Chapter 1.
Learning a First Language

Definitions of “first language”,
“second language”, “foreign
language”, and “target language”

Patterns in L1 development

Theoretical approaches to first
language learning
1
Definitions: L1 & L2

Definition of “first language” (L1):
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The language(s) that an individual learns first.
Other terms for “first language”• Native language or mother tongue
Definition of “second language” (L2):
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Any language other than the first language learned (in
a broader sense).
A language learned after the first language in a context
where the language is used widely in the speech
community (in a narrower sense).
• e.g., For many people in Taiwan, their L1 is
Taiwanese and L2 is Mandarin.
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Definitions: FL & TL

Definition of “foreign language” (FL)

A second (or third, or fourth) language learned in
a context where the language is NOT widely used
in the speech community. This is often contrasted
with second language learning in a narrower
sense.
e.g., English or Japanese is a foreign language for
people in Taiwan.

Definition of “target language” (TL)

A language which is being learned, where it is the
first language or a second, third language.
e.g., English is a target language for you now.
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Patterns in L1 Development
Characteristics of the language of children:

Their language development shows a high degree of
similarity among children all over the world. There are
predicable patterns in the L1 development and their L1
developmental patterns are related to their cognitive
development (predictability).

Their language reflects the word order of the language that
they are hearing. The combination of the words has a
meaning relationship (imitation).
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Their language shows they are able to apply the rules of the
language to make sentences which they have never heard
before (creativity).
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Patterns in L1 Development
Before First Words 
The earliest vocalizations
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Involuntary crying (when they feel hungry or
uncomfortable)
Cooing and gurgling – showing satisfaction or
happiness
“Babbling”

reflecting the characteristics of the different language
they are learning
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Patterns in L1 Development
First Words –

By 12 months (“one-word” stage):
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begin to produce one or two recognizable words (esp.
content word); producing single-word sentences.
By age 2 (“two-word” stage):
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1) at least 50 different words
2) “telegraphic” sentences
e.g., “Mommy juice”, “baby fall down”
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3) reflecting the order of the language
e.g., “kiss baby”, “baby kiss”
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4) creatively combining words
e.g., “more outside”, “all gone cookie”
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Patterns in L1 Development
By age 3 and 1/2 or 4:
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Able to ask questions, give commands, report
real events, and create stories.
By age 4

have mastered the basic structures of the
language or languages that have been spoken
to them.
e.g., “wug test” – “Here is a wug. Now there are two of
them. There are two ___”
Children demonstrate that they know the
rules for the formation of plural.
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Patterns in L1 Development

Development of Metalinguistic Awareness

When children begin to learn to read, they see words
represented by letters on a page, and thus start to
develop metalinguistic awareness
(the ability to treat language as an object, separate
from the meaning it conveys)
e.g., “drink the chair” (age of 3)
“cake the eat” (age of 5)
“Why is caterpillar longer than train?” (a riddle)
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Early childhood bilingualism
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“Simultaneous bilinguals”
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“Sequential bilinguals”
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Children who hear more than one language from birth
Children who begin to learn a second language later
Differences between bilingual kids and
monolingual kids
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Developmental rate of language learning
Amount of metalinguistic knowledge they develop
Type and extent of the vocabulary they acquire
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Early childhood bilingualism
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Language attrition for bilinguals “Subtractive bilingualism”
 When children are “submerged” in a second language
for long periods in early schooling, they may begin to
lose their native language (L1) before they have
developed an age-appropriate mastery of the L2.
 It can have serious negative consequences for children
from minority groups.
 In some cases, children continue to be caught between
two languages; not having mastered the L2, but not
having continued the L1.
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Early childhood bilingualism

Solution for “subtractive bilingualism”
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Parents should continue speaking the L1 to
their children.
Most minority language children do eventually
master the majority language, but L2
acquisition takes time.
No evidence shows that a child’s brain has a
limited capacity for languages such that their
knowledge of one language must shrink if
their knowledge of the other one grows.
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L1 Developmental Sequences

