Reasons for the cognitivist approach to first language acquisition

The three most importantapproaches to first language acquisition (FLA) are Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism. Here at SMU-TESOL we deal only with Behaviorism and Cognitivism. We stress that Behaviorism is no longer supported and that Cognitivism is the dominant theory when it comes to explaining FLA. Next semester, when I am head teacher of SLA, I may try to alter the curriculum to include Constructivism. Constructivist theory has influenced numerous approaches to SLA.

Before going any further, a few definitions:

Behaviorism focuses on behavioral changes. Behavioral patterns are repeated after positive feedback until they become automatic. What might or might not be happening in the mind is not considered. The idea is that FLA can be explained without reference to mental activity.

Cognitivism focuses on thought process. Changes in behavior indicate what is going on in the learner’s head. Interestingly, Cognitivists do acknowledge behavioristic concepts such as repetition and reinforcement. (Good and Brophy, 1990, pp. 187) stress that rather than focusing on behavior, “cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information.” This indicates that to a cognitivist repetition and reinforcement affect thought processes.

Constructivism focuses on learning as an active process based on individual experiences. Negotiation of meaning is critical. This is not to say that each person has a unique reality. Constructivists argue that people interpret the physical world roughly the same way.

The main reasons we stress cognitivism is that language is an instinct and every (normal) person succeeds in learning their first language. Differences in the environment are simply not important.

Also, everyone learns language without getting taught. 5-year-olds have pretty much mastered L1 grammar without a teacher. We stress that mothers don’t teach their children and that even if a few do, it makes no difference.

Language does consist of rules (grammar, vocabulary, phonology) that everyone knows. People don’t think about the rules when they speak (remember we’re talking about L1). Rules existing in the mind and being used to create novel chunks of language can only be explained by talking about the mind. Behaviorists try to explain language production as a habit.

Finally, children acquire language at pretty much the same rate regardless of how much repetition, reinforcement, etc. they are exposed to. Exceptions (for example I said my first word at 2 years when the norm is 12 months) prove the rule.

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