How Children Learn Language

A brief introductions to the main theories

Behaviourist theory

Suggests that language is learned like any other skill through imitation and practice. Important aspects of the theory are: reinforcement (positive and negative), repetition, small sequenced tasks and consistency.

Strengths: We learn some complex language functions through imitiation - accent, vocabulary and other elements clearly affected. Many early years educational policies are based on the idea that
Weakness: Does not explain why children are born with an intrinsic capacity to learn language. Without any training most will learn without problem.

Social Interactionist theory

This focuses on the relationship between the learner, his environment and the context under which learning occurs. In this a learner has substantial amount of leeway for negotiation. The theory sees the acquisition of language as a more pragmatic approach, rather than focusing on structure and grammar of a language.
Strengths: a more sophisticated version of behaviourism
Weakness: see behaviourism

Chomsky and Generative grammar

This is a complete rejection of the Social Interaction Theory and is based on the early works of Chomsky called transformational grammar. The theory basically propounds that formal grammar with structure and syntax can predict the words in a sentence. The rules try and predict the combination and morphology of a sentence. Generative grammar and its properties are said to be intrinsically linked to universal grammar. This is the innate ability of human beings, born and nurtured under normal conditions to learn a language. These properties are said to be present in every human being and under normal conditions develop into language association and acquisition. This process of natural ability to learn a language is known as Language Acquisition Device (LAD)


Since Chomsky, there have been many opponents of the generative grammar theory. Evolution does not support the concept of LAD and instead shows that there has been a gradual adaptation of the human brain and vocal chords to language. Emergentism firmly believes that there is a significant amount of learning process involved in language acquisition. While it does not discount a certain degree of innate ability, it puts a significant amount of emphasis on experience and learning

Cognitive theories

Cognitive theories start from the way the brain or mind works. They stress Swiss psychologist's Jean Piaget's focus on the importance of conceptual understanding to language development. A concept has to be understood before a human being can acquire a language form to explain the concept.

Relational frame theories

Relational frame theories focus on the psychological point of view of human language and cognition. The theory tries to explain features of cognition and language by specifying a set of related behaviour principles.

Statistical learning and Chunking

Suggests that language acquisition is based on general learning mechanisms.

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