Chatterfun News

LAD and Language Learning in Children

By: Dr. E. Anne Shine
Assistant Professor of Writing
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Guest Contributor to Chatterfun

Have you ever thought about how amazing it is that children learn to communicate through language with considerable competence by the time they are two or three years old? Most children have a smattering of words that they can produce more or less reliably by the time they are one year old. But over the next two years they really lay down the foundation on which they can continue to build their language skills. Not only do they do this in a remarkably short time, but they are engaged with other major tasks as well, simultaneously, tasks like standing and walking. No matter how many times children fall, the urge to get up and walk means they persist.

The growth of language in young children is equally remarkable. Unlike when we set out to learn a second language, there is no systematic teaching. Many parents read to their children and introduce them to new vocabulary through picture books and through naming things in their immediate surroundings. This repetition and association helps build children’s vocabularies. But apart from inconsistent corrections to their grammar, sorry parents but we all do it, there is no effort made to teach children the grammar of their first language. If they learn a second or equal first language when very young, there is no need to drill aspects of grammar for either language.

Observing this process through which children master a largely untaught grammar led Noam Chomsky to propose the idea of a language acquisition device (LAD). Chomsky’s idea is that we are all equipped with this device which helps us to make sense of the language input we receive no matter how inconsistently presented.

Chomsky also proposed the idea that there is an underlying Universal Grammar that is common to all languages. Of course, anyone who has studied a second language knows that not all languages order the components of a sentence in the same way. However, Chomsky is talking about a Universal Grammar that operates at a deeper level.

With the aid of this language acquisition device, children all over the world, no matter what language they are exposed to, are able to master the syntactic structure and eventually consistently apply the grammar rules of their language. The concept of a language acquisition device also helps explain the consistency of mistakes that are seen as children acquire language. There are predictable stages and these are consistent across languages.

The LAD is not a physical object. It is not going to be discovered through the study of anatomy. It is probably more realistic to think of it is a programming in the human DNA that makes us predisposed to learn language. Wonderful really, but there is bad news too.

The LAD seems to switch off at the age of thirteen or there about and it becomes increasingly difficult to learn languages. However, if a child has leaned more than one language when young, this switching off does not seem to take place so readily.
Is this another example of the ‘use it or lose it’ phenomenon?