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

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Poll results – How do children learn language?

A month ago, as part of a discussion about linguistics and language acquisition, I asked my readers what they think about how children learn language. You can read that post and view the poll by clicking on the link here: We Need to Talk About Language.

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

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

In the poll I asked the following question: “How do children learn language?” It seems simple, doesn’t it? But there are no simple, straightforward answers. In order to give you some background information before I discuss the answers of the poll, I’ll outline three main approaches to language acquisition, with reference to another linguistics post I wrote: The Language Instinct. I wrote about the behaviorist and nativist theories at greater length in that post if you would like to read a more detailed explanation.

1. Behaviorist theory = based on Skinner’s experiments in the 1950s where rats learned to press a lever when they received positive reinforcement. Skinner said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward.

2. Nativist theory = the ground-breaking linguist, Noam Chomsky, proposed that we are born with an innate ‘Language Acquisition Device’. A key part of the LAD is Universal Grammar: the concept that “children arrive in the world with grammatical principles wired into their brains” (quoted from my previous post which contains a more detailed summary of Universal Grammar).

3. Constructivist theory = as its name suggests, constructivist theory hypothesizes that children learn the grammar and syntax of their native language by acquiring a set of constructions, e.g. nouns, pronouns, verbs etc, based on the input around them (note that it is not the same as imitation). These components of language can then be formed into sentences. The constructivist theory does not agree with the concept of an innate language device.

It was very interesting to see the outcome of the poll.

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41% of you chose the option that children begin by imitating the language they hear around them. While it is true that imitation plays some part in language acquisition, the exact nature of it is disputed. As I wrote in a previous post, “this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of [imitating others], their lexicon would be extremely limited”. The book, Language Acquisition, by Jill and Peter De Villiers explains that “The child…needs to extract the rules of the language in order to produce sentences appropriate to his changing situation” (De Villiers & De Villiers, 1972:199). Therefore, language acquisition is much more than simple imitation.

The second most popular option, with 35% of the vote, was the constructivist approach. The least popular option, at 25%, was the theory that we are born with innate linguistic principles. There is a lot of discussion and debate about these two theories. There aren’t any conclusive answers because each theory has advantages and disadvantages and it is very hard to disprove either theory for definite. I wonder if we will ever find definitive evidence on how we acquire what is arguably the most important component of our daily lives.

Thank you to everyone who voted in the poll. I hope you have enjoyed the linguistics posts I published here during the past couple of months. Let me know if you would be interested in more linguistics posts (but not about language acquisition – I think I’ve said enough on that topic for now) here on the blog.

Bibliography

De Villiers, J.G. and De Villiers, P.A. (1972). Language Acquisition. Harvard College: United States of America.

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!