First (Primary) Language Acquisition

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

The term first language acquisition refers to children's natural acquisition of the language or languages they hear from birth. It is distinguished from second language acquisition, which begins later, and from foreign language learning, which typically involves formal instruction.

First language acquisition is a rapid process. In the span of just a few years, newborn infants who neither speak nor understand any language become young children who comment, question, and express their ideas in the language of their community. This change does not occur all at once. First, newborns' cries give way to coos and babbles. Then, infants who coo and babble start to show signs of comprehension such as turning when they hear their name. Infants then become toddlers who say “bye-bye” and “all gone” and start to label the people and objects in their environment. As their vocabularies continue to grow, children start to combine words. Children's first word combinations, such as “all gone juice” and “read me,” are short and are missing parts found in adults' sentences. Gradually children's immature sentences are replaced by longer and more adultlike sentences. As children learn to talk, their comprehension abilities also develop, typically in advance of their productive speech. As children master language, they also become masters at using language to communicate. One-year-olds who can only point and label become 2-year-olds who comment, question, and command, and 4-year-olds who can carry on coherent conversations. Studies of middle-class, typically developing children acquiring English have documented that by four years of age children are nearly adult like in phonological properties of their speech; they have vocabularies of several thousand words, and they produce most of the types of structures observable in the speech of adults (Hoff, 2008).


First language acquisition is a robust process. Despite differences among cultures in the kind of early language experience provided to children, all normal children in anything remotely approximating a normal environment learn to talk (Hoff, 2006a). The rapidity and robustness of first language acquisition, along with its status as an accomplishment unique to humans, suggests to some that first language acquisition is supported by language specific innate knowledge. Language, according to this view, is encoded in the human genome—as are stereoscopic vision and bipedal locomotion. Another argument for the position that language has significant innate support comes from analyses of the nature of language knowledge in both the adult and child. Once language is acquired, speakers and hearers have the capacity to produce and understand an infinite number of novel sentences. This productivity of language poses a challenge to efforts to account for language acquisition on the basis of experience. Somehow children go beyond what they have experienced and construct a grammar that allows them to produce an infinite number of different sentences from a finite inventory of words. The argument for innate linguistic knowledge is also supported by evidence that very young children are sensitive to structural properties of language for which there is no obvious explanation in terms of infants' experience (Lidz, 2007).


Although it is not possible at this point to fully explain how language could be acquired without language-specific innate knowledge, there is mounting evidence that children can and do learn a great deal from their environments. Infants come to the language learning task equipped with attentional biases and learning capacities that operate on the experience their environments provide. Infants are biased to attend to speech over other environmental noises, and they pay particular attention to speech that has the exaggerated rhythm and intonation contour that characterizes the speech addressed to infants. Infants are excellent at extracting patterns from input, and this capacity for what is termed statistical learning may make a substantial contribution to the language acquisition process (Gerken, 2007). For example, infants learn which acoustic features tend to co-occur in the speech they hear, with the result that their speech perception becomes tuned to the particular speech sounds used in the language they hear (Maye, Werker, & Gerken, 2002). A side effect of this tuning to the native language is a decline in the ability to hear sound contrasts that are not used in the ambient language. Thus, the basis for the foreign accent that is characteristic of late-acquired second languages is laid in infancy (Kuhl, Conboy, Padden, & Pruitt, 2005).

Infants also detect patterns among speech sounds. In experimental testing, it has been demonstrated that eight-month-old infants can detect patterns of co-occurring syllables in a stream of sound that they were exposed to for only two minutes (Saffran, Aslin, & Newport, 1996). These pattern learning abilities allow infants to recognize many familiar sound patterns in their language before they have learned the meanings associated with them. By nine months, infants have learned that some sound sequences are typical of their language and others are not. For example, American and Dutch nine-month-olds can discriminate English from Dutch words based on differences between them in what are allowable sound sequences (Jusczyk, Friederici, Wessels, Svenkerud, & Jusczyk, 1993; Gerken & Aslin, 2005).

Pattern learning may also provide children the basics of grammar. In experimental testing, 1-year-old children have demonstrated the ability to learn the patterns among words in word strings that they hear such that they later can distinguish sequences that violate this pattern from other sequences that are grammatical (Gomez & Gerken, 1999). It has been suggested that children may also learn the grammatical categories of their language (e.g., noun and verb) by noticing distributional regularities (e.g., all the words that are nouns are frequently preceded by “the”). Noticing co-occurrences also is one source of information about word meanings. When children hear the same word in many different contexts, they can use information about what is constant across those situations to narrow down the possible meanings of the word.


