What Is Language Acquisition? Here’s Everything You Need to Know!
Can a dog tell another dog a joke?
Or can a cat (other than Garfield) describe an experience so vividly that it makes the other cats feel like they just ate the same lasagna?
Language. It’s an exclusively human condition. Other species definitely do communicate through movements and sounds, but they’re definitely not in the same class as humans.
A poet can write lines that can make any woman swoon. A 140-character tweet can spark a revolution. Even children can tease an acquaintance to tears.
But how did we acquire all these skills and abilities?
We’ll look into that in this post. We’ll examine the differences between first language and second language acquisition, as well as some of the leading theories presented on the topic.
And have you always wondered what terms like “syntax,” “semantics” and “phonology” are really about? They won’t be so mysterious after this post. We’ll peak behind the curtain and talk about the five characteristics of languages.
Finally, to finish things up, we’ll touch on the four language skills you need to speak a language.
So, ready to go? Let’s begin.
Language Learning 101: What Is Language Acquisition?
Have you had the wonderful experience of gazing at a newborn baby through a hospital nursery window? You know full well that those babies can’t appreciate your soulful admiration, right? They can’t understand a word you say, much less talk to you.
But what kind of awesomeness happens in so short a time, that turns this ball of pure cuteness into a determined fellow pointing at everything in the grocery store, having a fit when you don’t get him what he wants?
Language acquisition is that process of building the ability to understand a language, using it to communicate with others. It’s the process of going from a wordless wonder into somebody who can’t stop talking during class.
That’s language acquisition or, more specifically, first language or native language acquisition. If you were born in Korea to parents who speak Korean with you, you’ll naturally end up talking Korean. The same goes for whatever native language you’re taught.
Another type of language acquisition is the one that happens after you’ve acquired your native tongue—aptly named “second language acquisition.”
Maybe you’re an English speaker who wants to learn Mandarin or Spanish. Maybe you’re taking a German class. Most readers of this blog are probably in this same boat, tremendously enriching their lives by learning a second (or third) language.
There’s a lot of difference between native language and second language acquisition. When you learned your native tongue, you weren’t given a long list of vocabulary words to memorize or a thick grammar textbook to sink your teeth into. You were just with mom and dad, who always told you what to eat and when to sleep.
Your experience was highly immersive, and it was largely unconscious. You probably can’t even remember how you picked up your native tongue. Yet, while waiting for your first formal English lessons to begin, before Mrs. Johnson even set foot in that class, you were already chatting away with your seatmate Steve, asking him if he saw the new Mentos commercial.
Second language acquisition, on the other hand, happens at a very different time and place. Usually, it happens when you’re older, maybe inside a school or university classroom, or nowadays even a virtual one.
Maybe you’re learning a new language because your new job requires you to do it to speak with customers. Or maybe you just want to learn how to flirt in a new language. Whatever the reason, the methods used are quite different from what happens in childhood. You consciously study grammar. You have your word lists with their corresponding pictures and translations. You have apps, podcasts and YouTube videos.
Many people successfully learn a second language, but not everybody gets there. On the other hand, we know first language acquisition is amazingly effective. The proof? The 7.5 billion native speakers today who speak their respective languages with finesse and flair that take our breaths away, making us wish we were born in a different country. It’s led many to believe that learning a language is the sole province of the young—people in the “critical period,” whose highly elastic brains absorb language like a sponge.
But while it’s true that our brains rapidly develop in our early years, it doesn’t lose plasticity over our lifetimes. We can create novel neural connections and learn something new at any age. That means you can embark on a language learning journey at any stage in life, your stabilized brain notwithstanding.
Studies have pointed out that there are indeed other factors that exert a stronger influence than age on an individual’s language performance. For example, one study found that a person’s motivation is a better predictor of linguistic success than age. Just because you’re young, doesn’t mean you’ll pick up the language no problem.
What is it that drives you to learn the second language? What gets you over the speedbumps? Why do you do it when you could’ve done something else? These are more important than what you write on the blank after “Age.”
