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Influences on Language Acquisition

Close your eyes and try to think back to your earliest memories. Go back further. Further. And try to remember how you learned your native language. Whether it was English, or Spanish, or Dutch, or Swahili, at some point you had to learn this language. Do you remember how you did it? Most of us don’t. And that’s because it’s largely an automated process that begins in the first year of our life, and continues throughout the toddler years.

Now, if you’ve ever learned a second language, you know how much work that can be. So researchers are fascinated by the abilities of infants to internalize and conceptualize language, also known as the process of language acquisition. So how does this work? Well, let’s start by looking at some of the major influences on how children are able to acquire language. Just close your eyes and try to recall your oldest memories of learning to talk.

Universal Grammar

So how do children, without any previous language to guide their cognitive thoughts, begin to learn a language? There are many theories. However, one that must be mentioned is the theory of universal grammar. According to this idea, all languages have the same basic grammatical structure. This means that while children aren’t genetically designed to understand English or Mandarin, they are genetically designed to understand the universal grammar that underlies all language.

To linguists who follow this theory, this explains how infants first begin learning language. However, not everyone agrees, and opponents point out that many languages do not share anything in common with the supposed universal grammatical structure. Still, what this theory illustrates is a dominant idea that human children are somehow genetically predisposed to language acquisition, an idea that is both widely supported and deeply debated to this day.

Social and Cultural Influences

Whether or not there is a universal genetic trait shared by humans that encourages language acquisition, most researchers also accept that cultural and social influences play a dramatic role in the actual languages we learn. After all, language is a part of culture. Within a language are sounds of vowels and consonants called phonemes. When it comes to acquiring your first language, phonemes are one of the first things infants learn, and studies have shown that children become aware of the sounds within a language by 12 months of age.

So, the first part of a language you will learn is the sounds within it. However, this doesn’t last forever. The older we get, the harder it is to learn a second language, and that’s largely because our minds are trained to understand the phonemes of our native language. That’s why speaking and understanding a new language can be so difficult.

For example, certain Asian languages have a sound that is something of a mix between an l and an r, so when speaking English, these letters may be blurred. English speakers, on the other hand, often have difficulty hearing the difference between single and double r’s in Spanish. Pero and perro are different words in Spanish, pronounced differently, but without a background in these phonemes, it’s easy to miss.

Once phonemic awareness is developed within children, those sounds dominate language acquisition. Where this becomes particularly interesting is in cases of diglossia, or two dialects or languages both spoken fluently by a single community. In these cases, one language or dialect is more formal, while the other is informal, and each are used in various scenarios. Spain is a place where we see this, with Spanish and Catalan both existing as official languages.

Some scholars even expand this to include the combination of Spanish, English and Spanglish as formal language groups within certain communities of the U.S. Diglossia exposes children to a wider range of phonemes, at an age when the brain is most receptive to language acquisition, so children raised in these communities tend to have an easier time acquiring new languages throughout their lives.

Personal History and Experiences

The sounds within a language, and uses of language within a culture, all dramatically impact language acquisition. However, our personal experiences within that culture also play an important role. Like we talked about earlier, children who are exposed to more languages and sounds tend to acquire new languages more easily throughout their lives.

But the same idea applies to simply learning their first language. Children who have more experiences, from museums, to travel, to interactions in the park, are exposed to new sounds, words and grammatical structures within their language. In turn, these children tend to acquire their native language more quickly and develop advanced language skills more easily. As an interesting side note, children of wealthier parents may have a more diverse range of experiences than other children, which is forcing some people to question how inequality can influence our development from the beginning.

Lesson Summary

How we first learn language, or the process of language acquisition, is something that fascinates researchers. How do children learn their native language without already having language to build upon? Some support the theory of universal grammar, which claims that all languages have the same basic grammatical structure. Supporters say this explains how children can develop language. Opponents say it doesn’t work everywhere.

Regardless, culture and social structures play a big role in the acquisition of a specific language. Each language is composed of sounds of vowels and consonants, called phonemes, which are the first things children learn to recognize. These sounds define language acquisition, and explain why learning new languages can feel so strange. In cases of diglossia, where two dialects or languages are both spoken fluently by a single community, children are exposed to a wider range of phonemes, and may develop additional languages more easily throughout life.

In that same idea, the personal experiences of children can greatly impact both language acquisition and development by exposing them to more sounds and grammatical structures within their own language. But regardless of exactly how we are influenced, at some point we all had to acquire language. Such an important thing, and yet something we can’t even remember doing.

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