Languages are the most important invention of our species. We use it in our daily life to communicate, integrate and interpret. However, humans are not able to use language when they born. Even so, everyone can learn their first language unconsciously when they were babies on certain health conditions. Babies learn sounds, words, meanings, and constructions but how they learn to use language in the context of communication? Do they learn language instinctively or unconsciously? Clark (2013) approaches to this issue by discoursing the nature and nurture of the humankind:
“Do children have to learn everything about language and language use from scratch? Do they start at birth with John Locke’s tabula rasa, or do they come with certain things already pre-wired? The debate over this has led many to draw strict lines between “nature” (any innate capacities and structures children born with) and “nurture” (what they gain from experience).”
According to her, it is almost impossible to distinguish nature from nurture in development and even if the infants have a learning mechanism for language acquisition, it would have focused only on syntactic structure.
If we contextualize the first language acquisition process, we can focus on two dimensions of language: social and cognitive (Clark,2013). Language is a social part of our life; we use it to have a conversation with each other. As social creatures, language allows us to be part of our community. According to this reality, we can say that children learn the language to be a participant in a conversation. The social dimension of the language motivates us to learn the language.
Usually, children start talking at age one. When we consider the cognitive dimensions of the first language acquisition process, we can observe that children have already had about twelve months of life experiences. So, what they know by the time? They can identify objects and actions, recognize faces and use some tools. All things considered, they are setting up descriptions about the things they see and observe (Clark,2013).
Infants produce their first words at age one and they became able to speak fluently by three or four. This talking made them part of social communication. Children’s learning process of talking begins with infancy. At seven-ten months, they start to babbling. After they produced their first recognizable words, they combine these words with gestures and intonations around age two. Until age six, they learn how to use language for a large array of functions. By around age ten or later, they have mastered a wide range of skills, like rich vocabulary and complicated constructions.
However, comprehension does not develop with production. Children can understand many words before they had biological maturity to produce them. Besides biological abilities, this situation is also similar to the second language acquisition process. People tend to be understanding than speaking. Stephen Krashen (1985) describes this population with the term of “non-speaker” in his book that he explains his Input Hypothesis’s issues and implications. According to his approach, a non-speaker’s case can be explained by the presence of a strong output filter, a hesitancy to perform for psychological or affective reasons. If we compare the inadequate performing of the second language with the first language acquisition process of an infant, we recognize that the biological inabilities turn to psychological hesitations and social anxieties in the advancing years.
When we looked at the early words of children, we see that they have a vocabulary of around 14,000 words by age six. However, it is fewer when it comes to production. According to Clark (2013), learning a word requires assigning it a meaning, finding out which grammatical category it belongs to, and identifying the constructions it can appear in. On this point, Chomsky (in 1986 at the Boston University Child Language Conference) distinguishes the language as two levels: the surface level and the deep level. Languages can differ on the surface level, whereas at the deep level, all of them express the same meaning. He terms that by Universal Grammar which contains all the human languages. According to him, children are born tie in with this term. They get clues from their society’s language and these clues reinvigorate their instinctive knowledge of Universal Grammar. Subsequently, they apply the rules and become users of the language without awareness (Gillen, 2003).
Besides the instincts, children learn languages by observing, interpreting and participating in social settings. In this connection, Vygotsky believes that children listen to the language used around and to them and start to use it. In this way, they gradually become able to understand it (as cited in Gillen, 2003). We learn languages to interact with others. This need to make language learning an obligatory for us. We can observe this on children’s talk to themselves. By doing this, they experience social relations and improve their abilities in the language. When children became more social, this behavior simply disappears.
What do children really talk about when they became able to literally talking? What words their early vocabularies contain? A survey about young children’s first 40-50 words of Clark (1979) shows that their first 50 words fall into a fairly small number of categories such as people, food, body parts, clothing, animals, vehicles, toys, household objects, routines and activities or states. As the same research reported, not surprisingly, young children talk about what is going on around them. For example, the people they see every day; toys and small household objects they can manipulate; the food they themselves can control; clothing they can get off by themselves; animals and vehicles, both of which move and so attract attention; daily routines and activities; and some sound effects (Clark, 2013).
All things considered, when it comes to acquiring the first language, there are various stages to pass for a child. However as first language acquisition studies say, all these stages complete without awareness. Even so, all of them are essential in the first language development process, if one is missed, the child will not be able to repass. Therefore, the environment has an important role in this development. Parent’s speech, even if it is modified has a key point.
Understanding the first language acquisition process helps us to improve new methods for second language learning. Because people never lose completely their proficiency in their first language. If children’s language learning continuum can have combined with L2 settings, learning a new language can become more desirable for all ages.
Clark, Eve V. 2013, First Language Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clark, Eve V. 1979, Building a vocabulary: Words for objects, actions, and relations. In P. Fletcher & M. Garman (eds.), Language Acquisition (149 – 160). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gillen, J. 2003, The Language of Children, London and New York: Routledge.
Krashen, Stephen D. 1985, The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, Longman.