The current knowledge of language development includes a large amount of theory, research, and debate from a variety of fields. These include linguistics, psychology, philosophy, sociology, medicine, computers, biology, neurology, speech and language pathology, and education. What is known about language has come far in recent decades due to a recent flurry of activity in these disciplines, and as a result of the interdisciplinary sharing of information between the groups. Still, there are many questions. The nature-nurture debate rages, as do arguments regarding the pros and cons of specific theories of language acquisition. The search for autism’s elusive cure has gained unprecedented heights of popularity. And, how has language evolved? Or has it? To what extent, if any, does language precede thought? These and similar quests have sparked considerable debate but little consensus. And one large question still looms: Is it possible to devise a systematic way to teach language?
Earlier I discussed that children learn specific aspects of language to do specific things for them. Speech sounds, for example, are learned to communicate wants/needs/socializations, etc. that contain words that contain those sounds. Now to expand on that…
In complexity phonology follows phonetics. Children must learn the phonologic rules of a language as discrete units. Again there is a natural impulse that if a child does not learn these rules the desire to communicate wants and needs will be frustrated. Most normally developing kids go through a period of trial and error with phonologic rules. For some children, this period extends past what we would consider an acceptable period, though eventually almost all children learn their specific language’s accepted phonology with or without intervention. Without intervention phonology errors often turn into more stubborn articulation errors.
We use morphologic units to communicate increasingly complex concepts. To learn tense in English you must learn helping verb and verb combinations, and word endings such as -ed, -ing, and -s. To learn specificity you learn articles (a and the) and demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, and those). To refer to people and objects with unknown labels you must learn pronouns. If you want to understand and communicate where anything is, you’d better learn the prepositions of your language. To learn to describe concepts by what they’re not, you need to learn negatives like not and no, and the contractions formed from not. If you want to talk about and understand when others talk about combinations of things you will be forced to learn first basic conjunctions, such as and, followed by the other words we use to communicate complex ideas (such as if, or, because, unless, although, etc.). Every word and word part serves functions and people in this manner.
To be continued…
Over on PsyBlog is an excellent group of articles describing 10 crucial child development studies. This list is laden with language acquisition. Among the list are:
The signficance of language in these and other classic studies highlights the signficance of language in overall development. This is a great list!
Babies can learn! Elizabeth Bates and Jeffrey Elman published results of their studies showing that eight month old infants were able to learn differences in syllables after two minute exposures. According to the article published in Science Magazine, the study “…contradicts the widespread belief that humans cannot and do not use generalized statistical procedures to acquire language.”
This and many similar studies indicate that infants may be born with an innate desire to learn language, rather than an innate language faculty. The article can be found here.
In a previous post I briefly discussed how parts of language are used to accomplish specific things. These parts can then be combined to accomplish complex things. Here is a chart of a few of these specific parts and their functions.
Correct question formation can be extremely difficult for those in the language learning process. One reason for this is that questions are often denoted by tone rather than syntax. “You going?” can be understood (often) as easily as the grammatically correct “Are you going?” Incorrect syntax often gets the job done as well. “Is you going? can be understood and answered nearly as easily as the correct formation. Question words (especially helping verbs) are often omitted in casual conversation, with intonation serving the purpose of changing a statement into a question.
According to some of current linguistic theory wh- questions involve an abstract relationship between two positions in syntactic structure (Deevy and Leonard, 2004). Much has been written about the theory that normally developing children transform a hidden “deep structure” into the surface structure that we actually hear (e.g. Chomsky, 1957). In actural experience the acquisition of question formation with helping verbs appears to go through three developmental phases: 1) use of tone only, e.g. “I have it?”; 2) addition of helping verb, e.g. “I can have it?” 3) placing the helping verb in the correct position, and including contractions, when necessary, eg. “Can’t I have it?” Future research may demonstrate that the acquisition of questions occurs as a process rather than an instantaneous transformation of a deep structure.
