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Language Acquisition

How do we learn languages? A look at theories of language acquisition with criticisms of these theories.

Language Acquisition

There are several theories on language acquisition. During our first years of life, the human brain develops rapidly. Many things take place as we learn to speak and understand language. In this article we will look at some of the most widely accepted theories in psycho-linguistics of how we learn languages.


Theory of Imitation

The basics of this theory are that children listen to verbalized communication and repeat what they hear. However, it is more complex than that. This method has been studied by many behaviorists like Pavlov (see Conditioning), Skinner, Tolman, and Thorndike.

Edward Thorndike stated that trial and error were very important in the learning process. He also believed that learning happens in increments and it does not involve insight.

Thorndike engaged in many studies on animal behavior2. His law of effect came about from watching cats find their way out of puzzle boxes. This law stated that a response came about from its effect as punishment or reward. He believed that connections were made in the brain and they got stronger with each attempt to escape the box (Connectionism).

He also stated that the law of recency is important in learning. It states that the latest response will determine the next occurrence. Thorndike3 also believed that a law of exercise made responses stronger by repeating them. This is similar to exercising a muscle in the body.

Due to his many works with animals, Thorndike believed that all mammals learned in the same basic manner. In other words, the laws that he spoke of, governed humans as well as other warm blooded animals.


There are critics of the theory of imitation with language learning. They cite examples of children learning from adults. Often times, they will mispronounce words and use grammar that they do not hear from adults. Statements like, "My mom buyed this toy for me is an example. The parent does not use the term "buyed", in place of "bought".


Emergentism teaches that learning and using language come from some basic principles that are not language specific. Language seems to be a gift that is human specific. No other creature on the planet has the capability.

Chomsky5 believed that there was something called a separate cognitive module that made language possible and strictly a human function. The "cognitive module" theory raised some controversy in the psychological and scientific communities.

The existence of a cognitive module cannot be proven or disproven6. It is theorized to be a section of the mind where thought process takes place. It may also be seen as a separate and independent section of the mind that can be utilized at certain times for other specific reasons.

Piaget4 studies on child development and education have been very influential in the world, today. His cognitive theory of language learning, states that learning starts with adaptation. One can achieve that adaptation through assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is the way that a person takes in information and makes sense of it. This can include changing the information to make it fit. Accommodation and assimilation go hand in hand. When one accommodates, he or she is using assimilation to change his or her thought patterns.

Piaget also showed that classification was also important to learning language. Certain words and sounds needed to be grouped together to better understand and use them in speech.

Classification needs to be taken a step further into sets and subsets. This can lead to a better understanding and file system for the very complex structure of language.

Criticisms of Piaget's Theory

There are those that challenged Piaget's studies. For example, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky claims that Piaget did not take cultural differences in consideration with his theories on language learning. He also believed that some learning tasks were too much for a child and assistance was needed to successfully learn.


Empiricism states that learning is achieved by sensory input. Empiricism states that evidence from experiments are very important and theory, hunches, and intuition have little importance. This would be in contrast to something like Chomsky's "cognitive module".

William James used the term "radical empiricism" to describe part of his philosophy. He was adamant that structures or learning were not from any type of extra-sensory or unknown sources.


There are those that are critical of empiricism. Chomsky stated that there is reason to believe that the mind is a separate structure form the brain. This may be due to its enormous complexities and untapped resources.

He described the mind as a system of sensory organs as opposed to a structure as simple as one's little finger. He believed that is may be meaningless to study the mind in relation to other parts of the body. He compared it to studying the eyes and their relation to the heart.


  • To date, there is no definite scientific evidence to support the way that language is acquired and learned. It is generally agreed that it is a very complex and sophisticated process that involves mental activity that still may not be completely understood. There are many active theories on the process.
  • Many have subscribed to the theory of imitation. This theory states that we learn language from imitating the actions of others. This may often be seen when small children imitate their parents. Thorndike developed his law of effect after experimenting with cats in a maze type of box. It also supported his theory of connectionism. He believed that the cat's mental connections became stronger, every time they made their way out of the box.
  • Emergentism teaches that language comes from faculties that are not necessarily specific to language. Chomsky wrote about a "cognitive module" theory. He believed that this module existed in the human mind and it was not an actual part of the brain, per se. As this could not be proven, it raised a great deal of controversy.
  • Piaget believed that the human mind a lot to do with the way that information was perceived. He believed that if the information did not fit the mind, the mind would alter so that it would fit.
  • Empiricism teaches that everything has its base in the physical body and that the mind is only an invention of the brain.
  • These theories all have counter theories and criticisms. If we learn by imitation, why do small kids often mispronounce words that they hear and misuse grammar? There are those that feel that emergentism does not allow for the cultural differences in people. And there are those that feel that empiricism is too "all inclusive". The brain cannot be compared to other body parts, as it is very complex and different.
  1. Thorndike, E. L. 1929. "Human Learning" New York, NY Johnson Reprint Corporation.
  2. Thorndike, E. L. 1899. "The Mental Life of the Monkey" Psychological Review, Monograph Supplement, 3, No. 15.
  3. Edward L. Thorndike. (1999) [1913], Education Psychology: briefer course, New York: Rutledge.
  4. Piaget, J. (1971). "Biology and Knowledge" University of Chicago Press.
  5. Chomsky, N. 1965. "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax" The M.I.T. Press.
  6. Chomsky, N. "Language and Responsibility", Pantheon, 1977.
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