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For thousands of years, philosophers have been debating how humans acquire the ability to communicate orally and in writing. The Greek philosophers argued about whether language was a gift from the gods, or whether it was a skill passed down from the previous generations. In more modern times, there have been four basic theorists with four different ideas regarding language acquisition. They are B.F. Skinner and the behavioral theory, Noam Chomsky and the idea that language is innate, Jean Piaget and the cognitive theory, and finally Jerome Bruner and his idea that language comes from interacting with others who have language skills.
Each of the theorists, Skinner, Chomsky, Piaget, and Bruner started with the same question; how is language learned? Each of them had presuppositions regarding that process which led them to theories that closely resembled what they already believed, but overlapped with other theories enough to make them viable explanations.
B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who started with the precept that humans and animals were very much alike. If an animal could be trained and conditioned to behave a certain way, so could a human. Skinner’s theory states that language comes from conditioning (GCU, 2013). In essence, he suggests that a child will make noises in an attempt to copy a parent. When the parent praises this behavior, the child tries again, doing better each time.
Noam Chomsky started with the belief that every human language shares basic building blocks that are the same. His theory suggested that children are born with pre-wired neural pathways which connect to each of the building materials. His theory states that young children must puzzle out which way to use those blocks to build language skills (GCU, 2013). This theory is widely held, which is what makes it the most commonly overlapping theory in the group.
Jean Piaget was a cognitive theorist. He presupposed that progressive abilities followed a particular chain where age and development determined what was possible. His theory therefore suggested that language was part of that chain, and that words could not be picked up until the understanding of what that word was had been established. In other words, the child must understand that an object, idea, or action exists in order to link it to a word with meaning (D. David Michael Singleton, 2004).
Jerome Bruner started with the notion that language was neither innate nor part of a developmental process that nature produced. Instead, he postulated that language was the result of cultural exposure (David Bakhurst, 2001 ). Bruner followed the Vygotsky model of social interaction for the development of language. He stated that language is developed through the interaction of parents with children through games and baby talk which support turn-taking in conversation later in life (GCU, 2013).
How language develops orally is of importance in the quest to teach reading and writing skills. It has been studied extensively and researchers have discovered a link between a child’s oral language skills and his or her ability to read and write well (Sousa, 2005). Therefore, regardless of how oral language skills develop, language development must be supported in order to produce students who read and write proficiently.
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