Linguistic Development


Linguistics is the study of human language. Many theories have been put forward by different linguists about the acquisition or learning of a language, i.e., about the development of a language. These linguists are broadly categorized as:

  • Behaviourists
  • Nativists
  • Constructivists


  • Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner developed a Structured or Behavioural Approach for the development of a language.
  • They treat language learning as a process of habit formation resulting from input and positive reinforcement of correct habits and negative reinforcement of mistakes.
  • Mistakes are viewed as unwanted interference from the habits acquired with the learner’s first language.
  • According to them language learn- ing is the ability to communicate orally and aurally


  • Nativist like Noam Chomsky developed the Cognitive Approach for learning a language.
  • The basis of his theory is that the principles of structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted.
  • He argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences, thus opposing Skinner’s behaviorist theory.
  • He proved that language is entirely innate and he discovered a universal grammar theory with the belief that language is uniquely human.
  • The knowledge of universal grammar serves as a bridge to fill the gap which occurs between the linguistics stimuli to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic knowledge they attain.
  • According to him ‘human language cannot be scrutinized simply in terms of observable stimuli and responses.
  • He made a distinction between syntax and semantics.
  • He saw language acquisition as the gradual, creative buildup of knowledge systems, resulting in improved general language competencies, not just performance of habits in isolated instances,
  • Chomsky proposed that principles underlying language are not learned but are innate (born ability)
  • The learning theories propounded by the “Behaviourists were rejected by Chomsky due to their inadequacy in explaining the creativity in the use of language.
  • According to him, language cannot be learned by imitation or mere reinforcement.
  • He said that language learning depends on innate language structures dedicated to learning language, which allow children to recognize and use the complex grammatical rules of a language.
  • The crux of Chomsky’s theory is that we are all born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD).
  • The child is passive in nature and begins to learn languages through LAD.
  • Chomsky did not deal with second language learning


  • Greek Philosophers like Plato and Socrates favored the theory of constructivism.
  • Plato stated that learners are endowed with a belief system that has the ability to be challenged by their own investigation and research to know what of their previous knowledge is false.
  • According to Kant, knowledge is based on a person’s own viewpoint and humans have the ability to gather information through perception, organize it within their cognitive structures, reflect on and analyze what happens to them, and then apply meaning to those situations.
  • John Dewey and Jean Piaget gave momentum to constructivism.

Constructivism and Piaget

  • Piaget argued that the environment, both physical and social, plays an important role in structuring the individual.
  • Piaget stressed that knowledge is constructed. It does not originate in innate programming.
  • He argued that from birth human being actively selects and interprets information taken from the environment.
  • Piaget believed that babies are born with the ability to adapt and learn from the environment. They do not have to be taught to crawl or walk.
  • Piaget believed that cognitive development is the result of the interaction between the individual and the environment.
  • The child plays an active role in developmental change by deriving information from the environment and using it to modify existing mental structures, which he called schema.
  • Unlike LAD, these mental structures change continually as a result of the child’s interaction with his environment.
  • According to Piaget, there are two aspects of knowledge, the figurative and the operative.
  • Figurative implies how does it appear to our senses. While operative means bringing about qualitative change through mental activity. Piaget believed, the operative to be more important in the context of learning a language.

Constructivism and Vygotsky

  • Piaget had neglected the effects of the social environment in his study of the cognitive development model. Vygotsky perceived social interaction to be the first step in this process.
  • Vygotsky proposed that just as humans developed physical tools to deal with their physical environment, they also developed psychological tools to aid their thinking and behavior. Speech, writing, and numbers, signs systems of human culture are such tools.
  • For Vygotsky, the process of development involves internalizing social interactions.
  • Children learn a lot by simply watching their parents, or participating in adult activities from an early age.
  • Children rely a great deal on their cultural heritage in the form of knowledge.
  • A teacher just provides the necessary scaffolding to help in developing the students’ ability to think on their own Scaffolding in educational terms means that the teacher or any other facilitator not only supports
    learning but also encourages the development of students as independent learners are capable of thinking by themselves.
  • The teacher can provide scaffolding in different ways such as asking questions, prompting and probing or demonstrations. Small groups of students can provide scaffolding to each other.


Krashen’s Monitor theory is popular among language teachers, largely due to its intuitive nature and its immediate practical implications. This theory comprises 5 hypotheses

1. The Acquisition Learning Hypothesis It states that ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ are two different processes. Language is ‘acquired through meaningful interaction in the target language with no attention to form, whereas it is learned through a conscious study process with great attention to form. Krashen perceives acquisition as more important.

2. The Monitor Hypothesis It asserts that while the acquired system controls the learner’s fluency in the target language, the learned system acts as an editor or monitor to change and polish the learner’s accuracy. It requires time, focus, and rule learning. It can only be used to polish what has been learned through communication.

3. The Natural Order Hypothesis It states that one acquires the rules of a language in a predictable order and also states that the natural order is independent order in which rules are taught at school.

4. The Input Hypothesis It asserts that language is acquired only through comprehensible input understanding order. If the input is just beyond the level of the learner, both comprehension and acquisition will occur.

5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis It points to an imaginary barrier in the learner that prevents acquisition from taking place due to effective factors such as motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states. Happy, smiling, motivated learners are far more likely to use input for acquisition as far as their affective filter is lowered.

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