Words and concepts for child language learning in late 19th versus late 20th century America

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Although children’s acquisition of a first, or native language is a matter of perennial interest, no consensus has emerged in English-language scholarship about how to refer to what it is that children do (or what it is that happens) in the first few years of life, when children move from non-talking neonates to full participation in a human speech community. Some have called this phenomenon ‘child language learning’; others ‘first language acquisition’; others ‘the development of language’; and still others, ‘the emergence of speech’. This paper compares a range of expressions used in the late 1800s (by Whitney, Pollack, and Lukens, among others) to discuss child language acquisition, to the terminology employed by present-day generativist and nongenerativist scholars. In both periods, writers’ word choice reveals not only their own conceptualization but also how they position themselves vis-à-vis competing ways of conceptualizing how children learn language.


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