Another factor that does better than age to predict language acquisition is the quality of inputs. That is, even if you start learning a language later in life, you can still be better off than those who started early, as long as you spend considerable time interacting with native speakers or use authentic materials in your study. The quality of inputs determine your linguistic success.
So really, it’s not that second language acquisition is unnatural or that it’s only for the gifted. It’s just that we need better tools and methods to do it.
The good news is that in addition to people looking into the mechanisms of first language acquisition, taking a page or two and applying it to second language acquisition, we’re developing better tools and methods on a daily basis—and we’ll talk about some of them out in this post.
But whether it’s first or second language acquisition, how do these processes actually take place in the mind of a language learner? Psychologists and linguists have put forth several theories over the decades to explain the phenomenon, and we’re going to look into three of the most influential ones in the next section.
3 Competing Schools of Thought About Language Acquisition
Philosophers have always been fascinated by the human linguistic ability, particularly its initial acquisition.
Ever since Socrates intoned “Know thyself,” we have tried to peek behind the curtain and find out how we are actually able to learn language and use it for a myriad of communicative purposes.
Here are some theories on the matter:
1) Behaviorism (B.F. Skinner)
Whether you learned about it in your Psych 101 class or from the lyrics to any number of songs, you’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s work with canines. He’s the guy who was studying salivation in dogs as a response to being fed.
Pavlov noticed that the dogs started salivating as soon as he (or his associate) entered the room, even when no visible food was presented. Somehow the dogs learned to associate food with his presence. They were conditioned to salivate upon seeing him!
That’s all part of behaviorism, which had its heyday from the 1900s to the 1950s and held its sway in how we think about language acquisition. B.F. Skinner, an eminent behaviorist, proposed that language acquisition is really one big and complex case of conditioning. At its core, it’s all pattern recognition—associating words with meaning.
For example, if a baby hears the word “milk” often enough right before being fed from the bottle, he’ll soon learn what that word means. If he always hears the word “ball” right before being handed a spherical object, he’ll begin to associate “ball” with its referent.
Through a process of trial and error, a child (or a second language learner) will be able to learn correct grammar. Language acquisition, in this view, is a stimulus-response mechanism. A child will get to the correct form of the language when he observes reinforcing behavior from those around him—a smile, a nod or being handed a spherical object when he says “ball.” These all tell him that he’s thinking in the right direction.
And one of the fastest ways of getting to the right form or use of the language, instead of going at it through personal trial and error, is imitation. A child can simply imitate what an adult says or how she says it. That’s why accents can be contagious. If you live in a southern state like Texas or Arkansas, your English will likely have that sexy southern drawl.
In the behaviorist view, language is simply reinforced input.
2) Universal Grammar (Noam Chomsky)
In the 1960s, the field of behaviorism came under serious attack from the likes of Noam Chomsky, a man recognized as the father of modern linguistics, and about as decorated a scholar as any.
He pointed out that if you really look closer, parents give only very little linguistic input for tots to run with. Chomsky argued that parent-child interactions are limited to repeated utterances of things like “Put that back” and “Open your mouth”–not very likely to make significant dents towards the cause of language learning. And besides, when a child says, “I swimmed today,” he didn’t really get that from any adult figure in his life. That’s not imitation.
So how does one account for the fact that children learn to speak their native tongues in spite of the “poverty of the stimulus”? One is left with the conclusion, Chomsky argues, that if not from the outside, external input, then the ability must have been there all along.
Chomsky asserts that human beings are biologically wired for language—that we have a “language acquisition device” that allows us to learn any language in the world. Linguistic ability is innate to us.
Proof of this are the emergent abilities that have no external source. For example, we know that writing comes later in the language learning process, perhaps in the classroom. But how then do children make out the individual words in the string of sounds that they hear, when they haven’t seen a single written form of those words?
Chomsky would argue that children use this “language acquisition device” to figure out the rules specific to their native language. He even goes on to assert that there is such a thing as a “Universal Grammar.” For how else did the different languages end up with the same categorization of words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) when there’s an infinite number of ways words can be categorized? We always have nouns, verbs and adjectives.
