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This study aimed at investigating the similarities and differences between Vygotsky’s perspectives on child languagedevelopment with nativism and behaviorism. Proposing the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, Vygotsky emphasizedthe role of collaborative interaction, scaffolding, and guided participation in language learning. Nativists, on the other hand,believe in the existence of Language Acquisition Device. They maintain that language is innate and acquisition is instantaneous.They also believe that acquisition happens in spite of inadequate input. Behaviorists claim that nurture is crucial in the processof language development. They believe that language is taught through reinforcements in the environment. Children associatecertain stimuli with certain behaviors and responses.
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International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching
Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2017, p. 230-238
Doi Number
Mehdi Dastpak
Fatemeh Behjat
- Ali Taghinezhad3
This study aimed at investigating the similarities and differences between Vygotsky’s perspectives on child language
development with nativism and behaviorism. Proposing the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development, Vygotsky emphasized
the role of collaborative interaction, scaffolding, and guided participation in language learning. Nativists, on the other hand,
believe in the existence of Language Acquisition Device. They maintain that language is innate and acquisition is instantaneous.
They also believe that acquisition happens in spite of inadequate input. Behaviorists claim that nurture is crucial in the process
of language development. They believe that language is taught through reinforcements in the environment. Children associate
certain stimuli with certain behaviors and responses.
Key Words: Behaviorism, Child Language Development, Nativism, Vygotsky’s Theory, Zone of Proximal Development,
1. Introduction
Children can play a significant role in the future of a society, and the development of a society is
impossible unless enough attention is paid to the growth of children (Pellegrini, 1991). Research on the
child language development can clarify the framework of effective educational methods and help
children reach their full potential. The first most important point to consider is human beings’ abilities
in using a limited number of signs for talking. These abilities can form in the childhood up to five
years of age and enable adults to think about different subjects and share their views with each other.
What has preoccupied the mind of psychologists and experts in the field of education is the way
language is developed and the relationship between language and cognition.
In the field of language acquisition, there are several approaches. Some scholars focus their attention
on theoretical issues while some others study cognitive, social, or developmental factors in the process
of language acquisition. What is definitely clear is that children have a prodigious ability to acquire a
language. With the emergence of first signs of communication such as babbling and crying, they can
convey several messages, and at the age of one, they can imitate and gradually produce first words. At
about 18 months of age, they combine several words in a remarkable way so that they produce three-
word sentences. At the age of three, as they mature linguistically, they can participate in
conversations, ask questions, and answer questions.
Department of English Language, Jahrom University of Medical Sciences, Jahrom, Iran, E-mail:
Department of English, Abadeh Branch, Islamic Azad University, Abadeh, Iran, E-mail:
3 (Corresponding author) Noncommunicable Diseases Research Center, Fasa University of Medical Sciences, Fasa, Iran, Email:
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Ingram (1989) describes four stages of child language development:
Pre-linguistic period which starts from birth to age one,
One-word stage starting from age one to 18 months,
Production of basic words starting from 18 months to age two, and
Production of simple and complex sentences starting from age three to the early years of
elementary school (p. 17).
Having passed the above-mentioned stages, the child acquires the social roles of language. That is, the
child learns what to say and what not to say in different situations.
2. Theories of child language development
Several theories have been proposed with regard to child language development: Cognitive Theory,
Imitation and Positive Reinforcement, and Innateness of Certain Linguistic Features. All three theories
offer a substantial amount of proof and experiments, but none of them have been proven entirely
correct. The search for how children acquire their native language in such a short period of time has
been studied for many centuries. In a changing world, it is difficult to pinpoint any definite specifics
of language because of the diversity and modification throughout thousands of millions of years.
Among the well-known theories, some of them will be discussed below.
2.1. Behaviorism
There are several theories about child language development each of which looks at this issue from a
specific perspective. One of the theories about child language development is behaviorism. Although
this theory has been rejected by many researchers, some theorists, researchers, and psychologists tried
to discuss its merits and demerits. Behaviorism deals with behavioral changes and the role of
environment in these changes. Behaviorists believe that speaking a language is a skill and there is no
difference between speaking a language and other behaviors. Behaviorism is the school of thought
that “given the response the stimuli can be predicted; given the stimuli the response can be predicted”
(John B. Watson, as cited in Goodwin, 2008). Watson (1924) believed that language, unlike its
complications, is basically a simple behavior. Generally, behaviorists emphasize the observable
linguistic behaviors and try to find a relationship between responses and stimuli which have an
environmental origin. From a behaviorists’ point of view, an effective linguistic behavior is a correct
response to a stimulus. If a specific response is reinforced, its changes into a habit or is conditioned,
and therefore children repeat those reinforced linguistic responses. One of the prominent figures in
behaviorism was Skinner (1957) who introduced the concept of operant conditioning.
