In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Acquisition

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Handbooks
  • Journals
  • First Words
  • Speech Perception
  • Speech Production
  • Inflectional Morphology
  • Word Formation
  • Narrative Skill
  • Language Play
  • Infant- and Child-Directed Speech
  • Interaction and Acquisition
  • Language and Gesture
  • Early Bilingualism
  • Sensitive Periods
  • Generative Approaches
  • Modeling Process in Acquisition

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Language Acquisition
Eve V. Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0002


First language acquisition—the study of how children acquire their first language(s)—is the branch of psycholinguistics that deals with the process of acquisition. This field is variously called “first language acquisition,” “language acquisition,” or “language development.” Researchers have taken two main approaches in studies of children’s language: on the one hand, research that stems from Chomsky’s proposal that language—in particular, syntax—is innate, so children’s knowledge simply has to be triggered through exposure to the ambient language; on the other is research that assumes that general learning mechanisms apply to language as well as other aspects of development.

Introductory Works

The earliest observations of children’s language probably date from the 7th century BCE (Campbell 2006), but systematic study began with the foundation of institutes to study child development in the late 18th century. Current research was stimulated by Noam Chomsky’s 1965 claims about the innateness of syntax, and the field itself has steadily become more interdisciplinary as researchers have collected more empirical data on children’s first language acquisition and have also begun to model the various processes involved. Early studies of children’s language focused primarily on the forms produced by young children––their pronunciations (and mispronunciations), their early uses and misuses of words, and, to a lesser extent, their increasing mastery of syntactic constructions. While early diary studies considered children’s language in relation to perceptual, cognitive, and moral development, it is only recently that researchers have begun to examine communicative interactions between adult and child as a locus of language development. Wootton 2005 examines early nonlinguistic as well as linguistic interactions, while McTear 1985 focuses on conversations between parent and child. This in turn has led to more interdisciplinary research between linguistics and psychology and to closer consideration of gestural as well as linguistic choices for communicating. Gestures serve a number of functions in adult-child interactions (Gullberg and de Bot 2011) and also appear as antecedents to linguistic communications (Volterra and Erting 1998).

  • Campbell, Robin N. 2006. Language development: Pre-scientific studies. In Encyclopedia of languages and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by K. Brown, 391–394. Oxford: Elsevier.

    A good overview of very early attempts to study language acquisition.

  • Gullberg, Marianne, and Kees de Bot, eds. 2011. Gestures in language development. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Articles that examine the place of gestures in communication as children develop language.

  • McTear, Michael F. 1985. Children’s conversation. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This book gives an excellent account of children’s conversational skill and the range of functions children master as their language develops.

  • Volterra, Virginia, and Carol J. Erting, eds. 1998. From gesture to language in hearing and deaf children. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Univ. Press.

    These articles compare gestures used in hearing versus deaf children as they each acquire a first language.

  • Wootton, Anthony J. 2005. Interaction and the development of mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An ethnographic case study of early interactions, both verbal and nonverbal.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.