Chomsky’s work represented the “nature” side of the “nature-nurture debate,” while the Behaviorists account for language as part of “nurturing.”
Of course, because of its sweeping and seemingly simplistic assertions, Chomsky’s theory has its own set of strong dissenters. Let’s talk about them next.
3) Cognitive Theory (Jean Piaget)
Your churning brain might already be asking any number of questions:
“So what proof do we have for this ‘language acquisition device’? Where in the brain is it located? Can we see it in action?”
“Have we studied all the languages of the world to conclude that there is indeed ‘Universal Grammar’?”
These and other queries prompted a different approach to the whole question of language acquisition. And as is often the case, subsequent theories, like new kids on the block, often point out the weaknesses of those that came before them.
Chomsky’s theory did that to Behaviorism, and in turn, those that follow will try to fill in the gaps. And instead of taking a side on the nature-nurture debate, the cognitive theory of language acquisition recognizes that both processes have their roles to play.
The psychologist Jean Piaget is a major proponent of this cognitive model, which sees language acquisition in light of the developing mental capacities. The idea here is that we’re able to learn language because of our ability to learn. It’s because of our cognitive development. Our brains become more complex, and we learn so many things so fast.
Babies initially don’t talk because their brains and mental capacities still lack the experience and scaffolding necessary for language. But as babies grow, as they interact with adults, as they gain more experience, as they observe more things and as they learn more concepts, language becomes the inevitable result.
Piaget believed that the understanding of concepts must first come before language. When a child says, “Ball is red,” he must first understand what a ball and the color red are before he can comment.
So if you notice how language develops, it follows the complexity of our thinking. The more nuanced and layered our thinking, the more textured the language that comes out. That’s why children talk one way, and adults talk a different way.
In this model, language is seen as part of our advancing mental capacities—alongside our ability to reason or to think in the abstract. We are rational beings, information processors that interact and learn from experience.
Those are three of the most influential theories on language acquisition. Each has its merits and each gives a certain view of how we learn language. Needless to say, more research and study is needed on the topic. There’s still so much to discover, and so much to learn in this area of linguistics.
When we say “language acquisition,” what is it exactly that we acquire? Well, we now go to the next section to find out.
The 5 Characteristics of a Language
Here we get into the nitty-gritty of languages, and look under the hood to see their basic components.
We need to meet the things that animate languages, behind the scenes, in order to have a proper appreciation of them. I’m talking here about the five characteristics of a language: syntax, semantics, phonology, morphology and pragmatics. Whatever language you’re considering, it has them. And they work awesomely with each other, as you’ll see.
Syntax is really just another word for grammar. Languages are governed by rules. Without them, language would be a jumbled mess of words, phrases and concepts that would be very difficult to understand and therefore barely useful.
Each language has a specified arrangement of words and phrases. Because of the specific ways the elements are arranged, we can decipher meaning and understand each other. Syntax doesn’t exist so that “Grammar Nazis” can oppress those who don’t know the codified rules. Grammar is there to facilitate meaning and help us communicate the correct information or message to each other.
Without syntax, we’d have sentences like: Robert Susan killed dog the pet of.
Whoa, what happened in this sentence? Who killed whom?
Without a consistent arrangement of words, we can never figure it out.
Semantics is all about meaning in a language—what words, phrases and sentences actually mean. Semantics works hand in hand with syntax because different arrangement of words can create different meanings. For example, we have a sentence:
“She tapped him on the shoulder.”
Let’s say we’ll insert the word “only” somewhere in the statement. Notice how this changes the whole meaning and complexion of the statement, depending on where exactly we place a single word.
Only she tapped him on the shoulder. (Nobody else did.)
She only tapped him on the shoulder. (She didn’t punch him.)
She tapped only him on the shoulder. (Nobody else got a similar treatment.)
She tapped him only on the shoulder. (Not on his head or anywhere else.)
She tapped him on the only shoulder. (What sort of a man is this?!)
Meaning can change depending on how you arrange specific words. And not only that, meaning can also change depending on the form of individual words. Let’s talk about that next.
