Theories & Child/First Language Acquisition

=> How does a newly born child acquire his/her 1st language ?
Various theories have been proposed to explain how children manage to acquire the adult language.


               *IMITATION & REDUCTION*
               *IMITATION & EXPANSION*

              *CAREGIVER LANGUAGE*


The imitation theory: Do children learn by imitation ? The possible role of imitation in child language acquisition has been much discussed. There are researchers who think that children learn their 1st language through imitation. In other words, children simply imitate what they hear (the input).
Imitation is involved to some extent, of course; but the sentences produced by children show that they are not imitating adult speech as is clear from utterances such as “Mummy comed” which could not have been copied from an adult. Even when children are trying to imitate what they hear, they are unable to produce sentences that cannot be generated by their grammar.

Ex: Adult: He is going out.
Child: He go out.

Child language is characterized by imitation & reduction. This happens when children imitate & shorten an adult utterance because their grammar does not allow them to produce the adult grammar.

– Children imitate Vocabulary but not Syntax.


– It characterizes child utterance. It is a feature of child language where children imitate & shorten adult utterances.


– It is a feature of adult utterances. This happens when adults imitate &
expand or amplify a child utterance. In other words, the adult provides a
large sentence to refer to what a child has uttered.

Ex: Child: “Kitty milk”
Adult: “Yes, kitty is drinking her milk”
Child: “Kitty milk”

– In this example we see that the child is unable to copy the syntax of the adult utterance. So the child is simply imitating.
– This short exchange shows that children pay no attention to such expansions of their utterances.
– Although children clearly imitate aspects of adult language (phonology, pronunciation, intonation…) it is clear that imitation cannot by itself be a primary driving force of language development, & particularly of syntactic development because Syntax is an abstract concept.
– An analysis of the sentences produced by children shows that they cannot be imitating adults’ sentences. The proof that we have is that children make mistakes that adults do not. Moreover, when children try to imitate what they hear they are unable to do so unless they have the appropriate grammatical construction. Nevertheless, imitation of adult speech & that of other children -may be older children- plays an important role in acquiring accent & vocabulary.


– Another theory of first language acquisition suggests that children learn to produce correct sentences because they are positively reinforced; i.e rewarded when they say a correct utterance, & negatively reinforced when
they say an incorrect utterance. So, the idea here is that of reward that can
take the form of an approval.
– This view assumes that children are being constantly corrected for using bad grammar & rewarded when they use good grammar. Various researchers report from their case studies that reinforcement rarely occurs.
– Another argument is that attempts to correct a child’s utterance are doomed to failure. Children do not know what they are doing wrong & are unable to make corrections even when they are pointed out.


– It is the language spoken to children by the people who look after them. It is also known as CARETAKER LANGUAGE, MOTHERESE LANGUAGE, BABY TALK, CHILD-DIRECTED SPEECH (CDS), CHILD-DIRECTED LANGUAGE (CDL), & other scholars call it PARENTESE.

– Such language is spoken very slowly & clearly. Adults talk in a simplified way to children taking care to make their speech easily recognizable.

– CDS is characterized by:

1. The topics of sentences that tend to talk about the “here-&-now”.
2. The absence of DISPLACEMENT.
3. The use of phonologically simplified made up baby words, for example a
mother would say to her child to describe a sheep “here is maa coming”.
4. More pauses, shorter utterances & slower speech.

– CDS gradually disappears as the child gets older. However, there is some controversy about the difference CDS makes to children’s language development.

=> Is CDS necessary for children’s language development ?

Do they need CDS ?
Do they require a syntactically & phonologically simplified input to acquire language ?

– There is no conclusive evidence that suggests that CDS is necessary for children’s language development. In other words, children without being exposed to this sort of language they would be able to acquire their adult language.

– Another reason is that although its use is widespread it is not universal across cultures; but nonetheless, the children of those cultures where there is no CDS manage to acquire the adult language.

– This shows that CDS might not be necessary for language development. However, it is possible that MOTHERESE has an effect on linguistic development at a very early age, at just one year.

=> If MOTHERESE makes little contribution to children’s linguistic
development, what is its purpose ? Why do we need CDS ?

– One explanation is that syntactic simplification is a result of the simplification of the context (the here-&-now) & the restricted content.
– Another explanation is in terms of the sociolinguistic notion of “Audience Design”. It refers to the behavior of speakers in adjusting their style to whoever they may be addressing. In this sense, CDS or MOTHERESE is a style of speech specifically adopted or tailored to the level of one specific audience which consists of young children.

=> How children acquire their adult language ?

– Children form rules & construct a grammar neither the imitation theory nor the reinforcement theory account for the mistakes children make or the speed with which the basic rules of grammar are acquired, or the ability to learn language without any formal instruction.
– Between the ages of 5 & 7, children from diverse backgrounds reach the same stage of grammar acquisition. Children progress from simple to more complex rules.
– Children show regular changes in their grammar & in the acquisition of various constructions. This can be clearly shown by how children learn the meaning of words.
– Learning the meaning of words may involve both “Under-extensions” & “Over-extensions”.
– Under-extensions occur when words are used more specifically than their meaning.

Ex: using the word “dog” or “doggy”to refer only to the family dog; the dog of the family. Other dogs are referred to as horses.

– Over-extensions occur when a child uses a word in a broader way than the adult usage. Over-extensions are very common in early language, & appear to be found across all languages.

Ex 1: the word “ball” for a two-years old child might mean apple, oranges,
grapes, & all other round objects.
Ex 2: the word “horse” for a child can mean cow, pig or all other four legged creatures.

– Another example of over-extensions of syntactic rules is clearly revealed when a child treats irregular verbs & nouns as if they were regular.

Ex: go = goed; mouse = mouses

– Both over-extensions & under-extensions show clearly that children are building up rules in their minds.

– These mistakes tell us more about how children learn language. They could not be imitating. Children construct rules which may be characterized by over-extensions, but these rules are not affected by reinforcement.

– At a later stage, children will learn that there are exceptions to the rule. Such regular patterns support the notion that language acquisition is grammar- construction.

Theories & Child/First Language Acquisition


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