Case Study on First Language Acquisition

I. Executive Summary

            Children seem to go about acquiring a language on their own without any form of formal education. Those who believe in the Nativist Theory put this down to LAD or Language Acquisition Device. Said device is innate in all human beings and is found in the brain. It allows for people to acquire the language without anyone having to teach them. This is supported by the idea of the child’s competence and performance in language. Most children are already competent in the language early on but have not yet the physiological capacity to perform their said competence. They do try and this can be seen in how good imitators they are. First it begins with them using Surface-Structure Imitation which would be imitating the utterances they hear without truly understanding them but later on they are able to do Deep-Structure Imitation where their imitation of the utterance pays attention to semantics. The linguist Jerome Bruner agrees with most of the key points of Noam Chomsky’s LAD. But he (Bruner) pointed out that while as the child is central in the acquisition of his or her native tongue, other factors must also be brought into play. These factors would fall under LASS or Language Acquisition Support System. This would mean that environment figures into the language acquisition of the child. The child would first become aware of language from his or her caretakers who speak to him or her. And it is from these people that surround the child that said child imitates from. He or she imitates the sound he or she hears when his or her caretaker talks to them. And their competence in the language develops and shows with them being able to understand what is being spoken to them even before they can perform (talk).

            To be able to see said phenomena and validate either LAD or LASS, the researcher conducted this case study. The researcher made observations based on her interactions with the case study subject, a little girl who was not yet two at the beginning of the study. After recording her observations, she then consolidated these with what she had learned from the review of related literature. The researcher was able to find out that the LAD is not as infallible as its advocate would have one believe. There are loopholes to it and can almost say controversies. LASS on the other hand has prove to be a sound theory and while as it does not totally disregard LAD, neither does it give it full credit.

            The researcher recommends that parents become more aware of the child’s environment seeing as this has an impact on the language they acquire. Children are good imitators and sometimes imitate the things they do not understand. And there are times that this means that the child will pick up negative language which is why it is always important for one to be careful about what they say around children.

 II. Introduction

            It was Frank Jennings that said ‘language reflects the ability of the human mind to abstract, to take out of an experience those aspects which the mind considers essential, and then use what has been abstracted to stand for the total act or experience’. Language is used for communication and is mostly made up of sounds. It is essentially human and has developed alongside man. It makes the accumulation of knowledge possible and is the reason man has become as advanced as he is now.

            But language did not just pop from the ground fully formed. Rather, it has evolved with the passing of time, the same way that man has evolved through the ages. And has communities met, merged and diverged, people acquired and learned different languages which allowed them to communicate with the people around them. The language that people used to communicate with other communities was and is called the second language. This is something that people learn as they go along. Learning is optional and there are people who go about their entire lives using only their source language.

            What is a source language? This is the first language the person learns; also called their mother tongue, native language and first language among other things. This is the language of childhood, a person’s mean of communicating before he or she became aware that language is something that can be learned. It is interesting to study the development of the first language in young children because this gives the researcher an idea of how a person goes about acquiring a language without anyone really giving them formal instruction. There are many theories concerning how a child acquires a language and it will be an eye opener to look at some of them.

 III. Literature Review

1. Biological Factors

Module 3, Language Acquisition Theories, Principles and Research by Lorenzo Q. Orillos

             According to Noam Chomsky, “man has the genetically imparted ability for language learning”. Language is seen as something innate to humans and many a scientist have claimed that humans are genetically wired to learning a language. The chapter on biological factors found in module three of Orillo’s book deal with the factors that are related to a child’s first language acquisition. Some of the factors presented in this module stand out amongst the others and are considered more relevant to this case study. These are:

            A. LAD (Language Acquisition Device)

The Nativist theory said something along the lines of ‘every human being is born with a built in device of some kind that predisposes us to language acquisition’. Noam Chomsky (1965) further added to this. He ‘claimed the existence of innate properties of language to explain the child’s mastery of his native language in such a short time despite the highly abstract nature of the rules of language’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997). This so called knowledge is said to be embodied in a “little black box”. It was David McNeil (1966) who gave this concept a name and called it the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which is made up of four linguistic characteristics. These are:           

‘1. the ability to distinguish speech sounds from other sounds in the environment.

