plausible in dealing with the acquisition of the more intricate grammatical knowledge. Finally, the interactionist account is necessary for understanding how children relate form to meaning in language, how to interact in conversations, and how to use language properly.

In the end, it seems necessary that a clear professional explanation is crucial to gain a full understanding of the process of language acquisition.

Bratels, N. (1999). A review of Suzanne Flynn et al (1998) (eds) book: The Generative Study of Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. TESL Electronic Journal, Vol. 3. No. 4, 1999. Available at: (accessed: 24 May 2006).
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Davies, A. and C. Elder (2004) (eds). The Handbook of Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Flynn, S. et al (1998). The Generative Study of Language Acquisition, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Klein, W. (1986). Second Language Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Lado, R (1964). Language Teaching: A Scientific Approach, Cited in Lightbown P. and Nina S. (1993) below.
Lightbown, P. M. and Nina S. (1993). How Languages are Learned, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Long, M. H. (1985). ‘Input and Second Language Acquisition Theory’, Cited in Lightbown P. and Nina S. (1993) Above.
Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: Morrow.
Stern, H. H. (1996). Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, 9th Impression, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[1] Adopted from Cook
and Newson, (1998).