Research conducted at Rutgers University has shown that Zebra finches rewire the “language” parts of their brains in response to being placed with different birds with different types of song. Scientists have known that birds learn their song similarly to how humans learn language – through hearing, imitation, and feedback. Their brains show similar plasticity with nerves involved in language learning. Specific nerves bundle together when learning specific songs, as birds learn to attend to specific notes. These nerves separate when the birds are placed in isolation. For more details, read the rest of the story here: Tuning Into a New Language on the Fly (Science Daily)
SLI, the common abbreviation of Specific Language Impairment, is usually defined as a language impairment of unknown etiology in the presence of normal cognition. In layman’s terms, these are kids with a language problem and no one knows why. Some (IMO) interesting tidbits are:
- SLI occurs in about 7% of the general population (Tomblin et al, 1997)
- It is more prevalent in males than in females (Flax et al, 2003)
- It is widely acknowledged that individuals with SLI commonly experience learning difficulties of a comparable magnitude across all domains, including mathematics (Arvedson, 2002; Donlan and Gourlay, 1999; Fazio, 1996)
- “ “… and literacy (Bishop and Adams, 1990; Catts, Fey, Tomblin, and Zhang; Flax et al 2003)
SLI seems to be a term more prevalant in the speech pathology community than elsewhere. Because I like to interject my opinion occasionally, I’ll do that here, at the end of this post. There are many possible causes of SLI, including environmental, motivational, and perhaps, genetic.
Language theorists have long believed that complex mechanisms are responsible for the language spurt that most young children go through between one and two years of age. Using computational simulations, researchers from the University of Iowa last year suggested that simpler explanations exist. These explanations include the fact that children learn many words at the same time, words to be learned are repeated over time, and words vary in difficulty.
More on this story, from 2007, can be found here.
Every part of any language can be dived into discrete, learnable units of meaning, with the smallest unit being the phoneme. These units exist to accomplish communicative goals. The realization that language has components that serve functions provides a starting point for teaching. To what extent these units are dependent upon nature or nurture is not as relevant to the language learner as is the fact that because these units have been ill-defined, their full potential in language teaching has not been realized.
The most basic units of meaning are phonetic. These are sounds attached to meaning, such as the /s/ sound, the /f/ sound, and so on. As with later, more complex languge parts, early parts are learned to assist a person in communicating words and concepts with those parts. A child that can not make the /s/ sound is likely to be frustrated when communicating any idea with any word containing the /s/ sound. This provides a natural impetus for the child: learn that sound or continue to be frustrated each time an /s/ is required.
Each child demonstrates a unique “fingerprint” when it comes to the units in their language repertoire. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two language profiles are alike. Kids learn words, word parts, and word combinations that they’ve realized are important in their own lives, and so there are as many different language fingerprints, or language profiles, as there are word learning environments: approximately 300 million in the United States alone. The emphasis is that each one is unique. The implication is that the most effective language teaching paradigm would account for this individuality.
Just as no tool can do one job, no activity or teaching approach can be used to teach all language. Possessing a wide variety of activities is critical, as is mixing them up. From an early age we are naturally drawn to novelty (Bloom, 2004; Ratey, 2001). Research has shown that infants are able to discriminate among speech sounds (Eimas, 1980; Kuhl, 2000), and even appear to surpass adults in their discrimination abilities (Kuhl, 2004). Our brain appears programmed to seek the novel. Here again is another opportunity to use that which already exists. Fortunately for us language is everywhere. We can use this to our advantage when trying to determine what to do in language teaching. There are many activities that can be modified to accommodate a wide variety of language structures, including board games, twenty questions, matching activities, turn-taking play activities, charades, bingo, general conversation, etc. All of these things may be thought of as tools in an arsenal or tricks up one’s sleeve.
Children learn functional units of language as a short cut to learning their language. Specifically, word endings and allowable combinations are learned before being mixed and matched to previously learned words and word endings. So, in order to understand or produce a word, it isn’t necessary to have already used that word. The child merely has to learn the parts and arrangements. Consider these words:
walk, walked, walking, walks
talk, talked, talking, talks
To be able to comprehend and use these eight words, only five things must be learned. 1) walk; 2) talk; 3) -ed ending; 4) -ing ending 5) -s ending.
This fully explains why children produce constructions like “goed.” The child doing this has learned 1) go and 2) -ed ending. This child has not yet learned specific exceptions to how words should be combined.