Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. This language might be vocal as with speech or manual as in sign. Language acquisition usually refers to first language acquisition, which studies infants' acquisition of their native language, rather than second language acquisition that deals with acquisition (in both children and adults) of additional languages.
Before children put together their first two-word sentences, at very approximately 18 months of age, their language acquisition appears, in terms of what strikes the investigator’s ear, to consist mainly in amassing a stock of words. The period from the child’s first ‘word’, at very approximately 9 months, to the first sentences is then a conveniently delimited one for an essay on early vocabulary.
The capacity to acquire and use language is a key aspect that distinguishes humans from other organisms. While many forms of animal communication exist, they have a limited range of no syntactically structured vocabulary tokens that lack cross cultural variation between groups.
A major concern in understanding language acquisition is how these capacities are picked up by infants from what appears to be very little input. A range of theories of language acquisition has been created in order to explain this apparent problem including innatism in which a child is born prepared in some manner with these capacities, as opposed to the other theories in which language is simply learned.
Generative grammar, associated especially with the work of Noam Chomsky, is currently one of the principal approaches to children's acquisition of syntax. The leading idea is that human biology imposes narrow constraints on the child's "hypothesis space" during language acquisition. In the Principles and Parameters Framework, which has dominated generative syntax since Chomsky's (1980) Lectures on Government and Binding, the acquisition of syntax resembles ordering from a menu: The human brain comes equipped with a limited set of choices, and the child selects the correct options using her parents' speech, in combination with the context.
An important argument in favor of the generative approach is the Poverty of the stimulus argument. The child's input (a finite number of sentences encountered by the child, together with information about the context in which they were uttered) is in principle compatible with an infinite number of conceivable grammars. Moreover, few if any children can rely on corrective feedback from adults when they make a grammatical error. Yet, barring situations of medical abnormality or extreme privation, all the children in a given speech-community converge on very much the same grammar by the age of about five years. An especially dramatic example is provided by children who for medical reasons are unable to produce speech, and therefore can literally never be corrected for a grammatical error, yet nonetheless converge on the same grammar as their typically developing peers, according to comprehension-based tests of grammar.
Considerations such as these have led Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, Eric Lenneberg and others to argue that the types of grammar that the child needs to consider must be narrowly constrained by human biology (the nativist position). These innate constraints are sometimes referred to as universal grammar, the human "language faculty," or the "language instinct."
2.1 The Acquisition of Syntax
Children eventually acquire all the phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules of the grammar. Not only are very young children more successful at this task than the most brilliant linguist, their grammars, at each stage, are highly similar, and deviate from the adult grammar in highly specific constrained ways.
To account for the ability of children to construct the complex syntactic rules of their grammar, it has been suggested that the child’s grammar is semantically based. This view holds that the child’s early language does not make reference to syntactic categories and relations (noun, noun phrase, verb, verb phrase, subject, object, and so on) but rather solely to semantic roles (such as agent or theme). The examples of the language of Italian-speaking children of about two years old studied by Nina Hyams cited in the examples earlier, however, show that this cannot be the case: their utterances can only be explained by reference t syntactic categories and relations.
As discussed above, Italian children at a very early age inflect the verb to agree in person and number with the subject. We repeat two of the examples here.
1. Tu loggi il libro ‘You read (2nd-person singular) the book’
2. Gira il Pallone ‘Turns (3rd-person singular) the balloon.’ (The balloon turns)
Subject-verb agreement cannot be semantically based, because the subject is an agent in utterance (1) but not it (2). Instead, agreement must be based on whatever noun phrase is the subject, a syntactic relationship.
Hyams upholds this position by reference to other kinds of agreement as well, such as the ‘modifier-noun agreement’ also illustrated earlier. There is nothing intrinsically masculine or feminine about the nouns that are marked for such grammatical gender. But children produce the correct forms based on the syntactic classification of these nouns.
Children learning other languages with similar agreement rules, such as Russian, Polish, or Turkeys, show this same ability to discover the structure of their language. Their grammars from an early stage reveal their knowledge of the kinds of structure dependencies.
