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Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.

… This is a question which, I’m afraid, I won’t be able to answer. I would love to; however, just like the conundrum of how African American Vernacular English came into being, it’s simply not known.

Many branches of linguistics are new and so there are rarely definitive answers when it comes to pragmatics and conversation analysis, to sociolinguistics, and to child language acquisition.

However, there are theories, and that’s enough to work with.

Many people think that children pick up language by imitating the people around them. They hear their parents or siblings, and follow suit. B. F. Skinner championed this theory, which was widely held until people began speculating and thinking outside the box.

For instance, when was the last time you heard a mother say to a child “it blowed up”?

This girl says “it blowed up”… but she also uses continuous present tense, stativeverbs, modal verbs

… and lots more. Considering she probably can’t tie her shoe laces, this is quite a feat, but one almost all children her age can do.

It seems that children learn grammar faster than they do words. This child knows that to make “walk” and “watch” past tense, you add on “-ed”, and so continues the rule over. She’s learning grammar faster than her vocabulary can keep up with.

This suggests that she’s not simply learning language by imitating people around her, but that she’s actually picking it up at a deeper level.

Compare the way in which children learn to speak to the way you attempt to speak a second language on holiday. There’s a different process going on.

This is why, when referring to children gaining their first language, we use the word acquiring as opposed to learning.

Chomsky came up with a theory involving child language acquisition. This theory is widely contentious in the linguistic world; it assumes a lack of variation in language (which we know to be untrue through sociolinguistics) and also assumes universal grammar. Despite this, it explains the speed of child language acquisition, the way that all children acquire language in the same way, and also anomalies such is “it blowed up”.

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...

Noam Chomsky

Before I explain Chomsky’s Innate or Native theory, you have to put your abstract hat on (it’s like a thinking hat, but even more imaginary).

Abstract hat on?

So, picture your brain. Think about it in the way it’s sometimes pictured in books, with different sections allocated different subjects.

One of these sections is labelled GRAMMAR. Zoom in on this one.

This is the Language Acquisition Device, or LAD. Everyone has universal grammar locked inside them, which let them acquire the difference between present and past or conditional and subjunctive tenses, regardless of what language they are learning.

However, this LAD is locked. There’s no way to open it without a key.

This key comes in the form of the language you hear around you on a daily basis. This is why I acquired British English (or even Scottish English) grammar while French people acquire French Grammar.

This means that when we hear language about us, the LAD opens, allowing us to understand how to conjugate words. Language, however, is complicated, so while we know that there are different rules for strong and weak verbs (i.e. walked – add -ed – vs. ran – change middle vowel), we don’t know which words follow which rule until late on, so we say “it blowed up” or “I ated it”.

When we reach puberty, the LAD is deactivated, and so when we attempt to learn French in high school, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.

Of course, we know from sociolinguistics that universal grammar overlooks many of the differences I’ve talked about. Gender, class, ethnicity; all overlooked in Chomsky’s theory.

The evidence in favour of Chomsky’s theory, aside from the speed and manner we witness children acquire language, comes in the form of feral children. When children are found, around or after puberty, they cannot acquire grammar. While they may be able to pick up words or convey meaning, they cannot string together a sentence in a grammatically correct structure. This definitely supports the idea of an LAD which has an expiration date of sorts.

The evidence both for and against Chomsky’s theory is incredibly convincing, and neither takes the other into account. This is often a downfall in linguistics, where universal grammarians ignore the techniques and findings of sociolinguistics, and vice versa.

It’s a possibility that a conclusion will never be reached on how children acquire language… What do you think?