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First Language Acquisition. First Language Acquisition. This chapter provides :- 1 / An overview of theories of first language acquisition . 2/ A discussion of some key issues in first language acquisition that are significant for an understanding

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First Language Acquisition

This chapter provides :-

1/ An overview of theories of first language acquisition .

2/ A discussion of some key issues in first language acquisition that are significant for an understanding

of second language acquisition .



1/ What are the differences between first and second language learning ?

The most obvious difference, in the case of adult second language learning, is the tremendous cognitive and affective contrast between adults and children .

2/ Why do we study theories and issues of first language learning ?

To be as a foundation on which you can build an understanding of principles of second language learning .


Stages of First Language Acquisition

The children have the ability to communicate.

1/ small babies, children babble, coo, cry and vocally or nonvocally send and receive a number of messages .

2/At the end of first year, children make specific attempts to imitate words and speech sounds they hear around them .( They utter first word ) .

e.g. Daddy , Mommy , baby , …..ect

3/ By the age of 18 months, these words have multiplied and are beginning to appear in two or three words " sentence" . ( Telegraphic utterance ) .

e.g. bye-bye Daddy , Mommy sock …….ect

stages of first language acquisition
stages of First Language Acquisition

4/ At the age of three, children can comprehend an incredible quantity of linguistic input. They also become generators of nonstop chattering.

5/ At school age, they internalize complex structures,

expand their vocabulary and sharpen communicative skills. They not only learn what to say but also what not to say.


Positions of schools of thought in the study of first language acquisition

  • 1/ Behaviorist position:
  • children come into the world with a tabula rasa, a clean slate bearing no preconceived notions about the world or about the language.
  • children are shaped by their environment and slowly conditioned by reinforcement .
  • 2/ Constructivist position
  • children come into the world with very specific innate knowledge but that children learn to function in a language chiefly through interaction and discourse .
  • Tip
  • The first ( Behaviorist ) position is set in contrast to the second ( nativist ) and third ( functional ) .

Behavioral  Approaches

Language is a main  part of human behavior .

1- The behavioral approach focused on the observable responses and its  associations with the events in the world surrounding them.

2- The effective language behavior is a production of correct response to stimuli .

Children produce linguistic responses that are reinforced.


1- (Skinner 1968)

. Operant Conditioning:

Operant conditioning refers to conditioning in which the organism (human being) emits a response, or operant (utterance) without observable stimuli; that operant is maintained by reinforcement.

Behavior  is controlled  by its consequences . When consequences are  rewarding, behavior is maintained and is increased in strength. When consequences are punishing, or when there is a total  lack of reinforcement, the behavior is weakened and eventually extinguished.

*Q: What is Skinner’s theory criticized for ???


2- Charles Osgood (1953,1957 )

Mediation Theory

Meaning was accounted for by the claim that the linguistic stimulus (a word or sentence) elicit a "mediating" response that is self-stimulating, Charles Osgood (1953,1957) called it a "representational mediation process" a process that is really covert and invisible.

Q: What is wrong with this theory

Jenkins and Palermo (1964):

They claimed that the child may acquire frames of a linear pattern of sentence elements and learn the stimulus-response equivalences that can be substituted within each frame. Imitation was an important aspect of establishing stimulus-response associations.

Q: What is the defect of this theory??


The Nativist Approach

* The term nativist is derived from the fundamental assertion that language acquisition is innately determined, that we are born with a genetic capacity predisposes us to a systematic perception of language around us, resulting in the construction of an internalized system of language.


Chomsky ̕s point of view on the existence of innate properties of languageChomsky agreed on the existence of innate properties of language to explain the child ̕s mastery of a native language in such a short time despite the highly abstract nature of the rules of language.

  • Language Acquisition Device (LAD)

What does the (LAD)consist of according to McNeill?FOUR innate linguistic properties

1-The ability to distinguish speech sounds from other sounds in the environment.2-The ability to organize the abstract data in various classes.3-Knowledge that only a certain kind of linguistic system is possible and that other kinds are not.4-The ability to engage in constant evaluation of the developing linguistic system.


