Three models of human development

So much of human development involves interaction with others therefore the medium of language whether spoken, written or gestured, plays a central role in our lives. But what is language, how can it be defined and what are its major components? How does a human develop and acquire language. What do three of the main models in Psychology think of language acquisition? In this essay I will briefly discuss the three main models of human development and then will attempt to answer the question of how language is developed and acquired using the views of the main models and their theorists.

Models within Developmental Psychology include Nativists, Empiricists, Transactionalists and Interactionists. Nativists can either be pre formationists who argue that you are born with pre set patterns and nothing can change this, or, pre determinists who do not deny the importance of environmental stimuli, but they say language acquisition cannot be accounted for on the basis of environmental factors only. Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best known and the most influential linguist of the second half of the Twentieth Century. He has made a number of strong claims about language: in particular, he suggests that language is an innate faculty.

Interactionists, especially those with social interactionist view argue that human development is due to how an individual interacts within their social environment. The theorists in this model were concerned with the interplay between the environment and biological factors. Interactionists tend to view that children do have a biological predisposition to acquire a language. Piaget (1972 as cited in Becker and Varelas 2001) stressed the importance of individual cognitive development as a relatively solitary act. Social interaction was claimed only to trigger development at their right moment in time. But Vygotsky (1978) maintained that social interaction was foundational in cognitive development and rejected the notion of predetermined stages.

The doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from experience and names associated with empiricism or learning theory were notably Locke, Skinner and Bandura. Empiricists believed sensory experience was the true knowledge of the world. Locke maintained that at birth the mind was a “tabula rasa” in other words a blank slate. He argued that experience made it’s imprint and this environmentalism is built into the behaviourist view of learning whereby a child is totally malleable and can be made into anything the environment wanted it to become. In Verbal Behaviour (1957 as cited in Gross 1990) Skinner applied the principles of operant conditioning to explain language development in children. He argued that language was acquired by the same mechanisms of conditioning and reinforcement that were thought at the time to govern all other aspects of animal and human behaviour.

The purpose of language is communication. Language is used for different purpose: to give or ask for information, to persuade or convince, to entertain, to express emotions, to organise thoughts, and to solve problems and create. Humans are not born silent; they cry, burp and make sucking sounds known as vegetative sounds. At around six weeks of age they make cooing sounds and may engage in vocal play around about six months (Stark 1986 as cited in Hsua, Fogel and Cooper 2000). Four kinds of knowledge are needed to understand and use language. These are Phonetics, which is recognition of the basic sound units.

Semantics, how these phonemes are combined to form morphemes. Syntax or grammar is information being passed in the right order and in a way they are able to understand it and finally Pragmatics, which refers to cultural understanding that enables them to understand ambiguous language (Lee & Gupta 2001). Roger Brown (1965 as cited in Hayes 2000) defined language as an arbitrary system of symbols, “which when taken together make it possible for a creature with limited powers of discrimination and a limited memory to transmit and understand an infinite variety of messages and to this in spite of noise and distraction”.

Every normal person in a predictable sequential fashion acquires language although at different rates. The first year of life is really a pre linguistic phase of a baby making various sounds such as cooing and crying and then goes on to babbling. Brown (1970 as cited in Hayes 2000) identified five stages in language acquisition: A child uttering one or two words such as “mummy gone”, the second stage the child starts to use words such as “that a doggy”. At stage three the child starts using “wh” questions in their sentences. The next stage is using simple sentences and the final stage is where the child is able to join sentences with conjunctions.

All human languages have a hierarchical structure. Basic sounds are combined into words, words are combined into phrases, and phrases are combined into sentences. DeCasper and Fifer (1980) identified that at three days infants were able to distinguish their mothers voice from other people. This comes under the pre linguistic period. At the one word stage Nelson (1973) identified six categories in her study of 18 babies of language acquisition. These were specific nominals, general nominals, action words, modifiers, personal social words and function sounds. During the two word stage Bee and Mitchell pointed out that as well as continued development of the child’s vocabulary, it is the understanding of the grammar which comes in to play in two stages.

Nativists believe that children learn the language in an integrated way. For example, as 4-year olds learn new vocabulary, they also acquire other rules of language, such as plural and tenses, which are part of grammar. Studies carried out by Nativists have shown that some of the rules of language learning appear to be universal.

The nativist theories assert that much of the capacity for language learning in human is ‘innate’. It is part of the genetic makeup of human species and is nearly independent of any particular experience that may occur after birth. Chomsky made a radical proposal that we were all born with what had been called a language acquisition device (LAD). The LAD is programmed to recognise the universal rules that underlie the particular language that a child hears. In Chomsky’s theory children match the features of the language with a set of innate universal principles, a process known as parameter setting, which, once has occurred children can then instinctively operationalise the relevant universal principles (Cohen 1977).

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