2. the ability to organize linguistic events into various classes which can later be refined.

3. the knowledge that only a certain kind of linguistic system is possible and that other kinds are not.

4. the ability to engage in constant evaluation of the developing linguistic system so as to construct the simplest possible system out of the linguistic data gathered.’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997)

             This device is said to be found in the left side of the brain, which deals with language functions. Learning about this function of the brain is relevant to the study because it gives the researcher the knowledge that every human being is capable of acquiring language, it is now only a matter of the kind of language acquired. The idea of the LAD answers the question of how people acquire a language even without the benefit of formal teaching. And although there are certain issues concerning this concept, what with the assertion of advocates of the Behaviorist theory that, ‘a child acquires/learns a language through a process of conditioning and reinforcement’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997); the concept of the LAD at least gives a partial explanantion to the acquisition of language.

            B. Competence and Performance

            Orillos poses the question, ‘how can one really determine the linguistic competence of an individual especially of a child?’ To be able to answer this, one must first define competence. In the world of language, competence would ‘refer to one’s underlying knowledge of a system, event or fact’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997) or in other words, ‘one’s knowledge of the language system itself’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997). This would be in contrast to performance, ‘the overtly observable and concrete manifestation or realization of competence’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997) which basically means giving a show to show that one knows. To go back to the question, Orillos answers himself with ‘children may already have linguistic competence even before they show linguistic performance since their performance is greatly affected by the development of their speech mechanism’.

            C. The Role of Imitation

            It is common knowledge that children like to imitate the people and things around them. It also commonly known that children are good at imitating and so Orillos conclusion that ‘imitation is one of the most important strategies a child uses in language acquisition’. This is backed by research which states ‘that echoing is an important, salient strategy in early language development and an important aspect of early phonological acquisition’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997). There are two types of imitation identified:

            1. Surface-Structure Imitation – This is considered to be the manifestation of the earliest stages of language acquisition. What happens is that the person repeats and/or mimics what the other person is saying, with their attention focused on the sounds being produced and not what is actually being said to them. One can observe babies doing this. The reason behind this is that ‘the baby may not possess the necessary semantic categories to assign “meaning” to utterances’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997). In other words, this is what happens when young children or toddlers try to say back what adults say to them.

            2. Deep Structure Imitation – the child at this stage is ‘concerned about the truth(sic) value of his utterances and not in the “correctness” of the forms of language’ (Orillos, Biological Factors, 1997). This is what happens when the child begins to understand the importance of the semantics of language and that words have actual meaning.

 2. Learning Language

By Timothy Mason

            This lecture identifies two ways in which a child may acquire a language. The first would be through Noam Chomsky’s LAD or Language Acquisition Device which claims that language is innate in all human beings, or another way of putting it would be that ‘we are born with a set of rules about language in our heads which he (Chomsky) refers to as the Universal Grammar’… which is ‘the basis upon which all human languages build’ (Timothy, 1993-2002). The second would be Jerome Bruner’s LASS or Language Acquisition Support System. This support system would be made up of the child’s family and those around him or her. LASS claims that a child first becomes aware of langugae through his or her caretakers and with the passing of time acquires the language for himself or herself. As with LAD, LASS still sees the child as the main component in the acquisition of the first language. The difference lies in the fact that with LAD, environmental factors do not really have an impact on the acquisition of language while as in LASS, the social conditions where the child has been placed plays a pivotal role in the said child’s acquisition of the mother tongue.

            The two concepts both acknowledge that language acquisition is within the child’s potential. The difference though is that LAD puts language acquisitions solely into the hands of children while as LASS figures the child’s support group into the equation.

