Revision:Language Change and Language Acquisition



  • Cognitive - Jean Piaget - can only understand language when you understand concept (e.g. can talk in past tense when you know about time)
  • Behaviourist - Skinner learn through imitation - doesn't explain where new sentences come from
  • Nativist - Chomsky - Language Acquisition Device (LAD) - works out what is/isn't acceptable lang use using innate programmed patterns (which are general). exact rules learnt through trial and error. His theory supports the fact that children around the world seem to develop at a similar pace, irrespective of race/culture/mother tongue. (This also 'defies' Skinner's model) Also, the fact that there is a universal grammar amongst all languages of the world. & the fact that children consistently create new forms of language that they would not have heard before.
  • Conversely, John Macnamara - said that rather than having an in-built language device, children have an innate capacity to read meaning into social situations. It is this capacity that makes them capable of understanding and learning language, not the LAD.
  • Interactive - caretaker, motherese etc - slower pace than adult convo, simplified, repetition, short sentences, often caretaker asking 'where is___?', 'that's a___', tag questions to involve child ('isn't it?')
  • Example for importance of social interaction: Bard and Sachs. Studied a boy called 'Jim', who was son of two deaf parents. Although he was exposed to TV and radio, his speech development was severely retarded until he attended sessions with a speech therapist --> hence implying that human interaction is necessary, as Jim was obviously ready to talk, but without the social interaction with his therapist, he was unable to do so.
  • Katherine Nelson - found that 60% of children's early word phrases contained nouns, then verbs, pre-mods and phatic and she also said that the nouns were more commonly things that surrounded the children i.e ball, mum, cat. Nelson also said that in Re-casts (e.g. Ben - "me ball" mum - "pass me the ball") children whose sentences were re-cast performed better at imitating sentences
  • Halliday is just the functions of child language, I remember them like RRIIIPH, like rest in peace:
    • Representational - "I've got something to show you" - language showing how they feel, declarative
    • Regulatory - "Do as I tell you" - requesting/asking for things
    • Instrumental - "I want"- expressing needs/wants
    • Interactional - "Me and you" - speaking to other, establishing personal contact
    • Imaginative - "Let's pretend" - imaginative language, used with play, to create imaginary world. Crystal talks of 'phonological' function as playing with sound.
    • Personal - "Here I come"- child expresses their feelings/expressing personal preferences
    • Heuristic - "Tell me why"- uses language to explore environment/ seeking information
    • Most commonly used in children's language is instrumental and regulatory, which are learnt, along with interactional and personal, at a young age. Representational is used by 6-8+ year olds.

Possible way to get the theorists in

If you do get a transcript of child speech, you could easily talk about caretaker speech (often referred to as Motherese or CDS - Child Directed Speech). As for cognitive approach, you could talk about if a child is discussing abstract ideas (emotions and ideas that aren't physical), because they'd only understand them if they understood the concept (comprehension before application). To apply a behaviourist approach; if a child was imitating in the conversation, or saying something unusual that they've copied off someone. If a child is overextending the inflection -s to make feets - they've not finished learning through trial and error yet, so you could talk about nativists. Another way you could discuss a nativist approach is if the child adds an "ed" onto a verb which does not make sense - a brief demonstration - "I drawed" instead of "I drew" this cannot be taught to the child, the child has used past information and applied it to recent information without prompt, showing it is innate. You can get marks if you discuss things that contradict a theory, if the child shows none of the theories you could point out how it DOESN'T support theorists.