2.1.1. Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning is one of few different theories based on behaviorism and conditioning. The
most famous and early behaviorist is John B Watson. He is referred to many as the father of
behaviorism and is known for his work on conditioning baby Albert to fear a white rat by associating
it with loud noise that scared the child (McLeod, 2007). Eventually the loud noise was no longer
necessary in producing a reaction of fear. Classical conditioning theory by Pavlov (1927) focused on
creating associations and learnt responses. His famous experiment with the salivary reaction in dogs
and conditioned stimuli were referred to as Pavlov's dog (McLeod, 2007). The difference between the
two type of conditioning is that skinner focused more on the external rather than internal associations.
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Along with Pavlov, Bandura was also a well-known behaviorist that coined the social learning theory,
which shows the importance of observing behaviors in learning (McLeod, 2007).
Skinner believed that the study of observable behaviors was more productive than the study of
internal mind (McLeod, 2007). He experimented his theory by observing the causes of actions and the
consequences that were paired with them. Operant conditioning based its theory on the
environmental conditions that shape behaviors by the addition or subtraction of rewards or
punishment that leave either a desired or undesired effect on the subject. Through the use of rewards
and punishment, good behavior can be reinforced and strengthened while bad or undesired behavior
can be eliminated. Skinner used his invention the Skinner Box to demonstrate the effects of operant
conditioning on rats and pigeons through the use of levers and electric currents to condition their
behaviors (McLeod, 2007). Skinner’s ideas were criticized by Chomsky (1959).
2.2. Nativism
Experts in the field of language acquisition believe that behaviorism cannot explain the process of
language development since it does not take into account the role of cognition and thought. In other
words, first language acquisition is so complicated that it cannot be interpreted by behaviorism.
Another theory which has attracted researchers’ attention during the last two decades is nativism
whose pioneer is Chomsky (1975). He introduced the theory of Principles and Parameters and believed
that languages are similar in terms of their principles and the difference lies in their parameters. In
line with Universal Grammar, it can be explained that all languages have common basic grammatical
structures. In other words, the main features of languages which are common among all languages are
abstract in nature to the extent that they cannot be transferred from adults to children through
imitation and communication. Therefore, Chomsky concludes that these universal features are part of
a child’s genetic predisposition and the child is born with an inborn knowledge of universal grammar.
Chomsky believes that this theory facilitates the process of first language acquisition and children do
not acquire the principles of a language which are common among all languages but he is born with
the knowledge of those principles and they are part of his genetic predisposition. The child must learn
the parameters which are different across languages. (Radford, 1990). In this theory, parameters are
limited. That is, parameters cannot appear in an unlimited number, rather, there are two possibilities:
each feature either exists or does not exist. For instance, unlike Persian language, English language is
head first. In English the subject of a sentence must come at the beginning of the sentence whereas in
Persian, it can be hidden and Persian is a head last language. Therefore, when a child learns a
language it is either head first or head last (Valian, 2009).
In recent years, two issues on the study of language have focused on constructivism. First of all,
language is a manifestation of an individual’s cognitive and emotional abilities to talk about the
world, talk about others, and talk about the self. Secondly, linguistic rules which are based on
nativism theory are abstract, logical and complicated, aim of which is to clarify the syntactic structure
of language. However, in addition to syntax, meaning and role as the two main features of language
in communication and social interaction should also be taken into account. Therefore, researchers such
as Bloom, Piaget, and Slobin emphasized the role of cognition in the development of child language.
Piaget describes the overall language development as the outcome of the child’s interaction with the
environment and also with the interaction of cognitive-perceptual ability and language experience.
What children learn about language is determined by what they learn from the environment. Piaget
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(1972), unlike Chomsky believed that the complex structures of the language are not innate. However,
in line with Chomsky, Piaget did not believe that they are acquired, but they are the result of
continuous interaction between current cognitive functions and linguistic and non-linguistic
environment (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). This approach is called constructivism which is a term in
contrast to nativism. From Piaget’s point of view, language is a manifestation of human cognitive
activities. The development of cognitive systems is essential for language development and therefore
it should take place before that (Hickmann, 1986). Thus, identification of different stages of
development and explanation of how it occurs can explain first language acquisition.
The basis of mental processes lies in the statement “thought is an internalized action” which expresses
Piaget’s view on the analysis of human knowledge and intelligence and indicates that analysis should
begin with motor activities and problem solving in a practical way. In other words, children should
play an active and constructive role in their cognitive development (Richmond, 1970). From Piaget’s
point of view, action is the basis of though and it is the prerequisite for perception (Hichmann, 1986).
In this theory, cognitive development is independent from language development and it precedes
language development. Language contributes to the child’s intellectual development more than
anything else and has a secondary role in mental actions and it is not enough for the cognitive
development of the child.
