Understanding Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is both nature and nurture. One is born with the ability to acquire a language (nature) and it then has to be nurtured by the environment to develop.

Some say that once a baby is conceived she is already listening and acquiring language. This sentiment is often supported by the fact that when babies are born, they are born with a language acquisition device (LAD, @Chomsky) also known as a “language organ.” This device develops with time and increases, in terms of its ability and capacity, based on the needs of the baby. For instance, you ask a toddler what they need and they may respond with “water,” which then turns into “I need water,” and then “I need a cold glass of Zephyrhills, with extra ice.” So as a child your language device develops and you learn all these verbs and nouns and adjectives, without really knowing what verbs, nouns and adjectives are but you know how to use them. The question —what age does language acquisition begin?— really just depends on development and being exposed to the natural and correct environments that every baby should receive.

This blog is going to cover language acquisition: Its importance, the principles it’s based on, and how to test it.

What Is Language Acquisition?

Language acquisition is the process of making a language that is used around you also a part of you, to ensure you are never apart. In other words, you acquire a tool for communication (language) and communication is irrefutable in that you need to communicate. So, the tool is the language(s) that you are surrounded by and the language(s) that you will be able to learn and study in; language acquisition is simply making whatever tool that is around you, your tool, and in turn, your ability to communicate deftly. 

Why Is Language Acquisition Important?

In the past, the importance of language acquisition was summed up by the desire to learn a language, or the need to – if you move to a new country or new culture and logically you need to acquire that language. It’s reasonable and highly recommended to learn the communicative tools to survive in the new culture and place that you are living in.  But in today’s day and age, that culture is global and English has become the Lingua Franca of the world. What this means is that most people, if not everyone, who want to be successful (or at least have an opportunity for success in the marketplace) in terms of the economy, also in terms of the arts and technology, they need to acquire the English language because that is the Lingua Franca of the world, for at least the foreseeable future, until shifts are created in human development. That said, it’s important to acquire languages because without doing so you are going to miss certain opportunities – if you don’t speak the language that is required by the global community.

Language Acquisition and its “Theories”

There are many theories about language acquisition but language acquisition isn’t a theory. Language acquisition is a reality in life; without language acquisition there is no human development, there is no development of thought, no philosophy of process, of interaction, of culture. So, it’s not a theory, but there are theories about language acquisition.

For instance, the theories of language acquisition show up in the methods that have arisen over the years, specifically the Grammar Translation Method (“GTM”). This theory states that you learn a language overtly, meaning that you study the rules of the language and then you apply the rules of the language. This method has proven, time and time again, not to work. There are many theories, like the aforementioned one, that are not based on practical reality. Some other examples are the Audio Lingual Method (“ALM”). This theory advocates the idea that by going into laboratories and repeating the dialogues of the language you are trying to acquire and learn, by listening and repeating what you heard, over and over, that this practice will facilitate acquisition. Yet another theory that doesn’t work. Another notion was created in the 1970s and known as the designer methods. An example is to set up rooms with different colors and have that affect how one learns nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Many theories have arisen, most of which failed in practice, whereas the natural approach which was introduced by Stephen Krashen in the early 70s, and referred to as the i+1 approach that focuses on the natural process of acquiring a language, that is without any book, because language is acquired and learned orally (by listening and speaking). Eventually, after utilizing this natural process one will become fluent in the language, typically around the age of 5 or 6; then one can move on to study the language – which is when formal education begins (kindergarten, etc.). At this stage the child already speaks the language fluently and it becomes a question of building vocabulary through experience.

The Communicative Approach in Teaching (“CAT”) is doing its best to follow the natural theory where it focuses on covertly acquiring rules, rather than overtly studying without being fluent; we inductively acquire a language. Simply put, you are unaware that you are learning. This is why when children are playing they can acquire a language from the other children who already speak the language.

Principles of Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is based on linguistic knowledge, which is made up of four components. The first component is based on comprehension. But in this case, comprehension has nothing to do with meaning. Comprehension has to do with comprehending that the sound that you hear is a linguistic sound. For instance, being able to differentiate between a knock on the door and the roar of a lion (not linguistic) and the sound someone makes when they are speaking (linguistic). You are able to comprehend the sound and then you can mimic or copy that particular sound.

When you are born, you are born with a language acquisition device, which has been explicated in detail by Noam Chomsky (M.I.T.). His work covers the fact that you are born with this device and you are also born with all of the sounds of all the human languages that exist in the world. What happens next is your environment chooses (or nurtures) the sounds that you need for your specific environment. For example, if you are in an eastern Asian country then the English “ruh” sound is not nurtured. A lot of the times when they try to pronounce “fried rice” they’ll say, “flied lice” because they nurtured the “luh” and not the “ruh” sound. Another example is the Anglo-English speaker having a difficult time with the “erre” (rolling their Rs) in Spanish, because it’s not a part of their linguistic environment (nurture).

The process then involves you pruning the sounds that you don’t need because they aren’t being nurtured by your environment, and then you build the ability to pronounce the words you need, and the vocabulary you need, according to your environment. This all happens as you grow up because when you are a baby all you need to do is cry and you will get the attention and response. Then you learn one word and then two and then you learn the ability to reorder the words in the right way — which is known as syntax — based on your linguistic environment. In English, e.g., it’s adjective-noun, while in Spanish it’s noun-adjective – which are both arbitrary concepts and dependent on the environment. Next comes context and learning the importance of it since words are meaningless without it, which is known as semantics.

So to sum it up, the four components are phonology (the sound system), lexicology (the vocabulary of a language), then syntax (word order), and last is semantics (word meaning based on context). There is a natural order that must be followed when teaching languages and also when acquiring and learning the language that is foreign to you. And if you don’t follow that natural order you can spend an unsuccessful 1,000 years trying to study a language and you’ll never learn how to speak it.

How To Test Language Levels

Language levels should be tested the sound way. This way is primarily oral because most languages in the world do not have a writing system. Writing systems are, of course, prevalent in the modern world and also a way to check reading and writing skills if the language has a written form. As aforementioned, most languages in the world do not have a written form which makes the written form supplemental. It’s not part of the natural processes of language acquisition and learning. The written form is part of language study provided that a particular language has a writing system. In essence, the only way to acquire a language is orally. There is no other way. Even with a written form, the written form of the test must be preceded by the oral process.

Closing Thoughts

There you have it folks. The go-to-guide to understanding language acquisition. If you liked what you read, please make sure to subscribe to this blog for new content surrounding language acquisition. If you’re interested in signing up for a TEFL Certification program that adheres to CAT’s guidelines, please click here.

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