Features of child lang acq

  • Holophrases - one word (12-18mths), then two-word stage (after 18mths), then telegraphic speech (after 2yrs) - sometimes grammatically correct but omit determiners like 'a' and 'the'
  • Underextension - 'car' only for family car, but not other cars
  • Overextension - 'car' for tractor, van, etc
  • Fis phenomenon - Berko and Brown - child pronounces fish as fis but when a parent asks if it is a fis, the child says no - when asked if it's a fish, child says yes. can understand a word without being able to pronounce it - comprehension before speech
  • Simplification - deletion, substitution
  • Intonation - Cruttenden - found children find it harder to recognise intonation
  • Questions - inflection often used at first to show it's a question, then question words learnt during 2nd yr, firstly what and where, then why, how and who. results in 'where daddy gone?' as they've not learnt auxiliary verb, 'has'. auxiliary verbs learnt 3rd yr, and how to form qus is learnt too (reverse subject and verb order). 'joe is here' --> 'is joe here?' but wh- words not always inverted correctly - 'why joe isn't here?' (hehe plagiarised my revision book for the examples, sorry!)
  • Critical period for learning - Cases about twins who were kept locked up by their family, but they were rescued young so developed normally. Feral children like Genie, who was forced not to talk, and hence only made limited lang progress as she is thought to have missed the critical period for learning lang. Two girls were found wolves in a wolves' den and had trouble learning to speak etc [1] "After three years, Kamala had mastered a small vocabulary of about a dozen words. After several more years, her vocabulary had increased to about 40.To compare, a normal two-year-old child, at the peak of its language learning, would find it easy to pick up 40 new words in a single week. Also, Kamala's words were only partly-formed and her grammar stilted"
  • Stages of negatives:
    • Aged 0-15months - Gestures are used to indicate a negative
    • 15-18months - single words "no" "not" are used
    • 2-2 1/2 yrs - "no" and "not" are used either at the beginning or end of a sentence e.g. "no eat" "going not"
    • 3yrs - negatives are used with the correct syntax i.e. intergrated into the sentence
    • 4/5/6yrs - more subtle negatives i.e hardly, are used, more "n't"'s as well, "can't" "won't" etc. Implied negatives are understood, i.e. "we'll go later"
  • Look at how much is said by each person, who controls what is being said, who takes the lead, pragmatics, social context, as well as the actual things that are being said
  • Check this website for developmental milestones in child lang: [2]


Written Child Language

  • Need fine motor skills in order to hold the pen and write evenly
  • Knowledge of letter shapes/patterns
  • Rules: top-bottom/left-right/'finger space'
  • Capitalisation and punctuation
  • Format of specific genres eg. for a letter there should be an address, date etc
  • Tense
  • Phonic spelling/look and say method
  • Stages in actually writing:
    • Palmer grip - used to make marks on the page (just like up and down lines)
      • which leads to more conventional grip, where you can make more circular lines
    • Motor control - more circular again, leave gaps as though imitation text
    • Proto-letter formation - Begin to write name and letters, but the letter might be too big, or back-to-front
  • BM Kroll - He suggested that there are a number of stages that children go through:
    • Stage 1- Preparatory Stage - Up to the age of 6
      • Child masters physical skills needed to write. Learns basic principles of spelling system.
    • Stage 2 - Consolidation - Ages 6-8
      • Child writes like they speak. Short, declarative sentences common. Grammatically incomplete sentences. Long strings of sentences joined with simple conjunctions.
    • Stage 3 - Differentiation Stage (8 - mid teens)
      • Child becomes more aware of differences between writing and speech. Increasing confidence. More complicated sentences and constructions.


Reading and Child Lang Acq

  • Children's books also relate to prominent aspects of a child's life, eg. school, family etc.
  • The higher up the reading scheme, the fewer pictures there are to aid pragmatics.
  • Reading skills
  • Reading schemes like 'Roger Red Hat'
  • The teaching of reading in schools
  • Phonics (analytic and synthetic)
    • Synthetic - break the sounds into syllables - there is a representation/action for each sound, too. For eg, S = weave hand in an s shape, like a snake, and say ssssss
    • Analytic - used in conjunction with other strategies, was the original method and doesn't break down words into such small units like synthetic.
  • Try thinking about how you learnt to read, perhaps you read 'Roger Red Hat' too!
  • Jeanne Chall's Stages of Reading: 1. Pre-Reading and Pseudo-Reading (Up to age 6), 2. Initial Reading and Decoding (6-7), 3. Confirmation and Fluency (7-8), 4. Reading for Learning (9-14)

What you look at in Lang Acquisition

  • This area of study is designed to teach candidates about the nature and functions of language in the individual and social development of humans. It will focus on some of the distinctive features of speech

and literacy development in children from 0 to 11 years who are native users of English.