Language is dependent on thought and it cannot be used for the exchange of ideas unless an
individual acquires necessary concepts (Lund, 2014). Based on this theory, a child is an active learner
who is interacting with the environment to create complex intellectual structures in order to solve his
problems (Fisher, 2005). Slobin (1973, 1985) tried to indicate the way children acquire a language. He
believed that natural approaches can help children learn induction. He indicated that in all languages,
acquiring meaning depends on cognitive development. In other words, learning linguistic concepts is
determined by semantic complexities rather than syntactic complexities.
3. Vygotsky’s Views on Language Acquisition
From Vygotsky’s (1962) perspective, language has several roles one of which is transferring abstract
concepts and logical reasoning. Another role of language is the establishment of communication
through social interaction which can be considered as the main contributing factor of child language
development. From the time nativism has been challenged, Vygotsky’s theories on language
acquisition which emphasize the social origin of development gained considerable importance and in
spite of the fact that he proposed his theories gradually, he highlighted the works of linguists and
psychologists who consider meaning as the core of language (John-Steiner, 2007).
3.1. Language and Thought
Vygotsky’s theory is based upon the interaction between language and thought. He believed that the
development of thought and language is not parallel. In some cases, curves of language and thought
intersect with each other, and in some cases they are apart from each other, and in some cases they
might even coalesce with each other. Language and thought have different genetic origins and are
independent from each other, but in a period in childhood they integrate with each other (Vygotsky,
1962). At this stage, thought is nonverbal and is based on mental images and language is pre-rational
and is not related to thought. In other words, in the first year of development, child language has a
social role and does not have any sign of intellectual development. At the age of two, the curves of
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language and thought intersect with each other, and a new form of behavior emerges. Then, the child
begins to use the language for thinking and his speech is a manifestation of his thoughts.
Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky believed that thought is not independent from language, nor does it precede
language, and although they have independent and different origins, there is continuous interaction
between them (Vygotsky, 1962). The interrelationship between thought and language is a process
which begins gradually and is developed between the age of two until seven. The relationship
between thought and a word is not a simple action but it is a process and a two-way movement from
thought to language and vice versa. The development of a child’s vocabulary range depends on social
context and the linguistic resources available in his culture. Vygotsky assumed two roles for language,
an external role for the establishment of communication with the periphery, and an internal role for
controlling thoughts.
Between the age of two to seven, children talk about their ideas and thoughts. This type of speech is
called egocentric speech which is caused by a lack of internalization of speech. The primary role of
language is social communication. Therefore, a child’s primary speech is social speech. At a specific
age, the child’s social speech is divided into egocentric and communicative speech, both of which are
social. Egocentric speech is an interface in the transition of phonetic speech to inner speech. From
Vygotsky’s perspective, social interaction role has a pivotal role in determining language
development. Vygotsky, like Piaget believes that thought appears before language development.
Vygotsky believed that the development of thought takes place with the development of language.
That is, the child’s intellectual development or the internalization of knowledge and thinking tools
which exist in the child’s periphery play a significant role. Social-cultural experience of the child
occurs through language and this leads to the development of thought.
3.2. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
Vygotsky (1978, p. 86) defined Zone of Proximal Development as “the distance between the actual
developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential
development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with
more capable peers.” He believed that learning happens in the ZPD, and the child can achieve it with
the help of others. Another important point to mention is the child’s ability to solve problems. In other
words, the child possesses the potential to solve problems partially independently and partially under
the guidance of adults or peers (Wood, 1988).
Vygotsky (1978) described the ZPD as “a tool through which the internal course of development can
be understood” and argued that “the only good kind of instruction is which marches ahead of
development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions”
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 188). Yet, as Moll (1992) pointed out, Vygotsky never “specified the forms of social
assistance to learners that constitute” a ZPD beyond generalized comments about “collaboration and
direction” (p. 11). Adults play an important role in children’s learning and help them achieve their
The interaction between a child and adults helps the child carry out complex activities, make decision
about his activities, and achieve his mental potentials. Vygotsky believed that the processes of the
relationship and more importantly, the processes related to language are the main factors of
transferring inter-psychological actions to intra-psychological actions. Two important linguistic
features play a significant role in Vygotsky’s theory. One is that language is naturally social, and the
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other is that language is dependent on context. That is why Vygotsky emphasized speech rather than
language because in speech there are non-linguistic signs in addition to linguistic sings (Vygotsky,
1962). Based on the concept of ZPD, adults interact with the child through speech and this will play a
crucial role in his cognitive development. From Vygotsky’s point of view, thinking is a purposeful
activity which leads to cognitive development. What contributes to the child’s development is his
participation in social interactions and the presence of an adult or a wise peer. Social interaction plays
a significant role in the process of cognitive development.