Acquisition of Grammatical
morphemes
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Acquisition of Negation (to deny, reject,
disagree with, and refuse something)

Acquisition of Questions
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Acquisition of
Grammatical morphemes
Roger Brown’s study (1973):
- approximate order of acquiring grammatical
morphemes
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Present progressive –ing (running)
Plural –s (books)
Irregular past forms (went)
Possessive -’s (daddy’s hat)
Copula (am/is/are)
Articles (a/an/the)
Regular past –ed (walked)
Third person singular simple present –s (he runs)
Auxiliary ‘be’ (He is coming)
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Acquisition of Negation
Lois Bloom’s study (1978) – four stages
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Stage 1: ‘no’ – e.g., “No go”. “No cookie.”
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Stage 2: subject + no – e.g., “Daddy no comb hair.”
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Stage 3: auxiliary or modal verbs (do/can) + not
no variations for different persons or tenses)
e.g., “I can’t do it “, “He don’t want it.”
(yet
Stage 4: auxiliary verbs (did/doesn’t/is/are) + not
(sometimes double negatives – e.g., “I don’t have no
candies”)
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Acquisition of Questions
Lois Bloom’s study (1978): wh- question words
1.
2.
3.
4.
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“Where” and “who”
“What” - Whatsat? Whatsit?
“Why” (emerging at the end of the 2nd year
and becomes a favorite for the next year or
two)
“How” and “When” (yet children do not fully
understand the meaning of adults’
responses)
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Acquisition of Questions
Lois Bloom’s study (1978) – six stages (I)

Stage 1:using single words or single two- or threeword sentences with rising intonation
(“Mommy book?” “Where’s Daddy?”)
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Stage 2: using the word order of the declarative
sentence (“You like this?” “Why you catch it?”)
Stage 3: “fronting” - putting a verb at the beginning of
a sentence
(“Is the teddy is tired?” “Do I can have a cookie?”)
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Acquisition of Questions
Lois Bloom’s study (1978) – six stages (II)
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Stage 4: subject-auxiliary inversion in yes/no questions
but not in wh-questions
(“Do you like ice cream?” “Where I can draw?”)
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Stage 5: subject-auxiliary inversion in wh-questions,
but not in negative wh-questions
(“Why can he go out?” “Why he can’t go out?”)
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Stage 6: overgeneralizing the inverted form in
embedded questions
(“I don’t know why can’t he go out.”)
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Theoretical Approaches to
L1 Learning

Behaviorism: Say what I say

Innatism (or the Nativist Approach): It’s
all in your mind
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The Interactionist Position: A little help
form my friends
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Behaviorism: Say what I say
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Skinner: language behavior is the production of correct
responses to stimuli through reinforcement.
Language learning is the result of imitation (word-forword repetition), practice (repetitive manipulation of
form), feedback on success (positive reinforcement), and
habit formation.
The quality and quantity of the language that the child
hears as well as the consistency of the reinforcement
offered by others in the environment should have an
effect on the child’s success in language learning.
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Behaviorism: Say what I say
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Children’s imitations are not random:
Their imitation is selective and based on what they are
currently learning. They choose to imitate something they
have already begun to understand, rather than simply
imitating what is available in the environment.
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They are doing “substitution drills”.
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Imitation and practice cannot explain some of
the forms created by children. Children do pick
out patterns and then generalize them to new
contexts.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

Chomsky: Language acquisition is innately determined;
that is, children are biologically programmed for
language (just like walking). Children develop language
in quite similar ways and on a similar schedule.

Children are born with a special ability (i.e. linguistic
competence) to discover for themselves the underlying
rules of a language system. This special ability is
referred to as a language acquisition device (LAD).

