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A look at first language acquisition

Theoretical foundations and quantitative approaches

Keywords: linguistic development, language acquisition, linguistic theory, nativism, constructivism, usage-based theory, quantitative methods

This paper reviews some theoretical controversies in first language acquisition research, based on the traditional nativist–constructivist divide. The term ‘innateness’ is discussed, along with what constitutes a counterargument to nativism. Common empirical approaches are introduced, with an emphasis on how advances in quantitative methods have shaped the field: new data collection methods and growing analytical sophistication have allowed researchers to sharpen the questions asked and the framing of answers. Corpus analysis of both the input and child language has given the field a stable empirical base, complemented by experimental approaches. Findings in statistical learning and computational modelling have greatly improved our understanding of the learning process. The acquisition of Estonian morphosyntax is briefly discussed. The ‘quantitative turn’ has en­abled researchers to address acquisition through complex, multidimensional means. Results in language acquisition necessarily draw on interdisciplinary methods investigating learning paths, cognitive mechanisms, social communicative goals, and linguistic typological differences to build a plausible picture of the language learner.

Virve-Anneli Vihman (b. 1973), PhD, University of TartuInstitute of Estonian and ­General Linguistics, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and Senior Research Fellow, virve.vihman@ut.ee

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