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