Morphology is about the form of words. It’s best observed in the written form of a language. Change in form often brings with it a change in meaning.
Root words—the most basic word forms—can be decorated with a bunch of prefixes and suffixes to form new words, each with a different meaning. A single root word can give birth to many new words, and that’s where the linguistic fun begins.
Take the root word “drive.”
Add “r” at the end and you have “driver.” From a verb, your word has become a noun, a person.
Next, add “s” to your newly formed word and you have “drivers.” You’ve just performed magic and cloned a lone person by using the plural form of the word.
Change “i” to “o” and you have “drove.” From a verb in the present tense, you introduced a time change and turned it into a past tense.
You can do many things with the root word “drive” and come up with new words like:
And so on.
That’s what morphology is all about. Different meanings come from different word forms. Speaking of forms, when spoken, each of these new words will inevitably sound different. That’s what the next language characteristic is all about.
Phonology is the study of linguistic sounds. And if ever you want to be considered fluent in your target language, you have to be very familiar with the intonations, stresses, pauses, dips and tones of the language.
To sound like a native speaker, you have to pronounce words, phrases and sentences like they do. There are specific sounds and sound patterns that exist in a language. For example, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese have rolling “R’s” that give some English speakers a heck of a time.
In languages like Italian, you oftentimes only need to look at how a word is spelled (morphology) in order to know how it should be pronounced. In other words, in those languages there’s a close correspondence between the language’s written form and its spoken form. In the case of French, though, you’d practically have to be dead drunk with French wine to figure out how to correctly pronounce “houx.” You can stare at it all day long, but those silent letters won’t speak to you.
Speaking of silence, the next linguistic characteristic deals with that part of the language that isn’t spoken. This is sort of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge aspect of a language.
Because language happens in a specific context, we can actually be ambiguous and still deliver perfectly clear communication. We can go beyond the literal and structural forms of the language. We can say one thing and actually mean another.
Pragmatics is concerned with how meaning is negotiated between speaker and listener. When your boss, after reading your submitted proposal, tells you, “This won’t work. Go back to square one,” you begrudgingly know what he means. You don’t take his words literally and look for “square one.” You start again.
Or when you’re hours late for a date with your wife and she asks you, “Do you know what time it is?” you know better than to give her the exact time. You know a rhetorical question when you hear one.
Pragmatics lends languages levity, so we don’t get stuck with being so literal all the time. You know you’re fluent in a language when you understand idiomatic expressions, sarcasm and the like.
Now that we know about the five characteristics of languages, we get to the four modalities in which language acquisition can be judged: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
The Four Language Skills
How do you know if or when you’ve acquired a language?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s not an either-or kind of thing. When you get down to it, language acquisition isn’t a dichotomy but rather a continuum, and language learners stand at various stages of acquisition.
And to make things a little bit more complicated, there are four basic language modalities or skills involved: listening, speaking, reading and writing. They’re closely related, but still clearly different. You may have thought of “language acquisition” in terms of speaking ability, but it’s just one of four competencies considered.
Let’s look at them.
We know that listening is the first language skill to be developed. Before babies can even talk, read or write, they’ve already logged in serious hours listening. They listen to how their parents talk, to the intonations and pauses, and take their cues as to the speaker’s emotions.
Babies have this “silent phase” when they simply give you those cute bright eyes. No words are spoken. But you know something is happening inside those brains because one day, they just start babbling—something unintelligible at first, then gradually moving into their first words, like wooden sculptures slowly arising from individual blocks of wood.
Listening has often been mistaken for a passive activity, where you just sit there and orient your ears to the audio. You can even sleep if you want to. But nothing is farther from the truth.
To listen effectively, you actually have to lend your focus and be actively into it because you should be listening for specific things. What things? You’re going to be listening for intonations, motivations, emotions, accents and the natural flow of sound.
A language has a specific musicality unique to it. It’s not just about vocabulary. To be fluent, you need to be aware not only of the words but also of the sounds of those words. And the only way you can hone this skill is by investing the time by listening to both authentic sources and study materials.
