Early Syntax Acquisition
Syntax Acquisition in Children
Syntax acquisition is the area of child language acquisition that has started to garner profound interest, more so in the last two to three decades. Linguists and other researchers interested in child language acquisition from the perspective of syntax and, even otherwise, are separated by their theoretical perspectives as well as their understanding of child language data.
Before reading this, you may want to also read this blog post on Innate vs input driven accounts in Syntax Acquisition.
Language Acquisition: Nativism Vs. Empiricism
Broadly speaking, the nativists believe that the child is endowed with innate linguistic abilities that make highly complex language acquisition and computation possible, that too rapidly and effortlessly within comparatively few years of time. The empiricists, on the other hand, focus on the role of child’s environment and general learning mechanisms and heuristics based on statistical regularities in the input she receives. In doing so, they pay attention to what the child actually says and how it changes over time, unlike their nativist counterparts who are more driven by theoretical procedures and abstract language learning goals.
The nativism versus empiricism debate has been further complicated by studies that show certain aspects of language development start happening even before birth. Using fetus heartbeat recording tools, it has been shown that especially during the last phases of the third trimester, the fetus can differentiate between mother’s voice and any other voice, familiar and unfamiliar language, and even between familiar and unfamiliar story/syllables. These preferences are recorded in infants as old as one day also.
The role of prenatal syntax acquisition has not been confirmed, however, as aspects of syntax are carried in high frequency acoustic signals that get filtered out (along with high amplitude acoustic sounds) by the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus. The low frequency signals that do make it to reach the fetus carry prosodic features of the language only.
In any case, there is a clear, impatient division between the nativist and empiricist camps, which, however, has started to become murkier now, leading to beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives over the recent years. An exhaustive study on the course of language development should invoke both innate and input-driven accounts, and, thence, would be incomplete if one overlooks either the child’s genetic, species-specific capacity to acquire language or the role of experience and language input during language acquisition.
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