Link to glossary




English Structures

First Language Acquisition

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Moodle TESL 551: Crowley   Houts-Smith





The Critical Period Hypothesis

The Innateness of Language

Noam Chomsky is a modern linguist who claimed language is an inborn capacity of humans. His position grew out of his observations of children learning their first language and out of opposition to the behaviorism of Skinner. He referred to the inborn capacity as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a term that has since fallen out of common use. Steven Pinker, a protege of Chomsky's, prefers the term Language Instinct to LAD.

The work of researchers like Pavlov, who studied impulse and classical conditioning, led B.F. Skinner to develop the theory of learning called behaviorism. In Skinner's view, humans begin life with minds that are tabula rasa, like a blank slate. Humans experience the world as a series of stimuli that they respond to, and those responses are either reinforced or not. Reinforced responses become habits that an individual follows throughout life. One prominent way to respond is to imitate, and Skinner believes that first language acquisition occurs as children imitate the speech of their environement, which is then reinforced by the adults who praise the child for talking, give what the child has asked for, etc.

In contrast to this view of first language acquisition, Chomsky points to some of the features just described, in particular to the use of overextension in relationship to syntactic forms. If children merely imitate the speech of adults around them, Chomsky argued, how is it they make utterances like goed and putted. Surely they have not heard any adults use these forms, yet in the Telegraphic Stage, children regularly overuse a general rule. Clearly, Chomsky concluded, behaviorism is inadequate to describe the process of first language acquisition. Instead, he suggests that the ability to learn language is innate.

Further evidence to support the claim that language is an innate capacity in humans includes:
  • Babies of one month indicate an awareness of different speech sounds, as decribed in the prelinguistic stage
  • Deaf children learn sign language as a first language if they are in that environment
  • Twins studies show that identical twins have a much higher chance of sharing a language disability than fraternal twins: the basis is more likely genetic than environmental
  • Cases of Specific Language Impairment run in families
  • There is definite evidence of biological basis of language in brain; Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area are clearly linked to language, and biological structures certainly have some genetic coding.

Activity: Visualizing the Innateness of Language

The Critical Period Hypothesis

Along with Chomsky, linguist Eric Lenneberg promoted the idea that language is innate, but developed a new idea: the Critical Period Hypothesis. Lenneberg suggested that although the capability for language is innate, it must be triggered by the environment. Without an environment that provides language learning possibilities, a child will not develop language; the innate capacity will not be realized, at least not in full. In addition, the child must encounter an environment with language within a certain time period or the opportunity to acquire language will be lost.

Support for the idea that a child must be in an environment that includes human language in order to acquire it comes from cases of feral, isolated, and neglected children who demonstrate little or no language use and who learn little or no language.

Some linguists see further support in the fact that older individuals seem to have difficulties with learning a second language that younger individuals don’t have.

Activity: Researching Cases of Feral and Neglected Children

Click here to go to a web site devoted to the topic of feral and neglected children. The most famous examples include Victor of Aveyron, Genie, and Amala and Kamala.

Controversy with the CPH
Although the innate nature of a language learning capacity is quite well accepted, the existence of a critical period is not. The controversy tends to center around three different points:
  1. Whether the language disability in feral children is due entirely to age or to other factors (e.g. lack of proper nutrition)
  2. The nature of the period is disputed, with four different positions on the matter that can be taken:
    • There is a true critical period: after a certain point, humans can't learn language
    • There is a sensitive period: there is time that is best
    • There is no critical period: humans have a constant ability over their lives
    • There is a critical period but it only relates to pronunciation: humans can develop native-speaker-like abilities with other aspects of language
  3. The length of the critical period is disputed:
    • It lasts until about age 6
    • It lasts until puberty

Activity: Visualizing the Critical Period

If there is a critical period, and it lasts until age 6, as some say, we can visualize it as depicted at right.

Notice we still have the language line visualized earlier.

If, however, it continues until puberty, as come contend, we can depict it as at right.
Again, if there is no critical period at all, then we might visualize that scenario as depicted at right.