In the discussion on telegraphic speech we noted that, at this stage, children’s utterances consist mainly of content words from the major classes of nouns, verbs, and adjectives and do not include grammatical morphemes-freestanding words or bound inflections. In the course of syntactic development these categories will develop.
It is interesting that the utterances that are produced with these categories missing are all possible in some human language. English-speaking children produce subject less sentences such as See ball, which corresponds to the grammatical sentence in Italian Vedo la palla. Sentences without the copula verb be also are produced and such sentences are common in the adult language in Russian and Hebrew. Languages such as Japanese and Chinese do not have articles; Italian permits an article and a possessive pronoun in a noun phrase, which is not permitted in English- Il mio libro but *The my book. We see that even the deviant sentences produced by children are within the range of what could be a human language; at an early stage of development, the children have not yet discovered which sentences are and are not grammatical in the language they are acquiring. This parallels the fact that in the babbling stage children produce sounds that are possible speech sounds and must learn which sounds are in and which are out of their language.
Just as human adult languages are governed by universal characteristics, we see the child’s grammar, while differing from the adult grammar in very specific ways, also follows universal principles.
2.2 First Language Acquisition of English Children
The Younger children are, the more their grammars appear to differ from those of adults. When children first begin to speak, their utterances are composed of just one or two words and, in the absence of context; it is often difficult to determine the meanings they are attempting to convey. One might suppose that this early ‘stage’ of language development poses a serious threat to the continuity assumption. But examination of cross-linguistic data, especially languages with rich morphological systems, leads to a picture that is consistent with the continuity assumption.
In English, syntactic categories like nouns and verbs carry little morphological information, making it difficult to access children’s knowledge of morphological properties of the language. The observation that young children often leave off what little morphology English has (for example, the 3rd person singular –s in he walks, and so on) contributed to the initial pessimism about the continuity assumption. Based on the children’s omissions, some researchers proposed that the grammars of young children contain only lexical (content-bearing) projections such as verb phrase and noun phrase, but do not contain functional projections that carry grammatical information, such as Inflection Phrase (which carries tense and agreement) and Complementizer Phrase (which hosts question words) (e.g. Vainikka 1993). More specifically, one claim was that functional projections mature, being biologically timed to emerge relatively late in language development (e.g. Lebeaux 1988, Radford 1990).
In English, main verbs do not raise, so main verbs should not appear to the left of the negative element. English brings its own complications, however, because the dummy verb do appears to the left of negotiation (e.g., He does not like cheese.) Even before they acquire do-support, children’s productions of imperatives and sentences with negations provide evidence that they know that main verbs remain inside the verb phrase (Thornton 2000).
Not sing in the car! (Aurora1;1)
Not go here!
In early grammars, there are one or two apparent counterexamples to the conclusion that children’s non-adult productions are mainly errors of omission, and not errors of substitution. One of these is the phenomenon known as ‘Optional Infinitives’ (Wexler 1994) or ‘Root Infinitives’ (Rizzi 1993).
Children’s optional infinitive errors are a potential problem for the continuity assumption, because root infinitives are not a core phenomenon of adult languages. On several current accounts, optional infinitives arise because the young child’s grammar has not matured, such that children can optionally omit tense or agreement features from a phrase structure representation
2.3 First Language Acquisition of Indonesian Children
It is believed that, as children elaborate their language, they find ways to incorporate more propositions into a single utterance in the form of negative and interrogative sentences. They also elaborate their utterances through coordination, relativization, and complementation. The 3 years old children produce not only simple, negative, interrogative sentences, but also compound sentences as well as complex sentences. Example of the sentences:
1. Simple sentence : “Doni minta satu.”
2. Negative sentence : “Dela aja enggak ngebongkarin.”
3. Interrogative sentence : ”Guntingnya mana?”
4. Compound sentence : “Mara lepas, Mogi jatuh.”
5. Complex Adjective Clause sentence : “Dulu yang ada topinya punya Aa Mada.”
6. Complex Adverb Clause sentence : “Kalo pedes, jangan diambil.”
7. Complex Noun Clause sentence : “Kata Mogi itu cicak itu.”
Moreover, Affirmative sentences also include two- and multi-word phrases which can be reconstructed as sentences with implicit parts, such as rante sepeda, bubur beras, and naik ke punggung bapaknya. This is possible primarily because of the rich interpretation approach used in this study.
Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that the children seemed to be free in ordering the words of their simple sentences. Subjects might be placed at the end, and verb phrases as well as adverbial and prepositional phrases might be placed at the beginning. This might be somehow related with the pressure of communication and with the strategies they were employing at the time of the interaction. Based on the previous research on children sentence patterns, it seems that at 3,5 years old, the children had little progress left before they would achieve full mastery of the adult language sentence patterns.
In negative sentences, their language can be classified into three groups:
1. Negative sentence : “Ibunya enggak pake itu.”
2. Negative Interrogative : “Kertas ininya masih ada enggak?”
3. Negative Imperative : “Jangan maen pintu.”
Then, their interrogative sentence can be grouped into two parts:
1. Confirmation :“Aernya kurang apa enggak?”
2. Information :”Mana satunya yang itunya?”
The children also can produce compound sentences that have five types of it:
1. Time :”Katanya Bapak pulang kerja, Mara maen komputer.”
2. Addition :”Sebelah sini ada. Sebelah situ ada.”
3. Contrast :”Aa pake yang ini. Mogi pake yang itu.”
4. Elaboration :”Robot kagantung kepalanya. Mara iket kepalanya.”
5. Result :”Mara lepas, Mogi jatuh.”
To summarize this discussion on children’s compound sentences, it should be emphasized that the decision to classify any two or three adjacent utterances as a compound sentence is based on the existing propositional relationship between the utterances, not on the existence of syntactical device between the sentences. In other words, should the basis be syntax, the subject of the present study did not seem to have acquired much of the structure of compound sentences at age 3,5.
One last thing to put forward concerning compound sentences is the convention of writing. This convention compels one to decide whether a pause in a stretch of an utterance should be represented by a period or by a comma. It should be admitted that the assignment of a period or a comma to a pause in the subject s spoken utterance was done quite arbitrarily.
Indonesian children also can speak complex sentences, such as adjective, adverb and noun clause. To summarize this discussion on complex sentences, the subject of the present study was observed to incorporate adjective, adverb, and noun clauses in their utterances. In addition, some of their adverb and noun clauses were without explicitly expressed syntactical markers.
2.4 Three Problems to be Solved
In order to be able to handle three or more units in a single utterance, the child must find solutions for three problems, which we will consider in turn:
1. How to organize three or more units in an utterance
2. How to handle a growing number of limited scope patterns
3. How to handle a growing or word classes associated with such patterns
Finding techniques for solving these problems will move the child ahead in three major ways:
1. She will move toward handling constituents hierarchically rather than linearly
2. She will generalize patterns into fewer, more widely applicable ones
3. She will generalize word classes, both functionally (in terms of case roles) and grammatically (in term of formal patterning).
We have received what is known about early syntax from the perspective of what it is that the child must do in order to make the kinds of developmental shifts that have been observed. This contrasts with views of the child’s achievements as a series of stages that deviate in decreasing ways from the goal of adult grammar. We have traced the emergence of early word combinations out of an initial stage of item learning during which a critical number of linguistic units is memorized. Pre-syntactic devices serve in various ways to ease the transitions from one unit to two and from two to more. The evidence is that the child’s basis for making early word combinations has a strong semantic component; how soon there is a formal syntactic basis as well is still an open question. The transition to three or more units is distinguished from the earlier one by the new possibility for developing hierarchical organization of constituents, although we do not yet know just when such hierarchical are needed or discovered by the child. Throughout this period, at least up to MLU 2.5, individual differences in preferences for particular processing strategies can make the syntactic development of one child seem quite different from that of another.
1. Fromkin, Victoria A. 1999. An Introduction to Language. Harcourt. Australia
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3. Paul Fletcher and Michael Garman, Language Acquisition Second Edition, 1986, New York: Cambrdge University
4. The acquisition of Syintax, searching on 10 December 2010, website: personal.maccs.mq.edu.au/~scrain/papers/2ECS%20sumtax%202001.pdf