A Critical Evaluation Of Two Of The Theories Of Language Acquisition (Behaviourism And Mentalism)

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

A Critical Evaluation Of Two Of The Theories Of Language Acquisition (Behaviourism And Mentalism)

Chapter One


1.1 Background Statement

Language forms the fundamental function of communication. As social beings, we use it as our medium of communication to help us communicate with people that live both within and beyond our regional/geographical locations just as it is the case that other people from within and outside our environment do communicate with us. Language occurs almost wherever we come into contact with other people and will be different according to the nature of the contact. It is noted that our lives take us through a succession of activities requiring the use of language. The activities are very diverse and, what ever dialect we speak, have specific feature of language associated with them. Many activities are connected with our jobs. One may be an engineer giving instructions to a draughtsman; a lawyer advising a client; a trade union official discussing fringe benefits; a bus conductor collecting transport. Fares; A sergeant instructing a soldier; or a scientist reading a technical report. Other activities are part of our leisure. We may be playing tennis, football, or volley ball. Or relating to our home life, we may be acting as a mother, a father, a husband, a wife, a son or a daughter.

To acquire language in the actual sense seems to depend on the linguistic atmosphere in which the child is brought up. Skinner (1957) stresses that language is not a mental phenomenon but a behavioral one. Alllen and Burren (1971:135) hold the view that language is essentially an adventitious construct, taught by conditioning or drill and explicit explanation,, or by built-up elementary data processing procedures. “language acquisition is controlled by the condition under which it takes place and that as long as individuals are subject to the same conditions they will learn the same way”, (Wilkins, 1972:169-4). This might be the reason why a child raised in Hausa speaking community will acquire Hausa language. One brought up in China acquires Chinese and vice verse incase that happens to take place.

It is worth to note that there are linguists that do not give much emphasis to the linguistic atmosphere that language learner/acquirer finds himself; but rather stress much emphasis on a learners’/acquirer’s innate language learning/acquiring capacity. According to Atchison (1989, p.55) ‘Human are genetically imprinted with knowledge about language”. This claim seems to have gone in line with the observation made by Fodor (1974), Bever and Garrett (1974) who stressed that training a dog to walk on its hind legs does not prejudice the claim the bipedal gait is genetically coded in humans. “The fact that human begins can learn/acquire to whistle like a lark does not prejudice the species-specificity of birdsong” Fodor, Bever and Garrett (12974, p. 451).

With these claims in mind therefore, it might be right to assume that other animals’ inability to talk, acquire or learn language in its actual sense supports the assumption that language is restricted to human race alone.

The aim of the study is to establish the fact that language is so important to human beings that we cannot exist without it as the medium through which we transact all our worldly affairs I equally intend to establish that there is a need for all of us (students of English language to realize that there exists distinction between language acquisition and language learning. Then I finally want to state that in this project, I will critically examine some of the theories of language acquisition. The views of mentalists and behaviorists are specifically the ones that will be discussed in this write up.

1.2 The Purpose of the Study.

In this project I intend to explore and discuss, very critically, some of the theories of language acquisition. In essence, particularly aim to critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of behaviorists and mentalists theories before we eventually state our stand. The project topic has been given different titles in different periods, suggesting angles and different foci by different people especially scholars of linguistics and psycholinguistics.

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