Munro and Mann have reviewed data on pronunciation and a person's continuance/ decline/loss of ability. The graphs at right show the various possible scenarios.

The data revealed a sigmoid curve pattern resulted. This suggests that humans experience a decline in their ability to learn, not a complete loss of ability nor a maintenance of original ability. It further suggests that the initial decline is quite small, but a later decline is steeper.

Furthermore, Munro and Mann noted that the first decline occurs at approximately 3 years of age, the steepest decline comes at around puberty.

This study, however, is limited to pronunciation data, so further work must still be done to see to what extent other aspects of language also display continuance/decline/loss of ability.

Source: Munro, M. and Mann, V. (2005). Age of immersion as a predictor of foreign accent. Applied Psycholinguistics 26, pp. 311–341.

Taking Munro and Mann's conclusions on a decline of ability over time rather than a definite cut off, we might allow our CP line to fade away over time in our depiction of the nature of the acquisition of a first language.

Continue to Part 7


American Sign Language The sign language used by the deaf community in the United States.
Test of English for International Communication. A standardized exam for Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English to conduct business. It is used by some businesses, predominantly in Asia, in hiring.
Test of English as a Foreign Language. A standardized exam from Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English as the language of insruction .It is used as an admissions requirement by most US universities and colleges for international students.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A term that encompasses both TEFL and TESL. It is the name of the professional organization to which many teachers belong. TESOL the organization has many regional affiliates both in the US and abroad.
Teaching English as Second Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as a tool necessary for some daily task like instruction, shopping, or interpersonal interactions.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as an intellectual, academic pursuit to non-native speakers of English.
Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who acquired English in infancy and young childhood as a first language.
Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a language is that it was encountered in infancy and young childhood as the dominant language of the environment.
Non-Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who didn't acquire English as a first language, but came to it after another language was established.
Non-Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a particular language is that he/she didn't encounter it while initially acquiring language, but came to it after another language was established.
Limited English Proficient. An adjectival phrase used to refer to the same students as ELL refers to. LEP is falling into disuse as it focuses attention on student deficiency rather than on the positive attribute of learning. Is being replaced by ELL.
Second Language. Refers to any language gained subsequent to the first or native language. It is acquired or learned secondarily to the native language. Doesn't refer to the ordinal numbering of languages, only to the relationship of a particular language to a persons native language.
First Language. Refers to the language that an individual encounters as an infant and young child; a persons native language.
English for Specific Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it for highly focused activity, such as for business or for aviation communication.
English as a Second Language Program. refers to a school program that is purposefully structured to provide instruction on the English language to NNSEs. An ESL program does not typically include instruction in any other subjects than English. An ESL program may be a component of a larger ELL program at a school.
English as a Second Language. Refers to the subject matter of the English language and the methodology for teaching the English language to non-native speakers. ESL makes no reference to the subjects other than English, but it is not methodology alone either, it refers to teaching the English language as content area. Typically, ESL refers to the study of English in a country where it is used for at least one daily task, such as instruction, interpersonal relations, or shopping.
English Langauge Learner Program. Refers to a school program that is purposly structured to provide instruction on the English language and instruction in other content areas to English Language Learners.
English Language Learner. Refers to students who are in the process of learning English, whether they are in ESL classes exclusively or a combination of ESL classes and other subject area classes.
English as a Foreign Langauge. Refers to the study of English as an intellectual, academic pursuit, not a a language whose use is necessary or desirable for daily life, although it may be used as a research tool. Typically, EFL is the study of English in a country where English is not a language of instruction or daily interactions, such as in Italy or in Saudi Arabia.
English for Academic Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it as the language of instruction for other subject areas.
Refers to a school program that is purposely structured so that students will use two languages on a daily basis.
Refers to the use of two languages in any capacity on a daily basis. A bilingual person uses two languages on a daily basis--for work and at home, perhaps, or for different subjects at school. Can also refer to the ability to use two languages, even if not used daily.