 IV. Methodology

             According to the suggestions of the faculty-in-charge of the class, the ideal subject for the L1 learner case study would be a child who is between the ages of two and three. After all, it is around this age when a child begins to show noticeable advancement in learning their first language. As stated in the case study profiles, the subject for this case study is Amisha Dominique Ganancial Lachica who had not yet turned two at the beginning of the study. The subject was selected for reasons of accessibility and convenience for the researcher. For one thing, there were no young children in the immediate vicinity of the researcher, who lived in an area mostly inhabited by college students and older couples with grown children. There is also the fact that there are only a few people with young children in the circles the researcher moves in. Another reason would be that the researcher knew the subject’s mother well which meant that the researcher had access to the subject at any given time. And although the researcher only got to see the subject every other weekend due to the distance and the state of transportation in the subject’s area, this is not seen as set-back but rather as a convenience because it allowed the researcher the chance to step back and note the differences in the subject’s language skills at their every meeting.

            The data was collected through interactions with the subject, videos recorded by the mother, which she gave to the researcher and interviews with the parents of the said subject. Most of the researcher’s interactions with the subject happened within the subject’s home, with either or both of the parents present to facilitate since the subject displayed stranger’s anxiety towards the researcher and while was able to overcome said anxiety later on, still cried when her parents where gone from the room for prolonged amounts of time. Some of the interactions though, were through cell phone calls made by the mother to the researcher where the researcher and subject were able to talk and; through online video calls where the researcher and the subject could talk and at the same time see each other. During these occasions, the subject was more talkative as compared to when the researcher and subject interacted face to face. The subject’s mother would also sometimes take videos of her daughter, whenever the opportunity arises. The researcher was also able to interview the subject’s parents about the subject’s behavior and more details about her. Again, the researcher’s decision on how to collect data was influenced by accessibility and convenience. The subject was available to the researcher whenever the researcher’s and parents’ schedule allowed it. It is for these reasons that the researcher was able to interact with the subject in the comforts of the subject’s home. The decision to interact via cell phone and the internet was prompted by the fact that the subject was more willing to talk during these times (thanks to conditioning) and; by the researcher’s schedule which gave her the chance to visit the subject’s home only every other weekend. The researcher also interviewed the parents in informal sit-downs as to find out more about the subject’s behavior when she is not being consciously observed. This is so that the researcher is able to learn more about the subject’s background which would affect how the research would be concluded.

                The researcher then chose from portions of the main source of the course (Lorenzo Q. Orillo’s Language Acqusition Theories, Principles and Researches) which she found relevant to the case study and reviewed the said literature. The researcher took note of key points which she would incorporate into her observations of the subject. The researcher also went in the internet to look for supplemental materials.

            The researcher then integrated what she had learned from the literature with her observations from her interaction and commenced with the writing of the report.

V. Analysis

            The study of language is a fascinating endeavor. As Susan Langer would put it, ‘Language is without a doubt, the most momentous and at the same time most mysterious product of the human mind’. Despite the years of observing how language is acquired, researchers have as of yet gained the capability to explain the many phenomena surrounding language. From the case study though, the researcher has made a number of observations, in connection to the concepts touched on in the review of related literature.

            It is a common observation that babies are able to distinguish voices and as they grow older, words. At around a year old, children begin to string nonsensical syllables which many conclude to be the children’s attempt at speaking. At around two they are able to say a few basic words such as ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ and contract certain words or group of words like instead of saying ‘saging’ they will say ‘sging’ or instead of ‘Tito Aki’ they will say ‘Taki’. There are also some children at around this age who can begin to speak in whole sentences with only slight lisps or verbal tics. Now one might wonder at how the child has acquired language up to this point, considering that he or she has not been given a formal education in this. And when one has a chance to think about it, it does make one wonder how a child is able to this feat. The logical conclusion that the observer will make is that the child is able to acquire a language because language is innate to human beings; that human beings must be hard-wired by nature to acquire language. And it is at this point that one thinks that LAD validates itself.

            But the researcher’s observations of the case subject show that LAD cannot wholly be given credit for the child’s acquisition of a language. For while it might be innate in humans to pick up language, they must have picked it up somewhere; and that somewhere would be the child’s immediate surroundings. Opportunities for language use must be presented for the child to be able to acquire a language. The case study has the potential to acquire language, but she must acquire it from somewhere. In her case, she would have picked up her language from her constant companion, her mother. The mother would teach words to the subject and speak to her and from these constant demonstrations of language; the child would have acquired her own repertoire of it.

