Acquisition of Language
In terms of theoretical significance, language acquisition is no different from language learning, barring of course the technical distinction brought about by Krashen. Modern linguistics and modern psychology are two of the disciplines that are intimately tied to language and the paradigms proposed in relation to language and language acquisition. A paradigm is a set of shared assumptions regarding what is relevant and what is irrelevant. As far as language acquisition is concerned, we have two paradigms: Structural and Chomskian.
The Structuralist Paradigm (S. P.)
In this paradigm, answers to
a. what is language?
b. what are the goals of linguistics?
c. what are the relevant data for linguistics?
d. what are the procedures used in linguistics?
were attempted. The answer to question (a) is closely tied to concept of language in terms of language acquisition.
In this paradigm, language was treated as the sum total of sentences produced by a speech community. “The totality of utterances made in a speech community is the language of that speech community” (Bloomfield). Such treatment of language was the result of two factors. One , Bloomfield took it upon himself to delimit the role of linguistics (no longer as an auxiliary of anthropology, rhetoric and philosophy) and to make linguistics autonomous and scientific. To Bloomfield, ‘scientific’ meant rejection of all data that was not directly observable or physically measurable. The other is the influence on Bloomfield of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. Rejecting the parole—langue distinction, Skinner adopted a strictly behaviouristic point of view and argued that the only observable object of scientific study is the verbal behaviour, the speech utterances and texts (parole). Langue, according to Skinner, is a mentalistic and unscientific abstraction. Consequently, passion for being empirical, for being ‘scientific’, for making linguistics a discipline in its own right led Bloomfield to ignore the existence of meaning, to decide ‘in the division of scientific labour, the linguist deals only with speech signal’ and to assert that language learning was a matter of imitation and reproduction. Thus based on its assumptions about the definition of science and of language acquisition, the structuralist paradigm proposed parole as the corpus of linguistic analysis and discovery procedure for identification of linguistic elements and their classification.
Chomskian Paradigm (C.P)
Again, we are concerned here with Chomsky’s answer to the question ‘what is language?’ Chomsky criticised the structuralist paradigm and proposed a new one.
Chomsky rejected the Stimulus—Response based and environment-based theory of linguistic behaviour because structural linguistics did not lead to an understanding of a language as a system of rule-governed relationships. These ‘rules’ are instructions for generating all possible sentences of the language and are based on what people say (Palmer: Grammar).
By describing language as overt behaviour conditioned by response to stimuli through imitation, reinforcement and reproduction, the S.P. had failed to account for the creativity of language use. It has no explanation for the native speakers’ ability to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences. Obviously, they couldn’t have acquired an infinite set of sentences through imitation and practice.
S.P treated language as behaviour and equated this behaviour with other forms of behaviour. But language is now considered species uniform and species specific. C.P. claims that the human brain must have certain properties that determine the nature and acquisition of language. It acknowledges language as a rule-governed system where the rules are ‘not only intricate but also quite abstract’. Such mentalist paradigm contrasts with the mechanistic paradigm.
S.P. cannot explain how a child is able to exhibit in an incredibly short period a rich and systematic mastery of language for all purposes, considering the exposure to language (environment) is so meagre, incomplete and unsystematic. C.P. explains this ability as the result of a process in the brain. The innate language learning ability takes the form of language acquisition device (LAD) that processes by hypothesis testing. Consequently, children acquire a language by making hypothesis about the form of the grammar with which they are surrounded. They then compare this with their innate knowledge of possible grammars based on the principles of universal grammar. In this way, the child internalises a knowledge of the grammar of the native language use (performance) possible. Language use is thus rule-governed behaviour that enables speakers to create new utterances to conform to the rules they have internalised.
Thus Chomskian paradigm proposes competence (langue), explains performance (parole) and predicts all potential sentences with the intuitive judgements of the native speaker.
In conclusion, stuructualism considered environment basic to learning, and learning was conditioned, imitative and mechanical. The Theory of Innate Language Structures plays down the role of environment and stress the importance of genetic characters.