LORNA CRAVEN outlines a functionalist approach to child language acquisition

Understanding how children learn and use language is still a hot topic in the field of linguistics. It is also still a topic without a definite answer. While this is the case, it does not mean that there has been little research into answering this age old question –  quite the opposite in fact. I will be looking at how functionalists approach this question and look at one of the main theorists behind the approach: Michael Tomasello.

So what is functionalism? Ambridge and Lieven state that “[f]unctionalists assume that children do not have any innate knowledge of grammar […] it assumes that children are not born with grammatical categories such as verb and noun but must acquire them by generalising across the adult speech that they hear, therefore most functionalist approaches are input based” (2011: 2). This approach therefore goes against anything put forward by Chomsky (language being pre-wired in the brain) and instead focuses on the social constructions and experiences children go through while growing up.

Michael Tomasello is one of the main theorists behind the social constructivist approach and argues that “[c]hildren acquire language first and foremost by understanding how others use language” (Tomasello 2009:86). It comes as no surprise then that he puts forward a usage based approach to language acquisition which states that children come to acquiring language at around the age of one equipped with two sets of cognitive and social skills. This enables children to pattern their utterances into the structure of language. The two skills are ‘intention reading’ and pattern finding. Intention reading skills enable children to acquire the appropriate use of communicative symbols which eventually leads to the use of more complex linguistic expressions and constructions. Pattern findings are necessary for children to find patterns in the way adults use linguistic symbols in utterances to construct the grammar of language.

As well has having opposing views to the nativists, functionalists also go about researching this topic differently. Observational studies are used so linguists can actually see what is happening with child speech. It comes down to cause and effect. These studies are all well and good, but how do you carry them out on children who are not yet old enough to speak themselves? To answer this Gertner, Fisher and Eisengart (2006) carried out a preferential looking task on children aged 21-25 months of age to determine whether or not they had the ability to recognise syntactic roles of different characters from a given sentence. Children would look at a screen, and whichever one they looked at for the longest determined their answer. There are major flaws with preferential looking tasks. It is not possible to know for sure whether or not children actually know the correct answer, or whether they just look at a screen longer because they like the picture more. Again, this shows just how complex the question of child language acquisition actually is.

The main focus of the functionalist approach is to look at how social constructions and experience with language shape how our language develops. Observational studies are key when looking for answers but just how early can these studies be carried when we want reliable results? The question is still ongoing, and I think it will be for some time to come.

 LORNA CRAVEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Ambridge, B. & Lieven, E (2011) Child Language Acquisition; Contrasting Theoretical Approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gertner, Y. Fisher, C. & Eisengart, J. (2006). Learning words and rules: abstract knowledge of word order in early sentence comprehension. Psychology Science, 17 (8), 684-691.

Tomasello, M. (2009) Constructing a Language: A Usage Based Theory of Acquisition.  Harvard: Harvard University Press.



3 thoughts on “LORNA CRAVEN outlines a functionalist approach to child language acquisition

  1. Emma Williams says:

    Hi Lorna,
    The topic of child language acquisition is an interesting one and as you say, one that has been continuous for many years. You make some interesting points with regards to the theories and studies which are used by functionalists to try and back up their claims, I particularly like the Gertner, Fisher and Eisengart study that you have included, I completely agree with your opinion of how could they possibly know which one the child preferred more?
    My view on child language acquisition is that I believe it must be a mix between the two, firstly from Chomsky’s view, in order to be able to learn it there must be some innate knowledge for you to be able to understand these grammatical categories in the first place and then continue to develop and eventually use these skills. And from the functionalist point of view, you are going to learn how to use grammar properly by copying what you hear from others. I also don’t think there will be a definitive answer to this anytime soon, especially as there is no solid evidence to prove for either case and there will always be someone who disagrees with the outcome.

  2. Daisy Phelan says:

    Hi Lorna,

    As your opening statement implies, lots of research has been done surrounding child language acquisition, however it would have be interesting to see the views of other functionalists and if their theories differ from Tomasello’s in regards to the usage based approach.

    I think that Tomasella makes a valid point that children learn through experiences they go through in their early stages, but I feel that this implies all learning is a result of imitation and if this were the case would this not mean learning stages would be harder to define, such as the holophrastic stage etc? Also, if children learnt language through experiences and then built upon these experiences with intention reading and pattern finding, wouldn’t this mean they would be prone to using more incorrect forms of language and pronunciation and although they could communicate properly it may not be accurate grammatically?

    Overall, whilst I don’t agree with certain aspects of the functionalist view such as, the usage based approach, as it appears too vague, I do agree that experience with language such as listening to adults language aids language development. I also think that Chomsky’s notion that language is pre-wired also plays a role in language acquisition as functionalists focus on communicative meaning rather than communicative form which are both important in written and spoken language. Despite the ongoing debate, I feel you have provided a good insight in to the functionalist approach to language, but I sense that a combination of both Nativist (Chomsky) and functionalist approaches is the most reasonable way of explaining how children acquire language.

  3. jochesh00 says:

    Chomsky was right, language is built inot the brain the same way the vocal cords are built into our throats. We cannot speak without those nor can we talk without language built into the brain

    I have found a simple process, the Comparison Process, which creates recognize and can create and analyze language residing in the cortex of human brain. As these are very similar to those of the great apes, Koko was also able to develop language and creativity in using language by these means.

    There are some articles written which go into detail about this and explain why the COMParison process is the origin of language, being innately built into the human cortex. It’s not grammar, but a process which creates language and this simple process can create language. It’s not just grammar alone, but it’s mostly the COMP. It even creates context, and explains that as well.

    Gives a basic idea how the COMP mediates language and is the built in processor creating language. Grammar is not necessary for meaning. Comparison processing is.

    This is a radical revision, but Chomsky was right, it’s built in, but it’s not grammar of itself but a process, coming from the 6 layers of cortical layers which do the processing. & using this process language can be recognized, used and the major functions of language can be much more easily understood, too.
    Herb Wiggins, MD, ret. clinical neurosciences.

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