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Language Acquisition

 

Language is a systematic set of finite arbitrary symbols that are used to convey   information from a source to a receiver.  It is the most revolutionizing invention humans had ever made.  It made communication commit lesser errors, and be more accurate in sending information to a particular receiver.

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It is also one of the universal and most dynamic creations of humans.  Every human in every culture, present or past, owns a particular language that is unique compared to other languages or even to the same language at a different time.

People have always been able to communicate through speech, gestures, signs and other different arbitrary symbols.  This process is called communication wherein individuals and groups are able to express what they think and feel through different languages.

On contrary, it has been said that language can only be either spoken or written, and is the primary source of communication.  It may be transmitted through learning based on learned associations between words and things.  Through it, people are not only able to share information but also, they are capable to share their cultures since language reflects culture too.

The structure of language involves phonology, morphology, grammar and syntax. Phonology, considers the sound involved in language.  It is the range of possible sounds that a certain language utilizes.  These sounds do not have meaning on themselves as units.  Morphology on the other hand, deals with the combination of sounds to which they form meaningful words, phrases or sentences. These are the most basic units of language that have meanings.  Grammar is the rule in which sounds and words are to be put.  Grammatical rules include subject verb agreement and the like.  And last, syntax is the rule that governs how words should be arranged so that the information would be symbolized more accurately (Kotak, 2004).

There are two aspects of communication. First is the ability to comprehend what others are trying to communicate and second, is the ability to communicate to others in a such a way that they can be understood (Hurlock, 1982).

Communication requires two processes, encoding and decoding.  Encoding is when a source puts information into symbols, while decoding is the process wherein the symbolized information is turned back into conceptual information that can be understood.  There is also a concept called miscommunication wherein the information conveyed through a particular language was not decoded properly by the receiver, or that the information was sent to the wrong receiver.

Considering infancy or babyhood years, it would be difficult for such babies to be understood.  And since learning to speak is not an easy task for babies, nature provides other means of communication until these babies are ready to speak. These other forms of communication are called pre-speech forms (Costello, 1976).

Pre-speech forms comes in four developmental patterns of learning how to talk – crying, babbling, gestures and use of emotional expressions.  Crying is one of first few ways of an infant use as a form of communication.  Though adults do not always get an accurate interpretation of an infant’s cry, his cries are indications that he is trying to communicate.

The different cries of a baby may indicate his hunger or pain.  Most babies learn that crying is a way to get attention before they are three months of age.  Also, crying is one of the indicators that an infant is learning.  When an infant cries, he may observe that he gets attention, and because he know that he needs attention, especially from adults, he would repeat this behavior.  And because of the repeated crying, the attention that adults give them becomes a positive reinforcer to his behavior.  With this, he learns that he can communicate with other humans with the use of crying.

The previous behavior can also be seen as a springboard on which infants learn more complex forms of language, such as speech.  With pre-speech forms such as crying and babbling, he can communicate hunger or pain to adults, but when he wants to communicate their want to go out of their crib or to get a particular object they see on a distance, it would require for them to have a more complex instrument for communicating.

This is evident in an infant from 3-7 months old.  The infant still cannot deliver speech, but has already learned that they can communicate through pre-speech forms.  When the baby gets hungry, he will cry.  When an adult extends both arms to gesture that he would want to carry the infant, the infant would either extend his arms if he wants to be taken or retracts if he does not want to be taken.  When a baby suddenly cries, an adult will not be readily able to understand why he is crying, but when an infant already knows how to babble some comprehensible morphemes, the caregiver would be able to tell exactly why the infant was crying.

Babbling is another form of how a baby tries to communicate (Hurlock, 1982).  It can be seen as a “prototype language” which infants can use to communicate.  Babbling can also be seen as the epitome of all human languages, because it contains the simplest units of language, phonemes and morphemes.

Children from different cultures babble before they are able to speak (Lenneberg, 1967).  Babbling is actually a stage of a child wherein he or she makes different sounds but are not recognizable as words.  Infants produce sounds that can be considered as basic parts of spoken language.  It often begins on the child’s 7th or 10th months of age (Oller, 2000).  This babbling stage of a child is often reinforced by parents wherein they recognize the child by smiling or repeating the word to which the child’s babble seem to sound like.  It is also reinforced when the baby gets what he wants when he does a particular behavior, for example, when he wants one of his parents to come, he can say “ma-ma,” or “da-da.”