What did the universal grammar (UG) attempt to discover?It attempted to discover what it is that all children regardless of their environmental stimuli (the language [s] they hear around them) bring to language acquisition process.*The studies in the universal grammar looked at question formation, negation, word order, discontinuity of embedded clauses, subject deletion, and other grammatical phenomena.

pivot grammars
Pivot Grammars

The early grammars of child language were referred to as pivot grammars. It was commonly observed that the child’s first two-word utterances seemed to manifest two separate word classes, and not simply two words thrown together at random

Read examples and explanation p. 26

parallel distributed processing pdp connectionism
Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) = Connectionism

This model claims that neurons in the brain form multiple connections: each 100 billion nerve cells may be linked to as many as 10,000 of its counterparts. Thus a child’s linguistic performance may be the result of many levels of simultaneous neural interconnections rather than a serial process of one rule being applied then another then another and so forth.

According to PDP model, a sentence is not governed by a series of rules; rather, it s the result of simultaneous interconnection of a multitude of brain cells.


The nativist approaches made at least three important contributions to our understanding of the first language acquisition process.

Q: What are they ???


Functional Approaches

What were the two emphases that have emerged ?

1- Researchers began to see that language was one manifestation of the cognitive and affective ability to deal with the world, withthe others and with the self .

2- The generative rules that were proposed under the nativistic framework were abstract formal ,explicit and logical, yet they dealt with the forms of language and not with the deep functional levels of meaning constructed from social interaction .


Cognition and language development :

  • Social interaction and language development
  • Performance variables by generative linguists :




Issues in first language acquisition

1/ Competence & Performance :

The distinction between Competence & Performance according to:

  • scientist & philosophers
  • In reference to language
  • Chomsky

*Chomsky’s notion :

Chomsky defined competence as consisting of the abilities of an “idealized” hearer-speaker, who does not display any performance variables or hesitation phenomena.

The former include:

Errors, distractions, memory limitation...etc .

The latter include:

Repeats, pauses, omissions, additions...etc .


*Criticism of The Competence-Performance model

*Major criticisms of the model focus on Chomsky's notion of “idealized” hearer-speaker, devoid of performance variables.

*Linguists should focus on language in use or heterogeneous competence


-Comprehension and Production

  • *Comprehension (listening + reading) and Production (writing + speaking) are aspects of competence.
  • * The general superiority of comprehension over production
  • * Some researches support the superiority of production over comprehension
  • -Nature and Nurture
  • Nativists claim is that language is acquired by naturally, while the behavioristic claim is that it is conditioned and learned (nurtured)-

Q: What are those behaviors that ‘nature’ provides innately, in some sort of predetermined biological timetable, and what are those behaviors that are, by environmental exposure - by ‘nurture’, by teaching- learned and internalized?


  • Language is universally acquired in the same manner and the deep structure in its deepest level is common to all languages.
  • What are the universal linguistic categories under investigation?
  • Much of current UG research is centered around what have come to be known as principles and parameters.

Systematicity and Variability

  • The systematicity of the process of acquisition
  • In the midst of all this systematicity, there is an equally remarkable amount of variability in the process of learning.
  • Language and Thought
  • 1. Language is dependent on and springs from cognitive development
  • 2. Language influences cognitive development
  • 3. Social interaction is a prerequisite to cognitive development
  • Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity


  • Echoing is a salient strategy in early language learning.
  • 1. surface-structure imitation
  • 2. deep-structure imitation
  • Practice
  • Speaking practice
  • Comprehension practice
  • Input
  • The speech that young children hear is primarily
  • Parental or the speech of older siblings


  • Interaction rather than exposure is required for successful first language acquisition.
  • Conversation is examined in terms of initiations
  • and responses.
  • Children learn that utterances have both a literal and an intended or functional meaning.

Methods of Teaching

1- SeriesMethod

2- Direct Method

  • Description
  • Advantages
  • Disadvantages