Child Language Acquisition


This post looks mainly at research methods within the field of Child Language Acquisition, and how they have developed in their ability to combine data collection. This essay analyses the competence of these studies and comments on positive and negative aspects of each study.

Diary Studies are more commonly known as ‘baby biographies’, where direct focus was placed upon the development of a single child. The child, also referred to as the subject, was studied form birth upwards as there was a new interest in the development of child language and was ‘led in many respects by the work of  G. Stanley Hall in North America and William Preyer in Europe.’ (Ingram, 1989, P.7.)  The psychologist, linguist or parent would keep a diary of the child’s progress, which ‘could be specifically on language, but often they were more generally on everything from motor development to musical awareness.’ (Ingram, 1989, P.7.)

In Diary Studies, the parent is generally the researcher. However, ‘this feature has been considered as both a strength and a weakness’, (Ingram, 1989, P.8) as they hold a unique connection with the child where they can differentiate behaviours and eccentricity of behaviours of which the child endures, yet this can be biased. The parent will be able to detect subtle changes in their child’s behavioural patterns and therefore the study is more detailed than if a stranger were to study the child’s behaviour. If an independent controller was to analyse the child, it can be argued that it may cause stress to the child, or change the child’s natural development. It would also breech ethical issues if this were to take place as the child can not consent to being researched.

The extent of detail within and surrounding a diary study is virtually impeccable due to the close nature of the study. The gathered data is easily accessible and can be condensed in order to make future developments from the study. A popular study to look at is that of Leopold (1939-49) of his daughter Hildegard, which analyses the development of her speech patterns as well as ‘babbling’ meaning and investigation. This study was started at birth and ended at the age of 2. (Ingram, 1989, P.10, Aitchison, 1992, P. 76-7)

Diary Studies were ‘concerned with plotting the facts of language acquisition, with little concern for theory’, (Ingram, 1989, P.9) however, Diary Studies were the pioneering research method into Child Language, therefore there was not enough data in order to make assumptions and create theories.

Due to the natural bond between parent and child, the study is not accurate due to the parent being biased towards the child’s behaviour. Parents would only adopt positive behaviours of importance and would not consider the negative results from their child’s development. Ingram, 1989, P.9 suggests that there were little theoretical discoveries and much need for improvement as there was a large amount of data that needed to be applied. Although this research method holds a vast amount of data to work with, it also lacks empirical evidence as although numerous child language studies had taken place, comparisons could not stand alone without theoretical or empirical evidence to prove or to disprove the results of Diary Studies.

From Diary Studies, developments and gaps were recognised and there was a need for a new form of research where a different approach was taken in order to gain a broader sense of understanding and knowledge of child development and a narrower sense of biased interpretations from the parents, of the data. Diary Studies were ‘unsystematic’ (Ingram, 1989, P,13), in their observations of the children as one child was studied for an undistinguished amount of time or intensity.

Large Sample Studies, which were popular between1926 and 1957 (Ingram, 1989, P.7), were introduced mainly due to the influence of Watson post WWI. The Behaviourist approach introduced some new theories into society as a whole such as how environmental stressors, and more relevant to the time, ‘shell shock’ could effect and challenge the traditional idea of strong, grown ‘men’, made the overlapping of theory into Child Language Acquisition in more accessible and made society take a serious view point on highly influential child development.

‘Behaviourism differed from the previous observations…the role of the child in the learning of the language, and the measurement of observable behaviour.’(Ingram, 1989, P.12). Behaviourism was applied to Child Language Acquisition as an attempt to understand how we develop, or how we can also under-develop, introducing the idea that interaction with your child promotes quicker language acquisition and can have positive behavioural effects, as the idea of children being ‘seen and not heard’ was still common ideology in society, it is only recently that these issues have been addressed. ‘ Behaviourists wanted to develop a theory of learning where the child’s changes in behaviour were traced back to, or explained by, observable conditions of the child’s environment. (Ingram, 1989, P.12)

Large Sample Studies addressed that there are a large amount of children to be studied and also that the ‘children came from similar socio-economic classes, and there were equal numbers of boys and girls’, (Ingram, 1989, P.13). The Large Sample Study took into consideration the fundamental aspects such as equality of sampling through age and gender. There was little point in comparing a four year old boy with a two year old girl.

Large Sample Studies developed a ‘systematic observation of behaviour’ (Ingram, 1989, P.13), where ‘rules’ were enforced where the children were studied for the same amount of time and were analysed on exactly the same types of behaviours which were asked by exactly the same experimenter in order to reduce limitations and present the results in a much more empirical way, (Ingram, 1989). For example, Templin, (1957) tested 430 children between 3 and 8 years of age and tested purely upon sentence length and general aspects of sentence development. (Ingram 1989, P. 14.)

Behaviourists believed that there was not an innate function in our brain which allows us to learn language, but our behaviour is shaped and moulded by external influences.

