Language Acquisition Theories

by Janessa Anderson, Jarrod Goode, Marc Graci, Vicki Rothwell, Christina Sleigh

As we enter the great adventure of life, the first sounds that reach our ears are words.  As we grow, we recognize these sounds as words and the meanings of those words.  We continue to grow and add to our vocabulary by utilizing conversational skills and developing our vocal chords so that we can, in turn, begin to converse; thus, the creation of language.  Acquiring language is a process, whether we learn our native tongue or travel to a new land and learn a second or even third language.  Learning language is a process, and over time this process has acquired its own collection of theories.  This paper will focus on four of these theories:  Native, Behaviorist, Cognitive and Social Interactionist.  These theories offer thoughts and viewpoints that, to an educator, can enhance the classroom environment for students who may be struggling with a second language.

Going Native

Upon learning that Graci had taught inJapan, a colleague remarked, “That must’ve been easy.  Japanese people are smart.  Even the children speak Japanese!”  This joke reflects a fundamental linguistic truth: language learning happens naturally, without formal instruction.

The nativist theory posits that language learning is an innate process.  In some ways, this is common sense; children across all cultures pick up their mother language.  This innate capacity for language, called the Language Acquisition Device by Chomsky, “prepares the child to make sense of language and to discover its structure” (Piper, pp.76).  Even this intuitive theory can be taken to extremes; some linguists, such as Jerry Fodor, propose that “all lexical concepts are innate”, a view that many regard as absurd (Laurence and Margolis, pp. 26).  However, all classrooms can benefit from nativism, in moderation.

In a high school setting, nativism naturally extends into bilingual instruction.  In bilingual education, children receive native language instruction for several years while gradually transitioning into mainstream classes.  This is logical for high school, as students study advanced content areas.  Administrators, when designing schedules, depend on children’s intrinsic language learning; according to Ovando, Combs and Collier, “after five years of exposure to English, many immigrants…reach the stage of L2 proficiency” necessary for mainstream instruction (pp.140).

In the daily classroom, teachers need do nothing except rely on the child’s natural language abilities.  The strictest nativist approach would jettison all skills building and drills, but this view is too extreme (and slow).  Educators should adopt elements of the nativist approach and embrace authentic activities, but they should reinforce this with instruction in needed areas.  While it is true that children naturally pick up language, it takes many years to achieve mastery, so supplementing the nativist approach with more traditional activities would speed up a student’s absorption of language.

Behaviorist Theory

The behaviorist theory came into common use in the 1950’s and 60’s after research from Lado (1945), Skinner (1957), and Weinreich (1953) demonstrated operant conditioning as a way that humans learn language (Larsen-Freeman).  Behaviorists theorize that language acquisition is basically a stimulus-response conditioning method, a mechanistic process that requires the student to give the correct response to a given stimulus with immediate feedback to the student.

Chomsky (1959), amongst other researchers, has refuted the behaviorist theory because the process does not explain how the student is able to make the cognitive leap past the trained responses into the unknown.  There are three main stages to language acquisition; understanding, drill, and application (Chastain, 1970).  The behaviorist theory deals with the first two stages, but not the third.  At the high school level,  students are expected to be able to answer critical thinking questions.  They are expected to take what material they have already learned and extend it further.

However, just because the theory does not develop all three stages of language development, it can still be useful.  At the high school level students need to practice phonology and drilling, so the stimulus-response method will be very helpful.

Cognitive Theory

            The cognitive theory of learning views second language acquisition as a conscious process of thinking.  This theory contrasts the behaviorist theory, which sees language as an unconscious, automatic process.  Jean Piaget, along with others, developed a child language study focusing on the relationship of cognitive development to first language acquisition (Brown, pp. 33).

Jean Piaget’s cognitive theory proposed that children pass through certain stages at different rates.  He developed a model and outlined how children progress through these stages and the course of their intellectual development. According to Brown, the stages include the following periods of development: “Sensorimotor (birth to 2 years old), Preoperational (ages 2 to 7), Operational (ages 7- 16 years), Concrete operational (ages 7 to 11), and Formal operational (ages 11 to 16)” (pp. 65).  High School aged children can typically be found in the Formal operational period.  The Formal operational period begins about age 11 and lasts into adulthood.  During this time abstract thinking is developed.  Skills such as deductive reasoning and logical thought processes emerge which high school students are often required to utilize in mathematics and science courses.

