The Interactionist Approach to Language Acquisition

In this video I describe the interactionist approach to language acquisition. This approach recognizes our genetic predisposition for language and considers how the social environment plays a role in that development. Children are learning more than just vocabulary and syntactical rules and their ability to interact and communicate using language is supported by the adults and other children around them, which Jerome Bruner referred to as the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). I also explain how the social environment played a fundamental role in the emergence of a new sign language in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review.

In the previous video I talked about this idea of a critical period for language acquisition and this is the idea that if children aren’t exposed to language prior to about the age of seven then they’re unable to develop full linguistic fluency in any language.

Now this idea brings us to consider the role of the environment on language development. So it’s not just the case that we have a genetic predisposition for language and it just emerges, but we need to have the correct environment in order to realize that full potential.

This brings us to consider the role of the social environment more carefully when it comes to language acquisition and this brings us to what’s called an interactionist approach to language acquisition. The interactionist approach recognizes that we seem to have a genetic predisposition for language acquisition that other animals don’t have but that we also have a social environment that plays an important role in the full development of language ability.

So when we think about the way the children develop language, it’s not the case that they simply sit there listening to adults talk and then one day they jump into the conversation, right? Instead we see that there’s this process of development and adults and even other children are actively involved in shaping that development. It’s also the case that children aren’t simply learning language, right? They’re not just learning vocabulary and syntactical rules, right? They’re learning how to interact with others and they’re learning how to communicate.

So this brings us to what a researcher named Jerome Bruner referred to as the language acquisition support system and this was in contrast to Chomsky’s language acquisition device, the idea of this genetic predisposition. So Bruner suggests we have this language acquisition support system; these are the features of the social environment that help language ability to emerge.

So it’s not the case that adults simply talk and children listen and then they develop language but adults do things like direct the child’s attention to certain things, so they tell a child what to focus on and they ask questions to the child and then they label things. So they point things out and “say this is a dog” “this is a cat” and they provide feedback when the child makes mistakes. So when the child has learned the word dog and then later sees a cat and points to it and says dog the adult can say “no, actually this is a cat and they’re similar but they’re, you know, we use different words for these”. And so this provides this support system or this scaffolding that allows the language to develop more fully. Okay, so another thing that’s different with the way that adults interact with children is that they don’t speak to them like adults right?

You are probably aware of this yourself anytime you found yourself talking to a young child you probably find that you talk differently, right? You adjust your language use in order to help the child to understand and to help the child to develop his or her own language ability. This is often referred to as motherese or caregiver talk or baby talk and this is a common feature in all sorts of languages; that adults don’t talk to children the same way they talk to other adults. This is part of this environment that’s helping the child to develop language ability and helping the child to communicate.

So when we think about this interactionist approach, one of the best examples of the role of the social environment on language acquisition comes from Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. So what happened was that a new deaf school was created in Managua, the capital, and children from remote villages were brought together and the goal was to teach them a formal sign language because what happened was a lot of children who were in remote villages who were deaf, they didn’t have a full language around them, they didn’t have exposure to a full grammatically-complex sign language, so they had simple gestures and they could communicate with family and friends but they weren’t really being exposed to complex language use.

So the hope was bring all of these children together and then teach them a formal sign language and this would be a great improvement for them. One of the problems that they had was the children actually didn’t seem to want to learn the formal sign language. What happened was the formal sign language was just too slow. If you take a bunch of children who want to interact and communicate with one another and you put them all together they’re gonna find a way to communicate and they weren’t going to wait around until, you know, three months from now we’re gonna learn how to talk about some particular thing. “‘I want to talk about it right now.”

So the children essentially invented their own sign language in order to communicate with one another and initially this was dismissed as being mimicry or miming or you know really simple gestures or slang or something like that. And it turns out that it actually was a full language and it developed the full grammatical complexity and syntactical rules of any other language.

This shows us this role of the social environment in helping with this language development. This language didn’t emerge in these isolated cases where you had children in a remote village but put enough of them together where they want to interact and they want to communicate and that social environment will allow language to emerge. Now this also demonstrates the critical period that I mentioned before because children who were over the age of seven were not able to develop full linguistic fluency in this new language but children who were younger than this, who were exposed to this new language, were able to develop full fluency just like anybody else who’s exposed to their native language. Okay, I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more!

Thanks for watching!