Year 13: Heather and Sarah’s Powerpoint on CLA theories

9 June 2009

Behaviourism (B.F. Skinner 1950s-60s)
Language is learnt by positive reinforcement (offering a reward for ‘good behaviour’) and negative reinforcement (for ‘inappropriate behaviour’)
Language is a particular social behaviour that follows this model.
Positive reinforcement can be verbal praise or reassurance, and negative reinforcement could simply be correction.
Skinner wanted to apply his theory to all aspects of human behaviour – THE PIGEON CASE STUDY!

In Favour Of Behaviourism

Imitation plays a large part in the acquisition phonology because children acquire the pronunciations of their parents and carers.
Some social and pragmatic aspects of language seem to be learned this way for example turn taking patterns in conversation.

Problems with the behaviourist model

Some evidence shows that some children don’t actually respond to correction.
Children have their own idiolect and form sentences they have not heard before.
Children aren’t exposed to enough language to develop as quickly as they do.
Parents don’t always follow the rules of positive and negative reinforcement.
Children do more than imitate as can be seen from over extension (over use of a particular word) and over generalisation (over use of a grammar rule, i.e. ‘felled’)
Language is too impoverished – children are not exposed to enough standard English language to become fluent themselves
In favour of Genetic argument

There are distinct milestones in language, so children learn at more or less the same pace irrespective of culture or mother tongue.
Between the ages of two and seven language appears to become less instinctive and more like hard work.
Children use language far more than they need to and do not always react well to correction.


Research with chimpanzees and gorillas shows that language is unique to humans.
All human languages though very different share some fundamental similarities (universal grammar which we are born with)

Beyond Skinner and Chomsky

Chomsky emphasised what children must already know rather than the effects of experience whilst growing up.
As a reaction Jean Piaget investigated the idea that language acquisition is parallel to the development of thought (cognitive development)
Jean Piaget


Lev Vygotski

Vygotski believed in the exact opposite of Piaget. He argued that language actually controls thought and not the other way around.
George Orwell in 1984 took this idea further in imagining a situation where the state could control the people’s thoughts by changing the language they spoke.
There are examples of this today, for instance the fact that an American President named a new generation of nuclear missiles ‘the peace keeper’
Vygotski said that we never grow out of egocentric speech but it goes underground and becomes part of our thought processes (we are constantly labelling and assessing out environment to help us)
Language is not just an expression but is vital to our thought development

Bruner put language acquisition firmly into a social context emphasising language gets things done i.e. children use it initially to get what they want to play games, to stay connected with others (survival of the fittest theory)
Bruner suggested the LASS (language acquisition support system) which refer to the support for language learning provided by parents – They provide more than models for imitation as Skinner proposed.

Children only use more complex linguistic structures when their intellect is ready.
As children develop they get a better awareness of physical things such as size, heat and cold and to accommodate this they acquire the language to express them.
Forming sentences doesn’t just depend on grammar like Chomsky says, but also on the ideas of logical relationships involved.
Understanding = ability to acquire language
Language has two set functions: social and egocentric (using language to help themselves and to learn about their environment e.g. labelling)

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