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language developmentAlmost all human beings acquire a language (and sometimes more than one), to the level of native competency, before age 5.

Most researchers agree that children acquire language through interplay of biology and environmental factors. A challenge for linguists is to figure out how nature and nurture come together to influence language learning. Language acquisition is a complex process.

Emphasis on Nature

Some researchers theorize that children are born with an innate biological “device” for understanding the principles and organization common to all languages. According to this theory, the brain’s “language module” gets programmed to follow the specific grammar of the language a child is exposed to early in life. Yet the language rules and grammar children use in their speech often exceed the input to which they are exposed. What accounts for this discrepancy?

That is where the theory of universal grammar comes in. This theory posits that all languages have the same basic structural foundation. While children are not genetically “hard-wired” to speak a particular language like Dutch or Japanese, universal grammar lets them learn the rules and patterns of these languages—including those they were never explicitly taught. Some linguists believe that universal grammar and its interaction with the rest of the brain is the design mechanism that allows children to become fluent in any language during the first few years of life. In fact, childhood may be a critical period for the acquisition of language capabilities. Some scientists claim that if a person does not acquire any language before the teen-aged years, they will never do so in a functional sense. Children may also have a heightened ability, compared to adults, to learn second languages–especially in natural settings. Adults, however, may have some advantages in the conscious study of a second language in a classroom setting.

Emphasis on Experience and Usage

Not all linguists believe that the innate capacities are most important in language learning. Some researchers place greater emphasis on the influence of usage and experience in language acquisition. They argue that adults play an important role in language acquisition by speaking to children—often in a slow, grammatical and repetitious way. In turn, children discern patterns in the language and experiment with speech gradually—uttering single words at first and eventually stringing them together to construct abstract expressions. At first glance, this may seem reminiscent of how language is traditionally taught in classrooms. But most scientists think children and adults learn language differently.

While they may not do it as quickly and easily as children seem to, adults can learn to speak new languages proficiently. However, few would be mistaken for a native speaker of the non-native tongue. Childhood may be a critical period for mastering certain aspects of language such as proper pronunciation. What factors account for the different language learning capabilities of adults and children? Researchers suggest accumulated experience and knowledge could change the brain over time, altering the way language information is organized and/or processed.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation

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