We need to talk about language

I am catching up with the Daily Post’s Zero to Hero blog challenge today. One of the great things about the Zero to Hero challenge is that you don’t have to take part in every single task. It isn’t a blog challenge where you have to publish a post every single day; some of the challenges are about working behind the scenes on your blog, such as personalizing your theme.

I am unsure about changing my blog’s theme. Maybe it’s because I like routine but I also like my blog theme. It is clean, fresh and it works well for me. Additionally, because my theme is a fairly old one I am unsure whether I could change back to it if I changed my theme and decided I didn’t like it. Fortunately, WordPress allows you to preview themes before clicking the final button so I will do some experimenting with different themes today and who knows? Maybe Cultural Life will get a new look soon, or maybe not, depending on what I decide!

The assignment for Day 6 of Zero to Hero was to “publish a post that includes a new-to-you element”. I have chosen to do something which I have never done before: include a poll in my post. I always appreciate readers’ comments but this time I am interested in seeing your votes, although I would also love it if you left a comment as well. The poll is at the bottom of this post. As you have probably guessed from the title of this post, I am going to talk (albeit briefly) about language.

Language Acquisition wordle. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Language Acquisition terminology. Created by Grace @ Cultural Life using wordle.net

Last weekend I read an article written by Harry Ritchie in The Guardian which talked about the lack of discussion about language. I think about linguistics a lot but that is unsurprising, considering I am studying it! But there are no news reports or Oscar-winning documentaries about language and one of the points that Ritchie makes is a suggestion that the world should be told about the amazing and fascinating discoveries made within the field of linguistics. Although, like every academic discipline, linguistics can seem dry and dull, it is a science and so much of it is fascinating, all the more so because we all use language every single day.

Also, the article mentioned the fact that child language acquisition, specifically environmental influences on it, is something which is not being researched as much as it could be. Theories and hypotheses abound as to the exact nature of how children acquire language because no one knows for certain how they do it! Some of the theories, concepts and terminology are floating around in the Wordle above. And that brings us to the subject of the poll: “How do children acquire language?”

I would like you to vote in the poll without referring to any other sources, for example, doing a Google search for the question. There isn’t a single right answer – simply pick the one you feel most drawn to – and I am simply interested in seeing the outcome of the vote. The poll is anonymous but it would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below this post. Now, what are you waiting for? Get voting!

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22 thoughts on “We need to talk about language

  1. Gosh I just love your language based posts πŸ™‚ I personally think that we as humans do have some kind of instinctual tendency to acquire language, which is what makes us a superior species to other animals. I also, however, think that a stimulating and language-rich environment is pivotal. My ability to communicate I credit to my parents and school teachers, all of whom had an individual way of speaking and expressing themselves which created diversity that I used to develop my language skills. Though this is slightly unrelated, I think children who read from an early age develop an understanding of language far more rapidly and earlier on than their peers. Just my thoughts πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you for the compliment! πŸ™‚ This one was just a brief post. I didn’t want to write too much about language acquisition, in case it influenced people who will vote in the poll.

      You’re absolutely right about children who read earlier having an earlier development of language/larger vocabulary. In fact, the other day I read about a study which talked about that. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the study though!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. πŸ™‚

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    • P.S. “I also, however, think that a stimulating and language-rich environment is pivotal” – absolutely, yes! In one of my linguistics classes last year, we watched a documentary about a child who was severely neglected in an abusive home with very little exposure to language because she was locked in a room with hardly any human contact. After she was rescued, she never fully developed the ability to communicate with language.

      It is an extreme and tragic case but it is very interesting in terms of the critical period hypothesis (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/critical-period-hypothesis). Although linguists debate whether there is a “critical period” for second language acquisition, I think there is definitely one for first language acquisition. Even though children can’t string two words together before the age of around 18 months, they are soaking up the language they hear around them.

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  2. I think it’s probably a combination of the first and last choices. Though we seem to be born with some type of inborn language acquisition abilities, maybe they are not activated until babies begin to hear–and imitate–the language around them.

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    • That’s a very interesting theory. Linguists have ruled out the theory that imitation is the sole component of how children learn to speak (if it was, our speech would consist only of rote-learned phrases) but I like your idea about the activation of speech and language acquisition abilities. Thanks for your comment! πŸ™‚

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  3. Children learn many things by imitation. I live in Japan and my kids grew up with Japanese as a first language. One thing I vividly recall is that when my 6 year- old daughter went from a Christian kindergarten into primary school, she suddenly learned the word “Baka” (stupid!) and began using it! I definitely feel we are influenced by those around us and what we hear! We have regional dialects in Japan and when I am around someone using a certain one, I unconsciously start using some of those words too!

