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Compare and contrast the contribution of two theories of development to one stage of the human lifespan.

Free essay example:

Programme: BNurs Hons

Cohort: September 2008

Human Development Across the Lifespan: NURS10952

Student ID Number:  7138497

Word Count: 2124

Compare and contrast the contribution of two theories of development to one stage of the human lifespan.


This assignment will aim to compare and contrast Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s behaviourist theory and Noam Chomsky’s biological theory of a child’s language development within early infancy. A brief historical overview of the two theories will be presented and some supporting and contradictory research will be discussed. The similarities and differences of the theories will also be considered. The two theories will then be applied to a child that I have had contact with, within my primary care placement and an indication of how the theories can be used in nursing assessments and practice will also be considered.

Skinner’s Learning Theory

Skinner’s (1904-1990) learning theory included a type of conditioning that he named operant conditioning; he used this term in regards to a child’s onset on of language in early infancy. Operant conditioning occurs when an individual produces a pleasurable consequence (“rewards”) from a particular behaviour, this usually encourages them to repeat the behaviour, which Skinner described as reinforcement. However if the consequence from a particular behaviour is unpleasant (“punishments”) the behaviour is rarely repeated. Behaviourists are usually reluctant to use words such as “rewards” and “punishments” because some people can perceive what seems to be a reward as a punishment and vice versa (Berger 2005). For example a child may be sent to their room by a parent as a punishment for misbehaviour but the child may perceive this as a reward because all their toys are in their room and they can play.

Operant conditioning can be applied to a child’s language development by means of reinforcement (Skinner 1953) and imitation (Whitehurst and Vasta 1975). For example when a baby says its first word the parent tends to get very excited and praise the child, the baby picks up on this ‘excitement’ and realises their actions have had a positive consequence and therefore repeat the action.

Skinner also believed that imitation contributed to a child’s language development (Skinner 1957; 1983). When children hear other people talk they begin to imitate the sounds. For example when parents point to an object and name it, for example “bus”, the child, when able to tends to repeat the word and a positive response from the parent usually means that the child will continue to imitate and therefore begin to learn more and more words as time goes by. Parents tend to typically name an object when talking to their young child, ‘here’s your bottle’ and so on (Gogate et al 2000), this along with ‘baby talk’ help infants associate words with things (Smith 1995). According to Law (2000) large differences between toddler’s language development is largely down to parental practices. More verbal children are usually taught language in a number of different ways, for example singing, explaining and responding whereas children who are limited with speech usually have parents who rarely interact with them.

Slobin (1985a) also stated that children specifically pay attention to the beginning and ends of stringed words and stressed sounds. This could explain why a child’s early grammar consists mainly of nouns and verbs because they are the words that are stressed by parents the most and therefore they are the words that children pay more attention to.

The importance of parental input towards a child’s development has been confirmed by many different studies. Tamis-LeMonda et al (2000) found that mothers who responded to their baby often resulted in a faster rate of language acquisition.

Chomsky’s Biological Theory

Chomsky proposed that the babies are born with the mechanisms that simplify the task of acquiring language (Slobin 1985b). Chomsky and other linguists believed that children are not born with grammar itself but do have the process of learning grammar built in to the nervous system. According to this view, babies are born with neural circuits in the brain that allow them to develop their own grammar from the language that they hear around them. Chomsky believed that the innate mechanisms of language were attributes to a massive generic change but this theory is yet to be explained (Pinker and Bloom 1992).

Chomsky also includes universal grammar which he claimed to be common understood elements of human language, for example inflections the end of sentences. According to Chomsky universal grammar is evidence for brain structure within all different cultures. Chomsky labelled this neurological structure the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) he believed this device facilitates children to learn the rules of grammar from the speech they hear every day, regardless of their native language. Chomsky also suggested that this could explain how children acquire language so quickly and efficiently and all around the same age. Gopnik (2001) pointed out that although language cannot emerge without some input, Chomsky’s theory that children are innately ready to use language is very accurate.

Chomsky stated that words are “expected” by the LAD in the developing brain, which works very quickly, connecting neurons and synapses to support whichever language the infant hears. The names given for people, objects, actions, etc are already imbedded within the LAD however the particular pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar of each individual language is experience-dependant.

There is much research to support Chomsky’s view of language development. For example Goldman (2002) states that all babies begin to babble “Mama” and “Dada” by approximately 6 months old. For this to happen, no reinforcement or teaching is needed instead biology plays the part, however this is not the case for all children. This is also the case for common grammatical mistakes that most children make such as saying “wented” instead of went. Here the child is simply applying the rule of adding ‘ed’ on the end of a word to make it past tense.

On the other hand some researchers have argued that language construction is only a diminutive part of the broader process of cognitive development. Tomasello and Brooks (2002) claimed that a child applies emerging cognitive understanding to the process of language by searching for regularities and patterns. Chomsky’s theory does not consider the influence that cognition can have on language.