You can for example use an audio-based study program like Pimsleur. Listen to it on your commute. For authentic material, you can get podcasts produced by your target language’s native speakers. Even YouTube offers a lot of native speaker content. (Just because you’re listening doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to audio.)
At first, you don’t really need to go for complete comprehension of what you’re listening to. Heck, you don’t even need to work out the individual words. Close your eyes and consciously notice the dips and rises of the tone. Notice for example how the tone evolves from the beginning of a sentence to how it ends.
You have to invest time in this. That is, you do if you want to sound like a native speaker.
Speaking is probably what you think of when we mention “language acquisition.” It is, after all, the most vivid proof of your linguistic chops. There’s nothing like speaking fluent Mandarin to impress a date—never mind that what you actually said was the equivalent of “Where’s the bathroom?”
Ironically, although speaking may be the end goal for many language learners, many devote very little study time to it. Many learners instead dive deep into vocabulary and grammar. Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. This is what I’m saying: Vocabulary helps on all fronts—listening, speaking, reading and writing—but it doesn’t score a frontal hit on the main goal of speaking.
You know what directly hits this target? Actually speaking the language, all tongue-twisting be damned!
To learn how to speak a language, you practice speaking it. Perhaps unintelligibly at first, like a novice swimmer awkwardly flailing appendages in the water, but gradually getting there.
Speaking is a physical phenomenon, so you need to actually practice getting your vocal ensemble—your tongue, mouth, teeth and palate—to move the way native speakers move theirs. You need to feel what it’s like saying those words. You need to hear yourself speak. You need to open your mouth. And often. All the time. There’s just no way around it.
The thing that stops language learners is that there’s always something else to learn before the talking. You don’t want to mess it up, so you think you need to perfectly know the requisite grammar and techniques before you ever open your mouth. But that’s really an excuse not to be embarrassed. Even when we’re totally alone, we’re embarrassed that somebody from far away might hear us butcher the pronunciation of a single word.
Babies don’t have those hangups. They babble away, butchering their mother tongues all day long, while their egos remain intact. Is it even a wonder why they acquire the language?
Being able to read in a second language opens up a whole world of literature to you.
Imagine being able to read and understand the classics in their original languages. Imagine being able to read “The Three Musketeers” in the original French or Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in the original Italian. There’s just nothing like a helping of those works in the language in which they were written because there are some things that just can’t be adequately translated.
Thankfully, all your time studying vocabulary and grammar rules all works in favor of reading comprehension.
In addition, you can gradually build your comprehension prowess by starting off with dual-language books. These are books that give you a line-by-line translation of the story. You can compare and contrast the languages as you go along.
Next in this build-up would be the children’s books in the target language only. Children’s books would be easy enough for you to read. Choose stories you’re familiar with so you can do away with the plot guessing and focus on learning.
And remember, just to practice moving your mouth in the target language, try reading aloud the text in front of you. That way, you’re hitting two birds with one stone.
Many consider the ability to write in another language the apex of language acquisition. Maybe they’re thinking about writing in terms of epic volumes, academic in nature, read and revered by one generation and the next.
Here we’re talking about writing in more prosaic terms.
Writing, in many respects, can actually be easier than speaking the target language. With the written form, language learners actually have a visible record in front of them. Written texts are more malleable than spoken words. You can scratch written texts, reorder them and correct their tenses and conjugations.
Again, vocabulary and grammar training help a lot to build this skill.
In addition, you can practice write by doing short paragraphs on things like:
- My Perfect Day
- My Secret Hobby
- Why I love “Terminator 3”
Your work may not become a fixture in the language classes of the future, but the cool thing about writing is that the more you write, the better you become at expressing yourself in the target language. This inevitably helps in honing the other communication skills, like speaking on the fly, understanding content written by others and listening to native material.
Now you know a lot about language acquisition—from the theories about it, to the differences between native language and second language acquisition, to the five characteristics of languages and the four linguistic skills to hone. I’m hoping that, if anything, this piece has sparked more interest and desire in you to learn the languages of the world.