There is a critical stage when considering the effects of age on second language acquisition.  Piaget asserts this happens at around puberty or age 11 (Brown, pp. 65).  It is during the formal operational period, when abstract thinking occurs.  The cognitive theorists make the argument that there is a critical period of language acquisition and a connection between language acquisition and the concrete/formal operational stages.  However, others argue that children learn second languages without the benefit of formal operational thought.  Research has confirmed that the linguistic and cognitive learning of second languages in young children are similar to first language processes (Brown, pp.73). Because of this similarity, teachers can better teach second language learners of a high school age, simply by being aware of the language learning process as dictated by cognitive theory.  In addition, high school students can utilize the first language to facilitate their second language acquisition.

Social Interactionist

Over the years, social interaction theory has evolved and now encompasses multiple perspectives.  While this approach accepts alternative viewpoints and embraces aspects of other theories, in essence, it promotes that social influences play a definite role in the development of language.  Author Nick Lund (2003) stated: “The social interaction theory stresses the importance of language in communication and suggests that language is acquired through using language whilst interacting with others” (p. 63).

The evolution of this theory stems from the groundwork generated from Jean Piaget, who actualized the Developmental Cognitive Theory, and Lev Vygotsky, who constructed the Socio-cultural Theory.  From these theoretical foundations, social interactionists have developed a theory based on the fundamental concept that language is developed through interaction.

With Piaget’s work we realized that cognitive constructs impact developmental capabilities.  Vygotsky emphasized that environmental influences contribute to the process of learning.  Brown (2007) highlighted, “One of the most popular concepts advanced by Vygotsky was the notion of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) in every learner: the distance between learner’s existing developmental state and their developmental potential” (p. 13).  Vygotsky suggested that learners could acquire new skills and advance their potential more quickly through the support of a mediated interaction with a skilled individual.

Is exposure to language enough?  This question stirs up challenges, as contestants would refer to countries where the parent-child dyad lacks interaction.  Harley (2001) conveyed that: “It is clearly not enough to be exposed to language; something more is necessary.”  Language development requires interaction with people.  When dialogue occurs it stimulates growth.  While trying to engage in conversation a language learner is challenged to contextually apply the language.  This pragmatic phoneme plays a significant factor in encouraging first and second language learners to acquire the skills necessary to communicate effectively.

In the high school setting, students place high value on social acceptance.  Wherefore, second language learners in high school are eager to learn the language that will empower them with a sense of belonging.  In The Handbook of Language Acquisition (2003) the authors conveyed that, “With regard to the impact of socialization on language,… development of linguistic competence is an outcome of the language varieties he or she is encouraged implicitly or explicitly to learn…” (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995; Doughty & Long 2003).  Frankly, socializing is oftentimes one of the most influential factors driving someone to learn the language of their environment.

Final Thoughts

Educators are not the only ones who apply these theories to everyday life.  Educational shows on Public Broadcasting Stations utilize these theories in many of the programs that they air.  For example, an episode ofSesame Streetwill show a character in their home environment, a social environment, and a learning environment to learn a concept.  In addition, the same program will also establish a letter of the day and use it throughout the episode and have characters that are learning a second language as well.  These theories offer explanations into the process of learning language.  Much of the learning process is still unknown, leaving many educators asking the infamous question, “Why?” and having a few theories or more offers some slight insight into that  realm so that we may better serve and educate our students.


Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.).White Plains,New York: Pearson Education, Inc..

Chastain, K. (1970). Behavioristic and Cognitive Approaches in Programmed Instruction.

Cherry, K. (2012). Formal operational stage of cognitive development. Retrieved from   

Doughty, C., & Long, M. H. (2003). The handbook of second language acquisition (p. 157). N.p.: Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved January 14, 2012, from

Harley, T. (2001). The Psychology of Language (2nd ed., p. 77). N.p.: Psychology Press. Retrieved January 14, 2012, from &id=GM-Ga2AeaG4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR10&dq=harley+2001+social+interaction &ots=FHZ1l3vOXS&sig=iXOGq6gurktK7Qgu30mSToV1Xco#v=onepage&q&f=false

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007). Reflecting on the Cognitive-Social Debate in Second Language Acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 91(5), 773-787.

Laurence, S. and Margolis, E. (2002). Radical concept nativism.  Cognition, 86 , pp.25-55.

Lund, N. (2003). Language and thought (pp. 61-62). N.p.: Psychology Press. Retrieved January 14, 2012, from  printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Ovando, C., Combs, M.C., and Collier, V.P.  (2006).  Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in multicultural contexts.  New York,New York: McGraw-Hill.

Piper, T. (2007). Language and learning: The home and school years.Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.


About marcgraci

Marc Graci is an educator currently based out of Salinas, CA. He currently teaches English Language Development and Pre-Algebra courses to 7th and 8th graders.
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