As a pioneering psychologist in the merging studies of cognition and learning, Jean Piaget helped change the common assumption that as thinkers, children are merely less complex versions of adults. His twentieth century work built upon the classical roots of Socrates, and more recent work of Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and others who believed learning to be a process facilitated, rather than caused, by teachers. At the forefront of constructivist assumptions are the notions that the most effective learning takes place when learners are active and motivated participants in the process.
While constructivism as a system has been criticized as being too subjective and difficult to manage, as with so many complex systems it has several components that stand out as applicable outside of the larger theory as a whole. The notions of assimilation and accommodation are two of my favorites. Assimilation occurs when a learner adds new information, basically layering it on top of the old. Accommodation occurs when a learner must change previously learned information before placement of new information is possible. Assimilation is like placing files in a file cabinet, while accommodation is like needing to add new folders, or rearrange existing ones. Because of this, learning is said to get more difficult as we age, with the tendency of older people to get what has been deemed, “hardening of the categories.”
Piaget and the constructivists also coined all kinds of terms, such as schema and equilibrium, not to mention those associated with the famed stages of development, such as the sensorimotor, concrete operational, and preoperational stages. Piaget’s ballyhooed notion of object permanence (the understanding that an object exists even when out of sight) has been extensively studied and debated.
As with seemingly all mind related theories, the popularity of constructivism has followed the pendulum of favorability. There are many specific aspects of constructivism, though, that should stand the test of time. Some additional good information can be found here. This, also is kind of cool.
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!
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.
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.