Skinner (1957) suggested that conditioning is an essential part of language acquisition. Skinners initial theory on classical conditioning was that he could teach a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell, thus constructing a learned behaviour through reinforcement. Psychology ref. This theory was then applied to Child Language Acquisition. It is suggested that syntactical standards are achieved by turning words into conditioned responses where the child receives reward for using language in the ‘correct’ way. The child then learns through association of positive and negative reinforced response. A child will remember when they have ‘been good’ and will use this syntactical formation in future in order to please and receive favour.

Although Large Sample Studies did briefly encounter how language is learned, focus was more commonly applied to ‘what’ language consisted of at the different stages of development. However, this does not hold much significance to understanding Child Language Acquisition if it does not encounter the ‘how’ language is learned.

This is supported by a number of behaviourists in the field of educational research where it is suggested that learning is addressed in order of accessibility and importance. Language was suggested to have a universal structure and innateness. Chomsky argued that due to the complexity of grammar, imitation is not enough for a child to base grammatical conclusions upon. (Aitchison, 1995, P. 26-7)

However, Behaviourists did not support Chomsky’s theory of the Language Acquisition Device. This primarily introduces the concept that there is a genetic ‘blueprint’ or ‘Universal Grammar’ in our brain which, when we are born, naturally develops and gives us the mechanics to learn language. (Aitchison, 1995, P.26-7, Aitchison, 1992, P. 92)

Lewis, 1957, P.91, reports that ‘many children become fountains of imitation, mimicking almost every word they hear; and this imitation widens its scope to include not only those words that have meaning …but often words that are still meaningless’. This supports behaviourist theory that children learn to speak through practice and reinforcement.

Three main weaknesses were found with Large Sample studies. ‘ One is their lack of linguistic sophistication…language…is a system of rules, and insights into the acquisition of these rules is at the core of the study.’ (Ingram, 1989, P. 16)

The second is the idea that language works by a system of rules which must interact with each other in order to work, much the same as the mechanics of a clock must work together. ( Ingram, 1989, P16), and the third is that data was collected by hand, i.e. someone hand wrote and recorded the data as it was happening. An incredible amount of data has been misinterpreted and for this reason is unreliable. (Ingram, 1989, P.16-7)

Negative aspects of both Diary Studies and Large Sample Studies, were considered and Longitudinal Language Sampling (Ingram, 1989, P.20) emerged. The length of the study enables a better sense of development to the theory as full development from birth to adult can be seen. Longitudinal studies usually analyse a random, unrelated child in order to determine an un-biased collection of data. This also has negative aspects as the unrelated controller may be too independent in the way that they may not account for minor details in change in behaviour of which a parent may do.

It is worth taking into account that there are predetermined characteristics of a longitudinal study. Researchers decide in advance the questions which they will ask, the time of research, the place and the people present. This is a limitation as external factors and ethical issues all determine the outcome of the study. However, this type of study combines the pros of the Diary Study and pros of the Large Sample too combining the knowledge and understanding of pathological features as well as the development of early language and grammar.

The longitudinal method studies more than one child at a time, over a period of time, therefore, unlike previous studies, can establish features of acquisition, ‘if one is chosen, we do not know if the child is typical or not’ (Ingram, 1989, P.21). There are four studies which the longitudinal research method is centralised around, (Ingram, 1989, P.22). Miller & Ervin (1964), sampled five children, initially for 45 minutes per week, however, sampling was inconsistent. Brown (1973) studied three children and assessed their development every two weeks. This consistency showed a significant change over a time scale but also the subtle changes in the children’s early language development. (Ingram, 1989, table 2.5, P.22). Bloom (1970) studied three children for eight hours over three days every month or so. This consistency again resulted in significant change being processed and also a mark in subtle language changes. However, it was Braine (1963) who produced a study which considered these problems. Braine used parental diaries of all multi-word utterances, which took the intricate language acquisitions that a Diary Study highlights and also studied the same three children over a period of time. (Ingram, 1989, P.14, Aitchison, 1992, P. 114)

In conclusion, if I were to conduct an experiment, I would use Braine’s (1963) research method as it combines the bulk data which can be recorded from a Diary Study, and yet time to observe, which allows a much more rounded and educated  theory of Child Language Acquisition.


Aitchison, J. (1995) Linguistics Hodder & Stoughton Educational: London

Aitchison, J. (1972) Linguistics: An Introduction Hodder and Staughton: London

Bowerman, M. Levinson, S.C. (2001) Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Crystal, D. (1986) Listen To Your Child Penguin Group: London


Ingram, D. (1989) First Language Acquisition CUP: Cambridge

Lewis, D. (1978) The Secret Language of Your Child- How Children Talk Before They Can Speak Souvenir Press: London

Lewis, M. (1957) How Children Learn To Speak George G. Harrapp & Co. Ltd.: London

Oates, J. (1994) The Foundations of Child Development Blackwell: Oxford.

Web Sources

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