The 4 most important theories of language acquisition


Language acquisition is a complex process. It refers to the human unique ability to communicate in society. It is also one of the distinctive unique traits of human beings because animals, even apes, are unable to produce complex abstract concepts to convey their meanings.

Several theories of first language acquisition have been presented over the last fifty years. These theories of language acquisition somehow explain the subconscious process in which children understand and speak in the language without instructions. In this part, we provide you with the central ideas, limitations, and evidence of each four theories of first language acquisition briefly:


This theory was presented by Skinner. It suggests that children imitate the language spoken by their parents or family. The rewording system of the imitation process drives the child to excel in language acquisition; that is, the child’s successful utterances are reinforced by encouragement and rewards, which makes the unsuccessful utterances vanish gradually.

While Skinner’s statement over this theory seems to be logical and correct, there are many exceptions and objections to his explanations. Language is a set of complex conventional rules and structures so it is not possible to imitate language completely. Children unconsciously apply grammar rules in their speech; therefore, when they face difficulty or confusion in this process, they make an intelligent mistake or virtuous error.

Children can not imitate all the utterances of adults. They are often unable to repeat complex words and structures. Plus, their errors are seldom corrected well because parents or families usually neglect correcting the errors.

In addition, adults’ speech is usually not grammatically and structurally correct. Plus, children only receive little predisposition and usage of the language. Children can naturally gain the ability to easily distinguish the wrong and right structures within time.

Besides, some children are unable to speak correctly and can not imitate sounds. But, they do understand and acquire the language spoken in their environment. Therefore, there should be other factors and sequences responsible for the natural phenomenon called language acquisition.


Noam Chomsky introduced this theory. His main focus was on the impoverished language input received by children. He published criticism of Skinner’s theory of language acquisition in 1957.

Noam Chomsky argued that parents often face their kids’ ignorance when they correct their kids’ errors. The innateness or nativism theory suggested a more mathematical approach that deals more with brain functions. It is an approach to language acquisition that is mainly based on syntax study.

This theory of language acquisition also emphasizes a “universal grammar.” Noam Chomsky argued that all human languages are somehow similar in grammar rules. For example, all languages have nouns, verbs, structures, etc; and “universal grammar” is a part of human genetic makeup. He suggested that basic grammar rules are naturally built-in human brains.

According to this theory, the process of language acquisition is biologically determined, conducted, and controlled. That is, the neural circuits of the human brain are evolved to receive and contain language at birth. This natural predisposition gets stimulated by constant exposure to communication and speech. As a result, children can gradually interpret what they hear. Noam Chomsky believed that children must have inborn faculty designed for language acquisition because all children share common principles underlying language acquisition and go through the same stages to learn their first language.

However, Chomsky’s opinions towards language acquisition changed with time. His theory of language acquisition changed by himself and others such as Dan Isaac Slobin who stated that children must have possessed an inborn mechanism for applying language rules. Nevertheless, there is some evidence proving the innateness or nativism theory of language acquisition in the following.


  1. Slobin has pointed out that humans possess an inborn faculty for language production. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area of human brains are responsible for language reception and production because if these areas get damaged, then humans will face difficulty communicating in the language. Human beings possess grammatical competencies.


 2. Derek Bickerton is a linguist who has studied ” Dutch-based creoles formation in Surinam”. In his experiment, escaped slaves from different language groups were forced to communicate in Dutch; as a result, they spoke in a peculiar language known as a pidgin. Although the slaves were not in the critical period of language acquisition, they could learn a new language under undesirable conditions.

Such slaves’ children turned the language into a full form known as a “creole”. Such product was a new language consisting of certain rules, elements, and full expressive range.


  1. Studies of the deafs’ sign languages have revealed that such languages are complex, contain certain rules, and exist in several dialects. Deaf children go through similar stages of language acquisition to learn sign language. They naturally feel the urge to communicate by a language.

Although there is some evidence for Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition, there are some limitations to this theory. Chomsky’s studies lack empirical experiments. His theory is only focused on grammar rules and the children exposed to language. It does not imply the reason for the cultural urgent need for communication and the functions of language.