            And since observations have shown that it is through the subject’s environment that she was able to acquire her mother tongue, it can be said that this would be an application of LASS. The subject does not just depend on her language acquisition device to attain fluency in her mother tongue but also on her language acquisition support system as well.

            LASS would then consolidate with the role of imitation in the acquisition of language. There have been instances when the researcher has heard the subject say swear words, which surprised the mother and the researcher at that time. The subject said the words while laughing and clearly had no idea what they meant. This would be a prime example of Surface-Structure Imitation where the subject is more concerned in being able to make the sound rather than finding out what the words meant. This would be another prime example of LASS where the subject picked up the words from her surroundings, and in this case, from her playmates that use swear words.

            The researcher’s observations have also come to show supporting evidence to Orillo’s ‘children may already have linguistic competence even before they show linguistic performance since their performance is greatly affected by the development of their speech mechanism’. The subject is shown to understand instructions and queries despite not being able to give a full response. The subject understands that when her elders say ‘indi’ (no) it means that she is to stop whatever it is that she is doing. The subject is also able to point out her body parts when asked to despite not being able to say the words herself.

 VI. Conclusions and Recommendations

            Although the LAD (Language Acquisition Device) has some points, the researcher’s observations have come to show that it is not beyond questioning. The idea that each person has it in their nature to acquire language is a sound idea. But the premise that the acquisition of a language is all thanks to that said device found in the brain leaves questions unanswered. Such as how is it then, that each child acquires their own unique interpretation of the mother tongue? Or the fact that children pick up words from the people surrounding them?

On the other hand though, the researcher has been able to confirm the validity of the LASS (Language Acquisition Support System) which states that environment plays a part in the language acquisition of a child. The Language Acquisition Device does exist, but it is not solely responsible for the child’s acquired language. As Timothy Mason would say, ‘every LAD needs his LASS’. And so the LAD is not enough. The child’s environment will and must also figure in the child’s acquisition of the language. It is for this reason that the researcher recommends that the parents monitor the child’s immediate surroundings. Children will pick words up from the people around them and like in the case of the subject might learn swear words from her playmates. After all, children are very good imitators and will imitate what they hear without fully understanding what they just heard.

 VIII. References and Appendixes


  1. Video 1 and Video 2 – First meeting with the case study subject. The subject meets the researcher for the first time and acts shy around her. The subject at this point feels stranger’s anxiety and will not interact with the researcher unless the mother is around.
  2. Video 3 and Video 4 – The researcher’s second visit to the case study subject’s home. The researcher at this point had already interacted with the subject via cell phone calls and so the subject is no longer quite apprehensive to be around the researcher. What happens instead is that the subject does not really pay attention to the researcher, to the point of ignoring her.
  3. Video 5 – Video 9 – The researcher arrived bringing the subject chocolate bread, which she liked. The subject was very talkative and showed the researcher her new toy.
  4. Video 10 and Video 11- These videos were taken by the mother one afternoon when she was trying to get the subject to take a nap. The subject did not want to sleep because she was busy playing.
  5. Video 12 – This video was taken the day before the subject’s second birthday.
  6. Video 13 – This video was taken as the subject was passing by Jollibee, her favorite place to eat.
  7. Video 14 – This video was taken when the subject was watching television with her mother while playing at the same time.
  8. Video 15 – This video was taken during the time of the subject’s hospitalization due to severe skin allergies. She had just taken her shots and her mother was playing with her to distract her from her earlier crying.
  9. Video 16 – This video was taken with only the mother and the maid where present with the subject.
  10. Video 17 – This video was taken just after the researcher had left with the mother’s other friends.

Works Cited

Mason, T. (1993-2002). Learning Language. Retrieved Februaury 4, 2013, from Timothy Mason’s Site :

Orillos, L. Q. (1997). Language Acquisition Theories, Principles and Research. Quezon: UP Open University.



Hermosa, N. N. (2002). The Psychology of Reading. Quezon: UP Open University.

Mason, T. (1993-2002). Learning Language. Retrieved Februaury 4, 2013, from Timothy Mason’s Site :

Orillos, L. Q. (1997). Language Acquisition Theories, Principles and Research. Quezon: UP Open University.




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