Environmental differences may be associated with
some variation in the rate of language acquisition.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

Why do behaviorists fail to recognize “the logical
problem of language acquisition”?
1.
The language the child is exposed to in the
environment is full of confusing information and does
not provide all the information which the child needs.
2.
Children are by no means systematically corrected or
instructed on language by parents.
3.
When parents correct, they tend to focus on meaning
rather than form, and children often ignore the
correction and continue to use their own ways of saying
things.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind
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LAD (an imaginary “black box” existing
somewhere in the brain):
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LAD contains all and only the principles which are
universal to all human languages (i.e.. Universal
Grammar – UG).
For the LAD to work, children need access only to
samples of a natural language, which serve as a trigger
to activate the device.
Once the LAD is activated, children are able to discover
the structure of the language to be learned by matching
the innate knowledge of basic grammatical principles
(UG) to the structures of the particular language in the
environment.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

Evidence used to support Chomsky’s innatist position:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
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Virtually all children successfully learn their native language
at a time in life when they would not be expected to learn
anything else so complicated.
Language is separate from other aspects of cognitive
developments (e.g., creativity and social grace) and may be
located in a different “module" of the brain.
The language children are exposed to does not contain
examples of all the linguistic rules and patterns.
Animals cannot learn to manipulate a symbol system as
complicated as the natural language of a 3- or 4-year-old
child.
Children acquire grammatical rules without getting explicit
instruction.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

The biological basis for the innatist
position:
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The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) –
Lenneberg: There is a specific and limited
time period (i.e., “critical period”) for the
LAD to work successfully.
The best evidence for the CPH is that
virtually every child learns language on a
similar schedule in spite of different
environments.
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

Three case studies of abnormal language
development - evidence of the CPH
1.Victor – a boy of about 12 years old (1799)
2.Genie – a girl of 13 years old (1970)
3.Deaf signers (native signers, early learners,
vs. late learners)
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Innatism: It’s all in your mind

Summary of Innatism:
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
Review all the important terms related to the
innatist position – LAD, UG, and CPH.
The innatists placed more emphasis on the
linguistic competence of adult native speakers,
but not enough on the developmental aspects
of language acquisition.
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Innatism vs. Connectionism

How connectionism differs from innatism –
• Connectionists hypothesize that language
acquisition dose not require a separate
“module of the mind” but can be explained in
terms of learning in general.
• Connectionists attribute greater importance
to the role of the environment than to any
innate knowledge in the learner. What
children need to know is essentially available
in the language they are exposed to.
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The Interactionist Position

Piaget: language develops as a result of the complex
interplay between the human innate capacities and
the linguistic environment in which the child
develops.

They emphasize the importance of child-directed
speech – the language which is not only addressed
to children but adjusted (or modified) in ways that
make it easier for them to understand.

They see language acquisition as similar to and
influenced by the acquisition of other kinds of skill
and knowledge. IT does not require a separate
module of the mind.
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The Interactionist Position

Child-directed Speech (modified language
interaction):
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a slower rate of delivery, higher pitch, more varied
intonation, shorter, simpler sentence patterns, frequent
repetition, and paraphrase
Limited conversation topics: e.g., the ‘hear and now’
and topics related to the child’s experiences.
More important than modification is the conversational
give-and-take. One-to-one interaction gives the child
access to language which is adjusted to his/her level of
comprehension
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The Interactionist Position

Vygotsky: sociocultural theory of human
mental processing
•
Language develops entirely from social
interaction. A supportive interactive
environment enables children to advance to a
higher level of knowledge and performance than
s/he would be capable of independently.
•
“Zone of proximal development” (ZPD) refers to
what the child could do in interaction with
another, but not alone.
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The Interactionist Position

How Piaget’s view differs from Vygotsky’s:

Piaget hypothesized that language developed as a
symbol system to express knowledge acquired
through interaction with the physical world.

Vygotsky hypothesized that thought was
essentially internalized speech, and speech
emerged in social interaction.
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Summary

Each of the three theoretical approaches explains
a different aspect of first language acquisition.
1.
Behaviorists (learning through imitation and
practice) – the acquisition of vocabulary and
grammatical morphemes
2.
Innatists (LAD / UG) – the acquisition of complex
grammar.
3.
Interactionists (social interaction) – the acquisition
of how form and meaning are related, how
conversations are carried on, and how language is
used appropriately.
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Learning First Language