Language Develops Naturally

Unlike any other learned phenomenon, humans acquire their first language largely by hearing it and by interacting with speakers in their environment. The same cannot be said about learning to play the piano, learning to ride a bike, learning to write, or any other learned behavior. Three basic theoretical approaches to language learning provide a different lens on the process. Linguistic theory holds that language has a structure that is unique and distinct, and that babies are born with specific language learning mechanisms that enable them to learn language in a relatively short period of time. Chomsky’s work (1965) provided the initial theoretical support for this view. Cognitive theories of language learning state that it is directly linked to stages of cognitive development. We associate the work of Piaget and Bruner with this theoretical lens. Social interactionists, as the label indicates, believe that the key element of language learning resides in meaningful social interactions within a supportive environment. Vygotsky (1978) discussed the critical role of interacting with others in a stimulating environment.
Certainly, there are intuitively appealing aspects of each approach. A stance that blends elements of each is something like this: babies are born with an innate language learning ability that differs from other types of abilities. This enables them to quickly grasp the structures of language. Furthermore, language and cognitive development influence each other and, in order for language to fully blossom, social interaction is necessary. Regardless of which theoretical stance of the language learning process one may take, we know that it is a human and naturally occurring phenomenon that develops in strikingly similar ways across cultures, languages, and geographical locations.
Teachers can create learning environments for English learners that capitalize on their innate ability to learn language. This is particularly true for younger children who are still in the later stages of natural, first language acquisition—between the ages of four and six. Older students can benefit by being reminded that just as they learned their first language through listening and through general exposure to language, they will benefit from actively seeking exposure and social interaction with others who can provide meaningful input in the second language. Furthermore, they—and you, the teacher—can enhance students’ English language skills by placing language learning in meaningful and interesting contexts.

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