Bard and Sachs published a study that was a criticism of Chomsky’s theoretical theory of language acquisition in 1997. They did an empirical study about the language acquisition of a boy, named Jim, whose parents were deaf. The parents exposed the child to television, radio, and cartoons; as a result, the boy acquired the language input unconsciously.

The boy’s progress in language acquisition got limited when a speech therapist came to work with him. The key point which invalidates Chomsky’s theory is that the boy would not be able to acquire the frequently spoken language by the mentioned interactions and tools. Therefore, language exposure is not the only factor of language acquisition.


One of the theories of language acquisition is the “cognitive theory”  presented by Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. He stated that understanding a concept is before language acquisition which expresses the concept. “Seriation ” is one of the pieces of this theory evidence. That is, children can order several sticks according to their sizes well. Another example is “object permanence” which implies that children, spending their first year of life are unable to see some objects and do not realize the existence of the objects. Then they realize the existence of the objects when they turn eighteen months old.

This theory of language acquisition highlights the large capacity of the retained vocabulary of eighteen-month children. It draws a relationship between the children’s innate ability to understand the existence of objects and children’s learning of the objects’ names or labels.

Unfortunately, the cognitive theory of language acquisition has some limitations as follows:


  1. As the children grow up, the relationship between intellect and language becomes more unclear and vague.
  2. Some children possessing abnormal mental development can acquire a language well.
  3. Syntax has no place in this theory; that is, syntax has nothing to do with the development of the mind or the growth of general intellect.

These limitations and flaws lead to the appearance of the subsequent comprehensive theories of language acquisition.


“Interaction or sociocultural theory” was presented by Bruner who created the term “Language acquisition support system” as a response to the “Innateness or nativism” theory. Language is created for interpersonal communication so it should be used in interaction within a society; otherwise, it gradually dies out. While talking to children, adults usually use child-directed speech (CDS) to maintain the language acquisition process.

The interaction or sociocultural theory emphasizes the roles of environment, society, and culture on language acquisition. All the mentioned elements have a huge influence on the quality and period of children’s progress in language acquisition. This theory of language acquisition implies both biological and sociological theories to explain the process of language acquisition well.

Also, Colwyn Trevar then observed the interaction between adults and their young kids. He stated that the driving element “turn-taking structure of conversation” can be improved by games and non-verbal communications, and this occurs before the kids’ early utterances. Although the “interaction or sociocultural” theory sounds logical, there are some limitations such as follows:


  1. All children living in different cultures follow the same stages of language acquisition. Although child-directed speech seems useful it is not essential because all adults may not apply it.
  2. Although this theory of language acquisition presents some valuable explanations and information but is not general and comprehensive.


Up to now, there have been some notable figures such as Skinner, Chomsky, Piaget, and Bruner who presented some useful knowledge about the process of first language acquisition. We can not claim that which one of the four mentioned items explaining the language acquisition process is right because they all are theories. But, there is no doubt that some essential driving factors such as imitation,  human genetic makeup for communication, culture, and interaction play vital roles in first language acquisition.



What are the five stages of language acquisition?


Language acquisition is a complex process composed of five stages. One should accomplish all the five steps of language acquisition to be completely fluent and skilled in the second language. The fives stages of language acquisition are as follows:


  1. Reception


The first stage of language acquisition is the reception which may last from some hours to several months. The time of accomplishing this stage depends on the receptor’s language learning abilities, quality of studying, and practicing. During this time, language learners usually learn vocabulary and practice producing new sounds.


In this stage of language acquisition, English learners usually face difficulty in understanding and speaking in that language. Their frequent errors or mistakes are completely natural because they are about to immerse themselves in that language. High self-confidence and self-reliance help language learners to deal with their problems well and improve their skills and proficiency in the second language.


Reception is a controversial stage of language acquisition. Language learners usually get used to staying calm and silent hearing the language at the beginning of this language acquisition stage. Then, they try to use their retained knowledge to use that language; in this case, they partially excel in language acquisition.


  1. Production


After the reception stage, language learners enter into the stage, known as “early production”, where they can use, evaluate, and improve their retained knowledge, information, and skills of that language. Depending on language learners, this stage of second language acquisition usually takes up to six months.


