Monday, August 3, 2009

First Language Acquisition

What I hear is who I am.

First Language acquisition refers to the process in which we form our ability to communicate with others. In the past sixty years biologists, behaviorists and linguists have developed theories that help explain the learned and innate abilities humans may share and the role culture may play in the development of first language acquisition. Although each theorist has their merits, it seems logical that the truth of how we develop language falls somewhere between the idea that we have an innate predisposition to absorb certain language properties and the idea that we are solely shaped by the personal and cultural influences.

Watching my children acquire language had an important and lasting impact on me. Any person who has spent time closely interacting with an infant can tell you that from day one they are ready to learn. The children’s ability to know their parents’ voice and respond to them after birth tells us that they have already been listening before birth. The children’s ability to mimic also happens within the first few days. Although human vocal chords do not fully develop until age two, studies show that infants of only a few days are ready and able to attempt repeating what is said to them. This ability, though limited, and the desire to communicate with the people around them is the first step in the child’s acquisition of language. Similarly, the holophrastic and telegraphic phrases young learners use also indicates an early ability (and deep desire) to effectively communicate with those around them.

My experience teaching sign language to my children also influenced my opinion that humans have an amazing ability to communicate, even when they lack the physical functions of voice. By the age of nine months (we started signing at six months) my son was able to start repeating signs and within 6 months knew over twenty-five signs. The first sign he repeated was “more”, as in “Dad, please toss me in the air again. More!”
After many times repeating the sequence of throwing, catching, signing “more”, pausing for his response, he mimicked my hand motion. The notion that he could do something that directly influenced his surroundings was not lost on him. He knew, perhaps for the first time, that what he did affected others.

Reflecting back on the experience of seeing the joy on his face and sharing in his communication, I realize that first language acquisition has two functions; to be able to communicate with others and secondly, to develop a relationship with oneself. If we examine the experiences of learning a first language compared to learning subsequent ones, we see many more shared experiences (comprehension, grammar, repetition, imitation) but the one that stands out with first language acquisition is the idea of the development of the self or sub-conscious. When we learn our first language we learn about our world and this becomes the first and most important framework we use to construct our own self-image.

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