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UNIT 13: FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION

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ACQUISITION: during the first two or three years of development, a child requires interaction with other
language-users in order to bring the general language capacity into contact with a particular language such as
English. The child must also be physically capable of sending and receiving sound signals in a language. All infants
make cooing and babbling noises during their first year, but deaf infants stop after about six months. So, a
child must be able to hear that language being used.
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Input: human infants are helped in their language acquisition by the behavior of older children and
adults in the home environment who provide language samples, or input, for the child. Adults tend not
to address the little creature before them as if they are involved in normal adult-to-adult conversation.
The characteristically simplified speech style adopted by someone who spends a lot of time interacting
with a young child incorporates a lot of forms associated with baby talk. This style is more generally
known as caregiver speech.
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Caregiver speech: this is a type of structure that seems to assign an interactive role to the young child
even before he or she becomes a speaking participant. Example:
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-Mother: Look!
-Child: (touches pictures)
-Mother: What are those?
-Child: (vocalizes a babble string and smiles)
-Mother: Yes, there are rabbits.
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THE ACQUISITION SCHEDULE: the language acquisition schedule has the same basis as the biologically
determined development of motor skills and the maturation of the infants brain.
At one month an infant is capable of distinguishing between [ba] and [pa].
During the first three months, the child develops a range of crying styles, with different patterns for different
needs, produces big smiles in response to a speaking face, and starts to create distinct vocalizations.
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Cooing: the earliest use of speech-like sounds has been described as cooing.
During the first few months of life, the child becomes capable of producing high vowels similar to [i]
and [u].
By four months of age, infant starts creating sounds similar to [k] and [g].
By the time they are five months old, babies can already hear the difference between the vowels [i]
and [a] and discriminate between syllables like [ba] and [ga].
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Babbling: between six and eight months, the child produces combinations such as ba-ba-ba and ga-
ga-ga. This type of sound production is described as babbling.
Around nine to ten months, nasal sounds become more common.
During the tenth and eleventh months, they become capable of using their vocalizations to express
emotions and emphasis.
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The one-word stage: the period between twelve and eighteen months is known as the one-word
stage. This stage is characterized by speech in which single terms are uttered for everyday objects such
as milk, cat, cookie, etc.
We sometimes use the term holophrastic speech to describe an utterance that could be analyzed as a
word, a phrase, or a sentence.

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The two-word stage: this stage can begin around eighteen to twenty months, as the childs
vocabulary moves beyond fifty words. By the time the child is two years old, a variety of combinations
have appeared. The adult interpretation of such combinations is very much tied to the context of their
utterance. The phrase baby chair may be taken as an expression of possession, as a request or as a
statement.
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Telegraphic speech: this stage takes place between two and two and a half years old. The child has
developed some sentence-building capacity and can get the word order correct in phrases such as this
show all wet, cat drink milk and daddy go bye-bye.
By three, the vocabulary has grown to hundreds of words and pronunciation has become clearer.
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THE ACQUISITION PROCESS: the childs linguistic production appears to be mostly a matter of trying out
constructions and testing whether they work or not. Children can repeat versions of what adults say on occasion
and they take a lot of vocabulary from the speech they hear, but adults do not produce many of the expressions
that turn up in childrens speech. Children can create new words in their speech.
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Learning through imitation?: children may repeat single words or phrases, but not the sentence
structures. For example:
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-Mother: the cats are hungry.
-Child: cat hungry.
-Mother: the owl who eats candy runs fast.
-Child: owl eat a candy and he run fast.
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Its obvious that the child understands what the adult is saying in the example, but the child has their
own way of expressing what they understand.
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Learning through correction?: adult corrections are not a very effective determiner of how the child
speaks. For example:
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-Child: My teacher holded the baby rabbits.
-Mother: Did you say your teacher held the baby rabbits?
-Child: Yes.
-Mother: What did you say she did?
-Child: She holded the baby rabbits.
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DEVELOPING MORPHOLOGY: by the time a child is two-and-a-half years old, he or she is going to
incorporate some of the inflectional morphemes. The first to appear is usually the -ing form.
The next morphological development is typically the marking of regular plurals. The acquisition of the plural
marker is often accompanied by a process of overgeneralization. The child overgeneralizes the apparent rule of
adding -s to form plurals and will talk about foots and mans. Some children also begin using irregular plurals
such as men quite appropriately for a while, but then try out the general rule on the forms producing expressions
like some mens and two feets. Not long after, the use of the possessive inflection -s occurs in expressions such as
girls book.
At about the same time, different forms of the verb to be, such as are and was, begin to be used. Once the
regular past-tense forms (walked, played) begin appearing in the childs speech, the irregular forms may
disappear for a while. For a period, the -ed inflection may be added to everything, producing oddities such as
walkeded and wented. Finally, the regular -s marker on third person singular from the present tense appears.
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DEVELOPING SYNTAX.
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Forming questions: in forming questions, the childs first stage consists of adding a Wh-form
(where, who) to the beginning of the expression or utter the expression with a rise in intonation towards
the end. For example: Where kitty? Doggie? Where horse go?
In the second stage more Wh-forms (what, why) come into use. For example: What book name? You
want eat? Why you smiling?
In the third stage, some children beginning school in their fifth or sixth year may still prefer to form Wh-
questions without the type of structure found in adult speech (Why kitty cant do it? instead of Why cant
kitty do it?) but, normally, questions in this stage are quite closer to the adult model. For example: Will
you help me? Did I caught it?
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Forming negatives: stage one seems to involve a simple strategy of putting no or not at the
beginning. At this stage, both no and not can be attached to nouns and verbs, as in these examples: no
fall, not a teddy bear.
In the second stage, the additional negative forms dont and cant appear. At this stage, children seem
to be using the form dont as a single unit. Here are some examples: He no bite you, I dont want it.
The third stage sees the incorporation of didnt and wont while the typical stage one forms disappear.
For example: I didnt caught it, she wont let go.
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DEVELOPING SEMANTICS: the child tends to overextend the meaning of a word on the basis of similarities
of shape, sound and size. This process is called overextension. Although overextension has been documented in
childrens speech production, it is not necessarily used in speech comprehension. A child used apple to refer to a
number of other round objects like a tomato and a ball, but had no difficulty picking out the apple from a set of
round objects including a ball and a tomato.
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Later developments: the distinctions between a number of other pais such as before/after and buy/
sell seem to be later acquisitions. The ability to produce certain types of complex structures and
extended discourse are also much later developments.