Language acquisition is not solely a matter of learning the sounds, the words, and the grammar of language. In acquiring language children acquire a system that is used to communicate. Human infants are social beings, and the basic human desire to make contact with others is part of the foundation of language acquisition. (Children with autism seem not to have this desire to the same degree as typically developing children, and this difference is thought to be one root of the language disturbances that are characteristic of autism.) An important

Reading to a child encourages language development.Reading to a child encourages language development.© BRIAN MCENTIRE, 2008. USED UNDER LICENSE FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.

social-cognitive ability that contributes to communicative interaction and to language development is the capacity for joint attention. Around the age of 10 months, children become able to actively engage their parents (and other individuals) while simultaneously focusing on an object of interest. In the first two years of life, language interaction that occurs in episodes of joint attention seems to be particularly useful to the language learning process (Baldwin & Meyer, 2007). More specifically, children as young as 18 months can use speakers' eye gaze as a clue to the referent of the words the speaker is producing. Children's non-linguistic, cognitive understandings also support word learning because a great deal of word learning consists of mapping sound sequences onto concepts children already understand nonlinguistically (Poulin-Dubois & Graham, 2007).

Many properties of children's language learning experience support the process of language acquisition. When adults (and older children) talk to infants they speak more slowly, clearly, at a higher pitch, and with exaggerated intonation. This special register for talking to children has been called motherese. Infants have been shown to prefer to listen to motherese over adult-directed speech, even when the speech is in another language. The properties of motherese may also be beneficial for language acquisition. Vowel sounds are more consistent in infant-directed speech, and the stress patterns that indicate word and phrase boundaries are exaggerated. Mothers and other adults also tend to provide labels and information about things that they present to children, which aids children in vocabulary building. Infant and child-directed speech is characterized by repeating and expanding on the words and phrases children produce, which also may help children learn word meanings and sentence structure (Hoff, 2008).


Although all normal children acquire language, there are large individual differences in the rate at which children acquire language and therefore in the language skills children possess when they enter school (Hoff, 2006b; 2006c). These individual differences in oral language skill are predictive of success in acquiring literacy. Some of these individual differences may be the result of differences among children in language learning ability, but to a significant degree, variance among children in their language skills reflects variability in the language learning experiences they have had (Hoff, 2003a). Studies of children within the United States have shown that children who experience more one-to-one conversation with adults have more rapid language development. Thus, a supportive environment for language acquisition is one that is characterized by a great deal of verbal engagement with the child (Hut-tenlocher et al., 1991; Hart & Risley, 1994). The quality of the speech children hear also matters.

Contrary to the view that children require simple input, speech that uses a rich vocabulary and long, information-containing utterances has been found to promote language development (Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Pan, Rowe, Singer, & Snow, 2005). Children who hear a more diverse vocabulary develop larger vocabularies themselves—even at age 2 (Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Pan et al., 2005). Thus, successful and optimal language acquisition is contingent upon the richness of language input a child is exposed to. In addition, grammatical development seems to be accelerated when child-directed speech repeats and expands on a phrase or utterance a child attempts to produce (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1985, 1986). Studies of children in the United States suggest that book reading with an adult is a positive activity that provides children with a great deal of language input. Studies show that mothers produce more speech during book reading time than during toy play time, and this speech is richer than that produced during play time. Object labeling is also frequent during book reading, which may facilitate lexical development (Hoff, 2003b).


First language acquisition can be the acquisition of more than one language. The term bilingual first language acquisition has been used to refer to the circumstance in which a child acquires two languages from birth (Genesee & Nicoladis, 2007). (There has been very little research on the acquisition of more than two languages.) In the case of bilingual first language acquisition, the course of language development is largely unaffected by bilingualism. Infants seem to have the ability to distinguish two different types of sound streams based on the acoustic characteristics of the languages, and they are able to build two separate language systems. The rate of development in each language depends on the amount of exposure children receive. Typically, bilingually developing children show more rapid development in the language that they hear more (Pearson, 2008).

In sum, the human infant brings a social inclination, powerful learning abilities, and perhaps language-specific innate knowledge to the language learning task. In order for language acquisition to occur, the environment must meet those abilities by providing children with communicative experience. Linguistically rich and responsive communicative environments promote optimal language development.


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