Discuss Piaget’s view on Language learning.

Answer: Language development occurs in all children with normal brain function, regardless of race, culture or general intelligence. In other words, the capacity to acquire language is a capacity of the human species as a whole. So any theory of language acquisition must account for what children do and do not do in the course of achieving adult linguistic competence. Children clearly need to be exposed to linguistic data in order to eventually attain adult competence. The relation of human language to other cognitive and social kind of knowledge, and how it changes during development is an important issue in discussing language acquisition theory. Just as lot of current work on language acquisition is influenced by Chomskyan theory of language, so Jean Piaget’s views on child development cast a powerful shadow over the area.

Piaget describes himself as a genetic epistemologist who has a desire to specify the way in which children come to understand the workings of physical world or of logico-mathematical systems.

He believes that the child constructs an understanding of the way the world works, largely by his own actions. His intelligence at any time is a product both of his environment and of certain mental structures interacting with each other. He is concerned with human behavior as it reflects underlying organization. Piaget’s discussion of organization is especially useful in helping to resolve the conflict between the two traditional views of the infant:

1. The view of the newborn child as an amorphous lump waiting to be manipulated by his environment.

2. The view of him as a complex device carrying within himself a Lull blueprint for his future development.

Piaget concluded that the child passes through a series of stages. Each stage is characterized by certain properties of the child’s thought and each child has to pass through the stages in a fixed order, although the rate at which he does so may vary from one child to y  another. The major stages are:

1. The sensorimotor stage (from birth to 18 months)
2. The pre-operational stage (18 months to 7 years)
3. The stage of concrete operations (7years to 11 years)
4. The stage of formal operations (11 years and over)

Through these stages the child develops his cognitive ability which plays an important role in language acquisition. If, as Chomsky claims, special structuring capacities are necessary for acquiring language, Piaget would see them as product of development during the first years or two of life, rather than as inherited complete. Piaget would regard language learning as sharing the general features characteristic of all learning, as the behaviorist do. Unlike the behaviorists, however, he would not describe learning as consisting of the formation of simple habits.


Piaget distinguishes two types of organization

1. The organization which determines the general way in which the human being will interact with his environment and learn from it. The principles which govern how learning takes place he calls “functional invariants”…

2. The organization which is the product of that interaction.

For Piaget, the central process of learning, the ‘functional invariants’ include assimilation and accommodation. According to this view the child is born with a very limited set of behavior patterns or schemata, which he seeks to assert on any object he encounters. For instance, he will try to suck blankets and fingers as well as nipple or a teat. This process, whereby the child seeks to encompass an available object into an activity; schema, is called assimilation. While trying to assimilate these objects to his schema the infant, discovers that he has to open his mouth in a different way to suck different objects, so his schema becomes differentiated as a result of interaction with environment. This process is called accommodation.

In Piaget’s view, one product of the early period of development is the growth of the symbolic function. Before words are acquired actions are used by the infant to indicate recognition of objects and to represent intended activities in advance of performing them. In early childhood, however, anticipation and representation remain tied to concrete events which the child has experienced. However, as the range and complexity of his mental structures develop through the internalization of action, the child’s thought processes will become more flexible.

During the course of this development the child’s thought process from systematic, interrelated wholes rather than developing piecemeal. A subtle stage will be followed by some development which disrupts the system, and cognitive functioning will be in a state of flux until some higher level of organization is achieved. Piaget calls these subtle stages states of equilibrium’ and he sees the whole course of development as a dynamic equilibrium’. Each successive state of equilibrium is more elaborate than the last, and consequently more capable of assimilating new experience and accommodating to it without disturbing the stability of the whole structure. This whole process is seen as self-motivating. The child enjoys exercising schemata while they are in the process of development. Motivation is intrinsic; there is no reinforcement by an external agent to govern what is learned. The child’s own mental structures govern what is, attended to and how the new information is construed.

For Piaget the child’s reaction is not determined simply by the nature of the stimulus presented, but the child’s current intrinsic structure governs the degree to which he can encompass the complexity of the stimulus. We can apply this principle to language learning. The child is always constructing the novel in terms of the familiar. Thus if an unfamiliar utterance occurs he will not fail to respond to it entirely, but he will try to make sense of it in terms of patterns which are already familiar to him. This will happen ‘levels of language: the lexical, the phonological, the syntactic and the semantic. Let us see some example:

Semantic: Adam’s family was driving away from the house when his mother said ‘Look, there’s a dandelion on the path’. Adam, then aged two, had recently been to a safari park and had learned the word `lion’ which he pronounced `yaye’. He got quite alarmed, and kept looking round, saying `yaye, yaye’ in an agitated manner. The familiar word had determined the way the child perceived what his mother had said.

Phonology: Another characteristic of Adam’s language development at the same period was that if a word beginning with a vowel, it would be treated as if the final consonant of the previous word belonged to it. For instance, on hearing the phrase ‘come off he acquired the word `moff’, which he used subsequently to mean `off. This suggests that Adam had certain phonological pattern available to him and he perceived phonological order in that pattern and unable to see other patterns.

Syntax: Adam learned the word ‘together’ which he pronounced `dogede’. Shortly after learning the word he learned to produce constructions in which ‘do’ occurred. While learning Lo fit a toy together one day he said ‘do dogede’ but after a day or two he began to say it in shorter version ‘do gede. In the newly acquired syntactic structure he shortened the form ‘together’ but not mixed the initial ‘do’ with the adverb.

Passive: A ten year old Pakistani girl learning English was presented with a series of passive sentences in which both the agent and the object of the action were animates being ( The sheep was chased by the dog). The child had to say in each case who or what was performing the action. Throughout the series she assimilated the passive sentences to her schema for active sentences, ignoring the intrusive words was and by. But when she was presented with a sentence in which the object of action was inanimate: ‘The door was shut by Tom’, she was forced to accommodate to the special characteristics of the passive sentences.

These examples illustrate that Piaget’s conceptual framework may very readily be used to describe language development. New experiences are constructed in terms of existing patterns. Development is a gradual process with the child responding to the environmental stimuli at a more and more adequate level as interaction with the environment promotes his structuring capacity.

Piaget’s interest in the child is almost exclusively in an intelligent being setting out to understand the workings of his physical environment.


Piaget has frequently been criticized for underestimating the importance of language in cognitive development. In his writings, language appears largely as a source of data, rather than as an object of development, and mostly its operation is seen in a negative light. It is seen in its role as a channel of communication between the child and the social group.


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