Similarities and Differences Between Both Theories

Both theories analyse how a young child first develops language and how they continue to learn more words and grammatical rules throughout early infancy. However the theories do differ in a number of ways because both psychologists had their own idea of how language is initially acquired.

Skinner created a testable theory in which many studies have supported his view that parents are responsible for reinforcing their child which in turn can help with the onset of language. In contrast Chomsky’s LAD can’t be tested, a child may acquire language by a process of nerve impulses but this can’t be proven scientifically. Slobin (1985b) argued that babies are pre-programmed to pay attention to the beginnings and ends of a stressed string of sounds which was also supported by research done by Morgan (1994) but this research is still not conclusive proof that babies are born with a programmed device to help them learn language.

The debate of nature versus nurture can also be applied to two theories. Chomsky believed that language was innate supporting the nature view and Skinner stated that language is mainly acquired by imitation and reinforcement which supports the nurture debate. Chomsky implies that language is too complex and is acquired to rapidly to be learned through methods such as imitation. On the other hand Skinner and other empiricists see language as no different from any other behaviour that is simply learned (Allyn & Bacon 1997).

Research by Sachs and Johnson (1972) found that regardless of a child’s biological predisposition to acquire language, children with no linguistic experience, such as the child of deaf parents do not learn to speak. This piece of research contradicts Chomsky’s theory showing that even if a child is born with the innate ability to acquire language, reinforcement is still needed for the actual onset.

Neither theories take into account cross cultural differences between children. In the early years of research on children’s language development, linguists and psychologists were impressed by the apparent similarities across different cultures.  A study by Maitel et al (2000) has shown similarities in young children’s language across a number of different countries including Germany, Israel, Italy, and Japan. However the specific word order a child uses in early sentences is not the same for all children in all languages. For example Japanese children begin to use a particular type of marker called a pragmatic marker, which tells you something about  feelings or context of what is being said, much earlier than children who speak other languages (Bee and Boyd 2004). Any theory of language acquisition must account for both similarities and wide variations from one language to another; yet both Chomsky and Skinner only consider the similarities between children in their theories and do not account for any differences they may be.

Theories Applied to Practice

When applying both theories to practice it appears that they both contribute to a child’s language acquisition. Skinner’s theory is much easier to test as it is obvious by observing the child that they do or don’t imitate their parents. During a 7 – 9 month assessment a child’s onset of language is tested by listening to the child babbling and this is usually reinforced by the parent responding back.

When applying Chomsky’s theory in the community it was more plausible to compare more than one child’s onset of language development. During many of the 7-9 month assessments I attended, I found that most of the babies were at similar stages in language onset. For example a large majority of the babies were all babbling and producing reduplicated monosyllables such as “Baba” and “Mama”. Mitchell and Kent (1990) stated that babies make babbling sounds from 6 – 12 months and they make up almost half of their non crying sounds.

During a child’s 18 month assessment I found that language tends to be a lot more developed. Children ability to use nouns and verbs are tested and by this age the child should also be able to string a two to three word sentence together, Brown and Bellugi (1964) described this stage as telegraphic speech.  These sentences may be formed by imitation but on some occasions a child will say a sentence that they have never heard before and are just simply applying grammatical rules that they have learned, showing that a child does not acquire language purely based on one theory.

During a certain 18 month assessment that I observed, child X was able to name objects from a book but could also describe what the object was doing, but this was explained in a shortened sentence for example ‘baby sleeping’. Bloom (1973) stated that children do use two word phrases often as it is a basic grammatical sentence of early language.

If the child had learned this sentence purely from imitation he would include definite and indefinite articles such as ‘the’ and ‘is’ to make a correct English sentence. Maratosos (1983) also found that all children appear to express a few of these patterns in their earliest, simplest sentences.

Both the theories fit reality reasonably well, I found much more supporting evidence with Skinners theory than Chomsky’s but this could be due to the fact the Chomsky’s theory does not have a testable hypothesis. Many researchers (Newport and Gleitman 1984; Shatz 1982 and Goldin-Meadow 1982) have accepted Chomsky’s null hypothesis and accept that environmental factors appear not to have an effect upon child language acquisition even though they is many other explanations for such findings (Moerk 1991).

Both theories are quite old and lack evidence of some language differences between some cultures, still both give a good understanding of how babies during early infancy acquire language. I don’t believe either theory is more accurate than the other, both theories along with other theories such as Piaget’s Cognitive approach (1954) and other input theories all are accountable when a child acquires language.


This assignment has explored two theories of language acquisition for early infancy, when babies first begin to talk. Skinner’s imitation theory and Chomsky’s innate theory were compared and similarities and differences between the two were discussed. After applying both theories to babies I have had contact with, within my primary care placement it was concluded that both theories can be used to observe how children acquire language however Skinner’s theory has a more testable hypothesis and links between his theory and certain children are a lot easier to make. It was also concluded after observing children during assessments, it is in fact many theories that play a part in the onset of language and not just the two discussed in this assignment.


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