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!

The Language Instinct

Do you ever wonder how you began to learn to speak? When you think about it, it is really quite astonishing. Rapid changes take place in the first year of life. Until the age of six months, an infant can distinguish between any sound contrast in any language. By the age of twelve months, this remarkable ability is lost as the child tunes into the language being spoken around him or her [1].

In the field of language acquisition there are many different theories about how children take the first steps on the journey of language learning. In the 1950s, the behaviorist theory was popularized by Skinner who said that native language acquisition is based on a system of imitation and reward. He carried out experiments with rats who learned to press levers in a box in order to obtain an edible reward. These experiments provided the basis for Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning which focuses on behaviour and consequence. An action which is positively reinforced will be repeated (for instance, the rats repeatedly pressed the levers because they were rewarded when they did) and actions which are negatively reinforced will not be repeated [2].

But if you think about it logically, this argument for how children acquire language has many flaws. Firstly, if children learn how to produce their language solely as a result of operant conditioning, their lexicon would be extremely limited. Imagine if you could only utter a word or a sentence which you had heard someone else say. It sounds crazy, right? Language contains infinite possibilities, for example, there is the often-quoted sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. The linguist and theoretician, Noam Chomsky, composed it to demonstrate that a sentence can be grammatical yet nonsensical.

language acquisition wordle

Chomsky argued against Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Language is not something which can be neatly cut and pasted from one person to another. When children learn a language, they make unique mistakes. Take, for example, the sentence “We holded the baby rabbits” [3]. The child is using the morpheme, -ed, to mark that the verb is in the past tense. Although the verb is incorrect, this example shows that children learn the rules of their language and then apply them to unique utterances. This evidence strongly goes against Skinner’s hypothesis because, according to the behaviorist approach, children imitate what they hear around them and do not create unique sentences themselves.

So, if language acquisition isn’t a case of imitation, how do children learn to talk? 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. It took me a while to get my head around this fairly abstract theory but it is actually quite straightforward.

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” [4]. The nativist approach hypothesises that language acquisition is like an instinct. Birds have an instinct to fly and humans have an instinct to communicate via speech. In the book The Language Instinct by the psycholinguist, Steven Pinker, he expands on this idea in an accessible and fascinating way.

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started? Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

in the first few years of life, children learn to talk at an astonishing rate. But how do they get started?
Public domain image by Petr Kratochvil: Source

As well as a thought-provoking discussion of the nature of language acquisition, Pinker debunks common misconceptions surrounding language. Do you believe that Inuit people have umpteen different words for snow? Before I read Pinker’s book, I did. However, according to Pinker, this is nothing more than an urban myth. He mentions an essay written by the linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, who talks about how this myth became so widespread. If you are interested in reading Pullum’s paper, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, I have provided a link to it in the references section at the end of this article [5].

The field is constantly expanding as more and more research is carried out. There are debates and disagreements, conversations and collaborations. This post mentioned only two of the theories but Chomsky’s nativist theory is certainly one of the most influential and well-known approaches. Language acquisition is a fascinating and lively area of academia because there are numerous ideas, theories and hypotheses about language learning. How do we acquire language? As infants, how do we learn to break the continuous stream of sound down into sentences, phrases, words and syllables? As the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it”.

References

[1] Kuhl PK et al. “Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age”, Science, vol. 255, no. 5044, pp. 606-608, January 1992.

[2] McLeod S. Skinner – Operant Conditioning [Internet]; 2007 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

[3] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 21

[4] Pinker S. The Language Instinct. London: Penguin Books Ltd; 1995. p. 112

[5] Pullum G. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax [Internet]; 1989 [cited 2013 Dec 11]. Available from http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/EskimoHoax.pdf