Gesturing, on the other hand, is a substitute that babies use for speech. This is done when children are able to say a few words and then combining these words with actions to complete their sentence or to be able to communicate to others. An example of this is a child who would say “no” and push his plate; this means that he does not like or want the food.   Babies can also use gestures to express emotions more.  Babies can show happiness by tapping, or show curiosity by gently touching an object.

These gestures are still evident even when the infant grows up.  Most of the gestures that adults still use can also be seen in infants.  A person laughing hard may hit objects, like a table or his / her leg with an open palm.  This behavior can also be seen in infants.  The nodding and shaking of the head can also be seen both in adults and babies.

And last of the four pre-speech forms is the so-called emotional expressions.  This is said to be the most effective pre-speech form of communication because of the expressive facial gestures used by babies to communicate to others.  It is also useful because babies are not capable of controlling emotions so it is easy to identify what they feel and babies also find it easier to understand what others are trying to tell them through their facial expressions than the words being used (Hurlock, 1982).

Facial expressions are very powerful communicating instruments because of the existence of five universal emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, happiness and disgust.  All humans from different cultures can understand each of these emotions.  This may be the reason why infants have been given the skill to use these emotions and show these through facial expressions.

Acquisition is defined as the phase where an individual learns a new skill (Mazur, 2006).  An infant can be said to have acquired a new learning when it starts using the skill to produce a particular effect.  It is said that infants who “know” how to use their crying to get the adults’ attentions have already acquired the knowledge of communicating.

Association is when objects are linked or connected to one another.  In this process, the child is shown two objects from which he could identify one with the help of the other.  Learning through association also involves the number of times or the frequency of an object when paired to another.  Therefore, the more frequent two objects are paired, an individual would be most likely to associate them (Mazur, 2006).

This can be seen when an infant associates hunger with crying, crying with the parent’s attention, and the attention with food.  This way, whenever the baby gets hungry, he will cry thinking that food will come next.

A child learns language through parents’ reinforcement of making sounds such as babbling and cooing.  This reinforcement is often done through the so-called operant conditioning.  Reinforcement is defined as a stimulus that helps strengthen or lessen the behavior of an individual only if it is given after the specific behavior occurs.  In this case, the positive reinforcement is most commonly used wherein a child receives incentives or rewards if he did desirable things which would tend to be associated in his behaviors. Meanwhile, operant conditioning is a process wherein the subject has his or her behaviors modified through learning from the consequences of their actions.

On the other hand, Noam Chomsky (1955) claimed that the human brain has limited set of rules to organize language making language have a common basis called universal grammar.  Chomsky had hypothesized that language is formed because of environmental factors.  This means language is shaped by the environment.  “One example of this is an operation that would move the second word of a sentence to the front, and thereby accounts for the fact that children tend not to try out sequences such as Of glasses water are on the table?” when they seek the interrogative counterpart of “Glasses of water are on the table. “Universal grammar is part of the knowledge that resides in the human mind of a person who knows a language. The science of linguistics tries to ascertain what constitutes universal grammar and what beyond universal grammar differentiates languages from one another” (Albert, n.d.).

When a child grows up, he or she takes note of how he speaks and how he delivers different speeches. The child now learns by modeling by imitating the way adults speak and use language.  The choice of primary language is also determined by the language used by the parents.

The child also becomes aware and conscious of his grammar and syntax as he communicates with others.  Grammar and syntax deal with the togetherness, order and arrangement of words.  The child also learns how to put words into different arrangements so that the child can communicate effectively.

The Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area of the brain, both located at the cerebral cortex is important for language comprehension and speech production. If these areas would be damaged, an individual will not be able to understand any spoken language and would lose the ability to speak meaningful sentences (Mazur, 2006).

References

Albert, Michael. (n.d.) Universal Grammar and Linguistics. Retrieved 4 June 2007 from <http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/grammar.htm>

Chomsky, N. (1955). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton

Costello, A.J. (1976). Pre-verbal communication. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 17, 351-353.

Hurlock, E. (1982). Developmental Psychology: A Life-Span Approach. Navotas: McGraw-Hill Inc. pp. 87-89.

Kotak, C. P. (2004). Language and Communication. Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. 10 ed. pp. 391- 414.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley

Mazur, J. E. (2006). Learning and Behavior. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Oller, D.K. (2000). The Emergence of the Speech Capacity. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.