3.3. Mediation
Mediation is an important concept which should be discussed in Vygotsky’s theory because
understanding the processes of higher mental development are based on this concept (Wertsch, Cole
& Wertsch 2007). Mediation means the utilization of cultural signs or tools in the creation of
qualitative changes in thought. Therefore, mediation is the use of communication systems in showing
events, and since communication systems are the means of interacting thoughts and ideas, language is
a communication system which is used by humans to express their thoughts (Smidt, 2013).
Mediation plays a critical role in the construct of an activity and generation of higher mental
processes. Higher mental processes, such as logical memory, selective attention, reasoning, analysis,
and the metacognitive dimension of problem solving, bear a striking similarity to categories of
learning strategies reported in the literature (Bialystok, 1981). Higher mental processes include, but
are not be limited to, the types of goal-directed actions commonly labeled as language learning
strategies. "Vygotsky's position on the genesis of these mental processes differed significantly from the
'substantialists' who claimed that their origins could be traced to the material substance of the brain or
the spiritual substance of the mind (Kozulin, 1990). Vygotsky claimed that these higher mental
functions are generated in goal-directed, mediated activity. For Vygotsky, the source of mediation was
either a material tool (for example, tying a string around one's finger or using a computer); a system of
symbols, notably language; or the behavior of another human being in social interaction. Mediators, in
the form of objects, symbols, and persons, transform natural, spontaneous impulses into higher
mental processes, including strategic orientations to problem solving.
In the case of language learning, initially unfocused learning actions may become adjusted and
modified based on how the learning of the language is mediated. Mediation is, thus, the instrument of
cognitive change. This mediation can take the form of the textbook, visual material, classroom
discourse patterns, and opportunities for second language interaction, types of direct instruction, or
various kinds of teacher assistance (Donato & Adair-Hauck, 1992). All forms of mediation are
embedded in some context that makes them inherently sociocultural processes. "Change is, therefore,
a social process and sociocultural mediation is the central means through which change occurs" (Jacob,
1992). Classroom language learning and the learning strategies constructed there are the result of a
process of mediation analogous to other forms of socio-culturally mediated development, such as
initiation into a professional community, the construction of cultural beliefs and values, or ways of
relating to others.
In order to establish a relationship with the environment, we need signs which can mediate between
our mind and the outside world so that we have a perception of the world. This is possible through
using psychological tools or signs (Wertsch et al., 2007). Signs are a combination of meaning and form
such as language. But in addition to language, we can mention different systems of calculation,
musical notes, traffic signs, algebraic signs, artistic works, and the design of shapes, tables and
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diagrams which are all man-made or what Vygotsky calls they are “artificial” (Vygotsky, 1972). From
Vygotsky’s point of view, mediation plays a significant role in the formation of social identity and
paves the way for the explanation of freedom of action in which mediators are tools for the continuous
activity of individuals in social, cultural, and historical arenas.
Table 1. A summary of the theories of first language acquisition
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Table 2. Instructional implications of language acquisition theories
From Vygotsky’s perspective, the concept of development is the reduction of the distance between
mental structures and functions and norms (cultural mediation) in society. From a sociocultural point
of view, society is not the only environment for doing actions, but every human activity is
accompanied by individual, cultural, and historical aspects. Both Vygotsky and Piaget believe that
social personality is essential in human development (Tudge & Rogoff, 1989). Vygotsky believed that
separating thought and word is not possible and therefore considers word meaning as the unit of
analysis which comprises both speech and intellect. He emphasized the necessity to focus on the
dialectic relationship between thought and word and believed that dialectic is a move toward
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The aim of the first edition of Language Acquisition was to provide as comprehensive a description and explanation as possible of the changes in the child's language as he or she grows older. In this second edition Paul Fletcher and Michael Garman have the same fundamental aim. Six years later the field has not changed dramatically, but there have been fruitful theoretical developments - the learnability hypothesis, in particular, has been influentially expounded - and empirical work seeking evidence of specific language capacities in children has made notable advances. Equally significant are shifts in emphasis: the growing interest in cross-linguistic studies, for example, or accounts of language development of reading and writing. All these changes are reflected in the second edition. About half the chapters are entirely new, having been specially commissioned for this edition. The remainder of the book consists of substantially revised versions of chapters from the first edition. Like its predecessor, this collection is the work of distinguished specialists from many countries and will provide an invaluable resource for students and professionals alike who have an interest in the field of child language acquisition.
L. S. Vygotsky was an early twentieth century Russian social theorist whose writing exerts a significant influence on the development of social theory in the early twenty first century. His non-deterministic, non-reductionist account of the formation of mind provides current theorietical developments with a broadly drawn yet very powerful sketch of the ways in which humans shape and are shaped by social, cultural, and historical conditions. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky is a comprehensive text that provides students, academics, and practioners with a critical perspective on Vygotsky and his work.