  • These include:
    • The primacy of speech and the learning of the sound system
    • The links between the child’s desire to communicate needs and the acquisition of phonology, lexis and grammar in order to achieve purposes (pragmatics)
    • The significance of social interaction in language acquisition and the development of innate structures to achieve, continue and extend interpersonal communication (turn-taking, politeness rules, implied meanings, specific contexts, social awareness and other discourse patterns)
  • The connections between developments in children’s language and their general conceptual development
  • The beginnings of reading and writing.


Tips for answering Language Change Questions

  • Stick to frameworks
  • Get as much context as you can in - eg look at the date and try to think what would have been happening at the time.
  • A key period is following the introduction of the printing press (1476) and the introduction of the first dictionary (1755 - Samuel Johnson). Also remember the grammar books that appeared at the time - the writers that tried to "fix" the language (Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar was written 1762). All these had an influence on the language, and helped it to become standardised (slowly - remember it didn't all happen at once).

Important point: the dictionary (Samuel Johnson 1755) was prescriptivist! It taught people how words should be defined and spoken, Mr Johnson also excluded words he found unfashionable from the dictionary. To end on, the finished version was very expensive and could only be afforded by the wealthy. However, Samuel Johnson himself was resigned to the fact the language was inherently changeable, so don't quote him as a prescriptivist!

Where some English words have come from

  • English is a Germanic language
  • Some words can be Latinate - tend to be the more fancy, scientific words, or ones to do with legal stuff...introduced mainly during the Renaissance to make the words sound more impressive
  • Norse words - tend to be things like "window" and "sky" - everyday outdoor objects
  • Saxon/Celtic words - words to do with family relationships?
  • French influence - along with Latinate, return to "correct" spelling which led to the "b" in "subtle" and "debt" as a reminder of the latin origin (debt comes from debitum which has a "b"). Also, some words have entered English twice. "Chief" and "Chef" both have the same french root, which is thought in turn to come from the latin for "head".
  • Samuel Johnson's dictionary (1755) wasn't the very first, but was the first substantial one that people refer to
  • Contemporary lang change- estuary English, slang etc
  • Terms - like amelioration (meaning of word becomes better),perjoration (meaning of word becoming worse), broadening (word means more than one thing), narrowing (word means fewer things now), coinings/neologisms (new words, like 'kodak'), loan words (words from other langs etc) etc. These are all examples of semantic change.


Reasons for language change

  • Blurring of the class structure - fewer extremes
  • Proliferation of TV and film
  • Education - compulsory education etc
  • New technology
  • Rise of youth culture
  • Media & public broadcasting
  • Impact of foreign invasion (Norse, Norman French)
  • Printing press - introduced by William Caxton in 1476 - used East Midlands dialect - dialect of education (Oxbridge) etc, became Standard Eng. Printing press worked by ordering letter blocks, so the actual font needed to be standardised. As well as that, spelling and language was standardised to a certain extent as well. Perhaps most importantly is that it was the portal into the world of written texts, which allowed them to be passed around and transported all across the country, which may have contributed to standardising language.
  • Rise of merchant classes
  • Scientific development/technology
  • King James Bible


  • Also remember, language is still changing. Through media, travel, politics, etc.
    • English has become a significant global language due to expansion of the British Empire, and, more recently, the significance that the USA have across the world.
    • English exists as many different varieties due to the influence of the native languages of the countries which adapt English into their culture.
    • It is possible that all these varieties of language could lead to language decay, whereby no-one would be able to understand the other varieties of English
    • English could become more 'standardised' among nations due to the increase in communications (internet, tv, film, media in general) that a shared culture is created --> A shared culture means a shared language is required.


