The beginnings of language

In this post, I talk about some of the processes that take place in a child’s first year of life, leading up to their first words.

In 2013, when I was in my second year of studying linguistics, I took a class on language acquisition. This class provided me an overview of how children learn to talk. How do they go from being babies who coo and babble to children who start talking in full sentences, all within a remarkably short space of time?

mother talking to child.jpg

Public domain photo by London Scout

In general, babies utter their first words around the age of 12 months. The months leading up to the point at which they start to talk, and beyond, are full of developmental milestones. For most parents, a baby learning to crawl is an important stage, but there are many other milestones too. Some of them are less obvious. Unlike the exciting phases of crawling ann walking, you can’t directly see these developments — milestones are taking place in the brain in the first year, such as the emerging ability to link form (i.e. the sounds that we make when we talk) and meaning (i.e. what those sounds are referring to).

As well as cognitive developments, the infant must have the capacity for motor control of the vocal tract and articulators (such as the tongue) to be able to produce words, . This takes time to develop and babies do not begin producing CVCV (i.e. consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel) syllables until around the age of six to eight months.

If you’ve ever watched a baby of this age — perhaps you have children yourself — they tend to babble repetitively in strings such as bababa or papapa. The sounds that babies make when they babble aren’t language-specific. Babies all around the world make similar sounds at this stage of their development.

In the first class I studied on language development, the explanation for how babies learn to talk was based on Chomsky’s controversial theories. I wrote a blog post about this, entitled The Language Instinct. Here’s an excerpt which explains more about Chomsky’s ideas:

Chomsky’s groundbreaking approach is that we are all born with an innate capacity for learning language: a Language Acquisition Device. A key part of the LAD is the concept of Universal Grammar.

Fundamentally, Universal Grammar refers to the hypothesis that children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains. Our brains are literally programmed to acquire language. Therefore, because children are born with these principles, they simply have to note which setting their native language uses and “Huge chunks of grammar are then available to the child, all at once, as if the child were merely flipping a switch to one of two possible positions” (Pinker, 1995:112).

baby

Public domain photo by Giu Vicente

This class on language acquisition interested me, so I enrolled in a more advanced module during the next year, which investigated children’s phonological development. Phonological development refers to the linguistic development of the child, including the perception and production of sounds. Perception is just as important as production. Here’s an interesting fact about perception: did you know that babies under the age of six months can distinguish sound contrasts between any language in the world?

That’s quite amazing — after the age of six months, we lose that ability when perceptual narrowing occurs. Babies tune into the sounds of their native language (or languages — much of the world’s population is bilingual), and they lose the ability to discriminate between sounds that aren’t present, i.e. useful, for them in their mother tongue.

If you’re an adult native English-speaker, as I am, you probably won’t be able to hear the difference between, say, “a soft ‘p’ and a hard ‘p’–two speech sounds that are meaningfully separate in the Thai language” (Gluck et al., 2014:468). But a young baby, under the age of around six months, would be able to distinguish the difference.

Getting back on track, in my second module on language acquisition/phonological development, I was presented with a different argument about how children learn to talk. To me, this argument was much more plausible than Chomsky’s theories and the notion that we are all born with an innate ‘language acquisition device’ – a concept so abstract that it took me a while to begin to understand it, and which I wrestled with when I was trying to explain it to my blog readers.

The opposing argument is that babies learn to talk through a combination of learning mechanisms (e.g. an infant’s ability to choose where to focus his/her attention develops during the first year), cognitive changes, experience and physiological maturation. This goes against Chomsky in that it attributes language acquisition to more general processes.

First word use cannot emerge until the child has acquired at least partial control over the neurophysiological capacities that develop during the first twelve months of life. During the first year, the groundwork is laid for the beginnings of speech.

mother with child.jpg

Public domain photo by Juan Galafa

Something that I have observed in academia is that even within the same field, there are often polarizing disputes: points on which academics firmly dig in their heels and argue that their perspective is correct. And academic battles can be fierce! The discussion around language acquisition is an example of one such debate. Some linguists strongly support Chomsky’s influential theory, while others emphatically oppose it.

Having studied both (admittedly only at undergraduate level – I don’t claim to be an authority), I disagree with Chomsky’s ideas. There are many criticisms, including the fact that there is no empirical (i.e. observable) evidence for ‘Universal Grammar’ in the brain. The argument is purely hypothetical and it can’t be demonstrated.

In sharp contrast, you can observe clear developments in a child’s motor control, physical changes (e.g. the growth of the vocal tract), and neurological and cognitive development. Using these factors to investigate the processes involved in speech development is arguably more convincing than the idea that every infant is born with predefined ‘settings’ in their brain.

More research is being carried out on language acquisition, speech and the human brain all the time. Recently, a paper by Ding et al. (2015) was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The authors looked at adult brains, not infants’, and how the brain tracks different linguistic structures, e.g. words, phrases and sentences. The paper concludes that it has found support for “grammar-based internal construction of hierarchical linguistic structure” (quote from the abstract).

Media articles reported the paper with sensationalist headlines, saying that “Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Universal Grammar is Right”, including an NYU article with the title “Chomsky Was Right, NYU Researchers Find: We Do Have a “Grammar” in Our Head”.

Chomsky.jpg

Noam Chomsky. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

While the paper is interesting, these headlines are somewhat misleading. I spoke with one of my professors (an expert in the field, who has researched language acquisition for forty years) about it. To quote her email:

“I personally have no problem with the idea that language is based on hierarchical structure […] This [paper] doesn’t touch on the key point for me, which is the question of what children know about linguistic structure in advance of being exposed to it. I don’t think studying the adult brain sheds any light on that”.

One thing is certain: language acquisition is a fascinating area of linguistic research with many opportunities for investigation, debate and discussion.

References

Ding, N., Melloni, L., Zhang, H., Tian, X. and Poeppel, D., 2016. Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech. Nature Neuroscience, 19(1), pp.158-164.

Gluck, M. A., Mercado, E. & Myers, C. E. (2014). Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior. Second edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

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One thought on “The beginnings of language

  1. Pingback: The beginnings of language | Language Learner & Lover

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