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Topics in Linguistic Anthropology: First Language Acquisition

First language acquisition. Image of an Asian baby.

What is language acquisition? Language acquisition is the learning of language. It can be broken down into two topics. The first topic is called first language acquisition, which means learning your first language as a child. We will explore this topic in this blog post. The second topic is second language acquisition, which is learning a second language or more. We will explore this topic in a future blog post.

First Language Acquisition

So let’s look at first language acquisition. Babies can hear in the womb, and so they are exposed to the sounds of language in utero. And, young babies can distinguish the sounds of language from other sounds in the environment. Six-month-old infants can even distinguish between 600 consonants and 200 vowels, which means they have the ability to learn any language in the world. But by the time they are a year old, they are better at recognizing the sounds of the language spoken around them compared to the sounds of other languages.

Stages of First Language Acquisition

No matter what language an infant is raised around, they progress through the same stages while learning their language. The first stage is the prelinguistic stage, which is when babies are very young. At around 12 weeks, babies start cooing, where they make vocalizations, like “o-o-o-o-o-o.” The next stage is the babbling stage. Between 4 and 8 months old, babies make sounds through babbling. For example, the baby may say “ma ma ma ma” or “da da da da.” What is interesting is that in this stage, babies around the world tend to make the same sounds. The next stage is the one-word stage, and this happens between 9 and 18 months of age. During this time, children can name a few objects and actions. By about 18 months they can use a word as a sentence. For example, a child may say “juice” which means “I want some juice.”

The next stage is the two-word stage. Between 18 and 24 months old, children can make two-word sentences, like “more juice.” The next stage is the early multiword stage. In this stage, children who are 24 to 30 months old talk with a more complex structure, and they start asking questions, like “see doggie?” They also start using the word “no” and say things like “no eat” or “no sit down.” Finally, the last stage is the later multiword stage. After 30 months of age, children start using words like “why” and “how” and talk with an even more complex structure. And at this point, they have a vocabulary of about 1,000 words.

Some people wonder if talking to babies using babytalk helps or hinders the language acquisition process. Babytalk, also known as parentese, is when adults talk to children slowly in simple language using a high-pitched voice. Research has shown that communicating with babies using babytalk may help the language process, but a child who never heard babytalk will still become fluent in their language.

A mother holding a baby on her lap. Both of them are looking at a book.

Sign Language & First Language Acquisition

Now, I’d like to talk briefly about sign language acquisition. Just like how hearing babies go through stages in their language acquisition, hearing or deaf babies who are exposed to sign language go through similar stages. These babies babble by making hand movements when they are young, and then they learn single signs, and then later they produce two sign combinations.

Are Babies Imitating Parents?

Some people think that children learn language from imitating adults, but research has shown that is not true. Children say things that they have never heard before. For example, children may say things like “I bringed my toy” or “I goed outside” which are sentences that no adult would say. This is evidence that the child is learning the rules of grammar, in this case how to form past tense verbs. Since in this case, the child is applying a grammatical rule to all situations, this is called overgeneralization. Over time, the child will learn the exceptions to the rules of past tense, and say “I brought my toy” and “I went outside.”

There was an interesting research study where a researcher showed a line drawing of an imaginary animal to children. The researcher said, “This is a wug.” Then, she showed the children a page with two of these animals on it and said “Now here is another one. There are two of them. There are two _____.” Children as young as three years old said: “wugs” even though they had never heard the word “wug” before. This shows that the children learn the rules of language and then they apply them in new circumstances.

A mother and father holding hands with their toddler, and walking along the sand on a beach.

Universal Grammar

A famous linguist called Noam Chomsky came up with the idea that there is a basic innate template for human languages in our brains that allows children to acquire language. This template is called Universal Grammar. According to this idea, a child just has to hear a few examples of the language rules, and this sets a parameter or an on and off switch to a certain setting. For example, one parameter determines whether the word order in sentences is object first then verb, or verb first then object. So an English-speaking child figures out that the correct order is verb then object, and the correct parameter for word order is set. Not everyone agrees that Universal Grammar exists, but there is evidence to support the idea. For example, children learn whatever language they are raised in, without being taught it. And they even know the complex basics of their language by the time they are only three or four years old.

Critical Range Hypothesis

Now, I’d like to talk about the Critical Range Hypothesis. This says that there is a critical period for learning language in childhood. If a child is not exposed to language by a certain age, they will no longer be able to have fluency and will only have limited language skills. For example, this is seen in children who have been abused and not raised around language. Two famous cases were a boy called Victor and a girl called Genie. Victor was found in the woods when he was about 12 years old, and he had been living in the woods for some time. A doctor took Victor in and worked on teaching him language, but Victor made very little progress. Genie was found at about 13 years of age, and she was not spoken to for about 12 years. She was shut in a room with little human contact for her entire life. A linguist worked with Genie for years but was unsuccessful in teaching her language.

Tiwi People of Australia

Now I’d like to look at first language acquisition in three different cultures. First, let’s look at the Tiwi people of Australia. In this culture, instead of calling someone by their name, you call them a kinship term depending on how you are related to them. For example, a father calls his daughter a term that shows that she is a relative but not a member of his clan. A mother calls her daughter a term that shows the child IS a member of the mother’s clan. And, children are taught how they are related to each person that they meet. So, not surprisingly, in this culture, babies’ first words are kinship terms.

First language acquisition. A mother and baby looking at a book.

Kaluli People of New Guinea

Now, let’s look at the Kaluli of New Guinea. In this culture, parents don’t talk to babies because they believe that these young children do not understand. Also, they do not make eye contact with the baby, because in that culture you are not supposed to make eye contact with anybody. But the mothers do talk to their older children and tell them what the baby might say if the baby was older. And despite all this, these babies learn their language just fine.

People of Western Samoa

Now let’s look at the people of Western Samoa. This is a highly stratified society, which means that there are different social classes. In the household, there are also social classes, and the younger children have the lowest rank. Parents give babies commands, but they don’t have conversations with their babies like people in the United States do. And when the children learn to talk, they are expected to carry messages to people of a higher status. At first, these will only be one-word messages. But by the age of three years old, the child will be expected to carry messages to people in other households.

Learn More

Want to learn more about first language acquisition? Check out the YouTube video “Language Acquisition: Crash Course Linguistics #12” at this link or view the embedded video below.

Thanks for reading!