  • Some still think language is decaying... but we can't really say that - we're descriptivists, remember! But their views are expressed in:
    • Crumbling castle view - language is a beautiful building which must be preserved as is. But how would we coin new words? (This is the problem in France - the Académie française/French Academy which doesn't allow for English loanwords to prevent the anglicisation of the French language -
    • Damp spoon theory - language changes because people are lazy - 'I must own to a queasy distaste for the vulgarity of "between you and I", "these sort", "the media is" ... precisely the kind of distaste I feel at seeing a damp spoon dipped in the sugar bowl or butter spread with the breadknife' (Guardian 9-9-1968)
    • See for more info.

These are quite prescriptivist attitudes, of course!


  • Prescriptivists include: Defoe, Swift and Johnson, who all attempted to regulate the language.


  • They also talked of setting up an academy (as in France) to resurrect/regulate/preserve language?



  • Suzanne Romaine '98
    • Internal: formation of new words and the influence of dictionaries etc. Looks at what happens inside the language
    • External: the changing social contexts, language as an ongoing process


  • Donald Mackinnon '96 - categorises the attitudes people have to language use:
    • incorrect or correct
    • pleasant or ugly
    • socially acceptable or socially unacceptable
    • morally acceptable or morally unacceptable (political correctness: conscious process, never clear cut and very context dependant, normally a negative thing)
    • appropriate in context or inappropriate
    • useful or useless


  • Labov - 'Martha's Vineyard Research': we subconsciously change our language to identify ourselves with one group rather than another [3]

Quotes to do with Lang Change

  • Rod Steiger - "communication without purpose is artistic masturbation"


What you look at in Lang Change

This area of study is designed to engage candidates in explorations of historical and contemporary changes in the English language together with consideration of explanations of their causes and effects.

Candidates will need to draw on their knowledge of systematic frameworks, so that they can see how change affects semantics as well as grammar, lexis and phonology. This module will focus on the following areas for study

  • Change as an inherent feature of living language
  • A brief overview of the historical development of English to identify different ways in which language changes over time and continues to change in contemporary experience
  • The ways in which style has changed in spoken and written English
  • The socio-cultural causes and consequences of language change in English over time
  • The relationship between dialectical variation and temporal change.


Stronger answers

  • addressed the question relevantly;
  • engaged with the data in detail and with attention to its context;
  • identified patterns and examples across the data set;
  • expressed ideas clearly and accurately with appropriate terminology;
  • identified language features accurately including grammatical and pragmatic aspects;
  • showed informed insight into the data set whilst being cautious of its limitations;
  • reflected an open-minded and tentative approach to the issues raised;
  • showed assured conceptualised knowledge of language theories and studies;
  • demonstrated strengths in quality of explanation and accuracy of expression.

Weaker answers

  • People who just go through and analyse from start to finish, one after another get less marks than those who catagorise via importance and relevance;
  • gave little or narrow relevant coverage of the question or the data;
  • engaged with the data descriptively or by content summary;
  • used language imprecisely with limited terminology;
  • asserted ideas with underdeveloped explanations;
  • showed limited knowledge and understanding of the issues;
  • made no references to research ideas or few and simplistic references;
  • treated the dataset as uncomplicatedly representative of the given situation;
  • listed examples without observing underlying patterns;
  • made sweeping statements on the basis of limited evidence;
  • gave narrow or partial coverage of the issues.


Remember: the examiner is more interested in your observations of the data than chunks of generic essay about theorists, etc. Also as a final tip; do not talk about information that is irrelevant for example: "The mother is being quite moody with her child, as observed here (insert line)" this will cost you marks and time! Focus, concentrate, catagorise and kick some analytical ass.


These notes are aimed at A Level English students at A2 level.

Originally written by violetviolin on TSR Forums.