In this stage of language acquisition, learners usually learn up to 1000 new words. Plus, they learn how to make correct short conversations and phrases. Although learners get more proficient and fluent in the target language, they may make grammatical errors.


The driving elements including ” hard-working, error-toleration, and encouragement” play vital roles in the successful accomplishment of this stage. Language learners should keep on learning and teaching the second language. Also, teachers should patiently tolerate learners’ errors and mistakes and encourage them to excel more in language acquisition.


  1. The emergence of speech


The third stage of language acquisition is speech emergence in which learners usually acquire up to 3000 new words. In this stage of language acquisition, learners learn correct sentence orders, grammar, and semantics by which they can put the new words together correctly. As a result, they can partly speak in that language with less difficulty and pause although they usually make some grammatical or structural errors.


“The emergence of speech” is an important stage of language acquisition. Language learners acquire greater comprehension and immensely proceed in language acquisition. Plus, they begin the two basic skills of the language, which include reading and writing.


  1. Fluency


Fluency is the fourth stage of language learning, which may last up to a year or more, depending on language learners’ competencies and practice. In this stage, the capacity of the retained vocabulary is relatively large and reaches around 6000 words. Moreover, language learners learn more complex words and grammar rules.


In this crucial stage of language acquisition, learners not only can perfectly write, speak, hear, and read in the target language but also can think in the second language. Therefore, they can be completely immersed in the target language in this part. Practicing continued learning, immersion, and enthusiasm drive learners to the last stage of language acquisition so that they can achieve complete proficiency in the target language.


  1. Proficiency


The final stage of language acquisition is proficiency or advanced fluency. It takes language learners about two to ten years. At this stage, learners can fluently and easily use the target language for academic, personal, or business purposes. Moreover, they can teach the target language to novice learners and share their experiences.


Unfortunately, second language attrition is unavoidable. Although learners achieve full mastery in all the complex domains of the target language, they require some opportunities, such as living in the country where the language is spoken, and enough practice to maintain such developed fluency. Otherwise, they unconsciously may forget the words, grammar rules, and the other aspects of the target language bit by bit.




On the whole, the process of second language acquisition is composed of five stages. All the learners should pass all the stages step by step to get complete mastery of the language. They also need some methods and opportunities for maintaining their retained information and basic skills of the language.


What is the difference between learning and acquisition?


Language learning and acquisition are not the same at all. Learning a language is the conscious process in which we deliberately learn the basic skills of a language; besides, we use the best learning methods to retain and memorize the elements of that language.

In contrast, language acquisition is the way we naturally learn the first language.; Therefore, we do not require any instructions, teacher, or school to acquire a language.


Language acquisition is a subconscious process in which we know what is right and wrong in that language and acquire more by the trial and error method even though we do not know a thing about grammar rules and word order. We are exposed to constant communication. Therefore, the occurrence of grammatical and structural errors is less in language acquisition. Language acquisition is a must for children. It largely depends on the innate capacity of human beings. Therefore, it is completely natural and necessary.


In contrast, language learning depends on the formal teaching methodology in schools or institutions. It does not take place at a very early age since it requires language learners to go through studying, constantly practicing training, and taking multiple tests or examinations.


In language learning, the emphasis is greatly on teaching grammar rules. Students are constantly exposed to the explanations, lessons, teachings, illustrations, drills, and assignments of the grammar rules. They learn a language to pursue their business, academic, or personal purposes.




In brief, language acquisition and language learning are two different terms. The mother tongue is acquired whereas the second language is learned. When learning, learners pay attention to different aspects such as grammar structures or phonetics. But when acquiring a new language, learners learn how to use the language without paying attention to structures.


What are the five stages of language acquisition?

1. Reception
2. Production
3. The emergence of speech
4. Fluency
5. Proficiency

What is the difference between learning and acquisition?

Language learning and acquisition are not the same at all. Learning a language is the conscious process in which we deliberately learn the basic skills of a language; besides, we use the best learning methods to retain and memorize the elements of that language.
In contrast, language acquisition is the way we naturally learn the first language.; Therefore, we do not require any instructions, teacher, or school to acquire a language.


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