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    • That’s interesting. Yes, children definitely pick up and start using new words they hear around them. The question I am really interested in is the root of language acquisition: what makes it possible in the brain for children to acquire a first language apparently so effortlessly, without any need for instruction or teaching? When we learn a second language as older children or as adults, we need to be taught and consciously learn grammar etc. Of course, imitation and hearing language spoken around you definitely plays a part but I think there is something more to language acquisition than imitation on its own.

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate hearing your thoughts. πŸ™‚

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  4. I love when you write about linguistics! I share your passion for language (I have my minor in linguistics) and not many people can converse about the workings of a language, and those that are able to, in my life anyway, don’t because they don’t care. I find it refreshing that someone else out there takes such an interest.

    In answer to this post specifically, I think it’s a combination. I had a linguistics teacher tell us once that children first imitate, then they (inherently) apply the grammar rules. For instance, they supposedly start saying, “feet” first, then apply the rule of pluralization (without ever having to be taught), saying “foots.” Our teacher told us not to worry when they do this because it shows they’re learning and applying the rules on their own. They’ll learn just as quickly that there are exceptions to the rules. Now, I haven’t had kids so I haven’t seen this in action… I’m just repeating what I was taught haha.

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    • Thank you! πŸ™‚ It is fun to talk about it. Sure, I moan about it occasionally when I have a lot to study and remember. The amount of theories and hypotheses in my language acquisition module seemed endless! But on the whole, I really enjoy talking about language.

      I’ve heard that explanation too, about children imitating and then applying grammatical rules to irregular words. I haven’t witnessed it in action either but there are quite a few young children in my family (I have lots of nieces) so I will have to pay close attention to their language development. πŸ˜€

      Thanks for your comment.

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  5. Thanks for your comments on my blog! I’m really enjoying reading through your posts, since my background is very sociolinguistics-based, so I’m mainly interested in how cultures and languages affect and influence one another

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  6. I took a class on linguistics in college and I loved it. I don’t necessarily remember everything I learned in that class but I do remember our professor telling us that language learning was at its best when kids are under the age of 8 (so in his opinion, it didn’t make much sense for serious language learning to happen when people are older because it’s that much harder to learn and you can never fully obtain a native speaker’s fluency). Based on my own experiences, I believed what he said wholeheartedly because growing up, I didn’t know any Taiwanese, which was what my paternal grandparents always spoke to me. It wasn’t until one summer when I went back to Taiwan for my annual visit that I suddenly realized I could understand what they were saying. Not everything of course, but it no longer sounded like meaningless jargon to me. It really is amazing how the human brain develops and how influential things can be on young minds.

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    • There is quite a lot of discussion around whether there is a “critical period” for second language learning. Personally, based on the evidence I have seen I don’t agree with the critical period hypothesis. However, it does seem as though the earlier a child starts to learn a second language (L2), the more he or she progresses.

      There is an interesting research paper by Asher & Garcia, about Cuban immigrants in the U.S. They studied 71 immigrants (all native Spanish speakers) and found that the immigrants who were under the age of 6 at the time of arrival in the States had the highest probability of achieving near-native American English pronunciation.

      I think people can still learn second languages when they get older, for example, I am in my twenties and I’m continually learning new words and grammar in Spanish as I progress through my Spanish modules. On the whole, I agree that it is easier when you are younger. But why is it easier? That is the fascinating question. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your comment! It is really interesting to hear about your experiences with Taiwanese.

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  7. We don’t have to complete all the zero to hero challenges? Nobody told me! Hey cool blog man. I am currently teaching my child to speak 2 languages. I speak one and everyone else speaks the other. I think using phrases and words repeatedly for her to associate objects with. I think they get it from their surroundings and wonder what would happen to a child if no one spoke to her. Wasn’t there a case about a chicken boy found in a chicken coop communicating with the chickens? I always marvel at how fast my kid picks it up and how she filters language from other noises or sounds. She’s a genius as are all children I suppose.

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    • What I really meant was that we don’t have to post something new every day. That would be too big a commitment for me! But I’m fairly sure I read that it’s not compulsory to complete all the tasks.

      What are the two languages? I presume one is English but what about the other?

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      • The other language is Gaeilge or Irish.

        And don’t worry I won’t tell WordPress that you’re slacking on your zero to hero. But one day I may call on you for a favour…

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  8. Pingback: More linguistic discussion! | Cultural Life

  9. Pingback: Poll results – How do children learn language? | Cultural Life

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