The twentieth century saw a slew of research studies that gained notoriety as much for the ethical boundaries they pushed as well as the psychological insights that were gained. The attention garnered by these studies, which included the Stanford prison experiment, Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, and John Watson’s “Little Albert,” helped highlight the need to create ethical standards and reviews in research. The “Monster Study” was different, though. It’s lessons went long swept under the rug.
In 1939, Wendell Johnson, who is now the namesake of the University of Iowa’s eminent Speech and Hearing Center, together with one of his graduate students, Mary Tudor, undertook an experiment to gain more information into the behavioral nature of stuttering. Specifically, Johnson sought to question the prevailing theory that stuttering’s cause was entirely genetic, and therefore, little could be done to therapeutically help stutterers. While Johnson’s ultimate goal may have been noble, his methods and subsequent cover-up led to this one, out of all of the era’s questionable studies, as the one that was dubbed the “Monster Study.”
Tudor was sent to an orphan’s home to pick subjects to test Johnson’s view that stuttering develops when speakers are criticized for normal mistakes. Johnson, himself a stutterer, ultimately developed the diagnosogenic theory of stuttering, despite later hiding the research used to support this view that the diagnosis causes the disease. Out of 22 test subjects, half (five previously identified stutterers, and six identified as having normal speech) were given sessions every few weeks in which they were criticized harshly for every mistake, and during which Tudor tried to convince them that they were stutterers. Tudor also instructed teachers to be critical of the speaking of this group of children. The other half were generally complimented on their speech. The experiment lasted for nearly five months. While the exact effects were disputed, the fact that these kids were harmed is very clear. Tudor attempted three follow-ups, and in later correspondence to Johnson she expressed remorse for not being able to reverse the study’s earlier ”deleterious effects.”
And so for decades, few outside of the participants, and Johnson’s colleagues at Iowa, knew about the study. Meanwhile, the department named after Johnson grew into one of the more prestigious institutions of Speech-Language Pathology in the world. Then, a 2001 story in the San Jose Mercury News brought what had been local whispers of a “Monster Study” into the national limelight. The story was re-published in newspapers across America, immediately igniting a firestorm of controversy. It also spawned litigation, ultimately leading to nearly million dollar settlements for 3 still living subjects, and for the descendants of three others.
Unfortunately lost in the details was Johnson’s big question. Can you create a stutterer? The results of Tudor and Johnson were themselves mixed. According to their own ratings of the previously non-stuttering children, two kids from the normal group developed more stuttering, but two didn’t, and two others were even marked as improved. While its effects on stuttering were ambivalent, the experiment clearly did have other negative consequences for its participants. There were admitted increases across multiple areas of behavior, such as increased shyness, tics, anxiety, inhibition, and self-esteem.
Most insidious, perhaps, was the results of Johnson’s own actions. Not only did he fail to publish results which were, at the best, ambivalent toward his hypothesis, he continued promoting his view that caregivers are almost solely responsible for stuttering. Directly due to the diagnosogenic theory, therapy was greatly reduced for decades of stutters. In its place, therapists worked almost exclusively with parents. While we still don’t know exactly what causes stuttering, the research has clearly indicated a strong genetic component which can be triggered or exacerbated by events in the environment. And critically, direct therapy can, and often does, help.
As a psychologist, Jerome Bruner has led much of modern thought among those labeled interactionists, constructionists, and cognitivists. As a professor and researcher, Bruner has taught and researched for over sixty years at Harvard, Oxford, and at his current position at New York University. He has been looked at as one of the instrumental inciters of the so called cognitive revolution, and his ideas have had great influence over the current states of psychology, education, and language.
One frequently cited idea of Bruner’s is the LASS, or Language Acquisition Support System, a term coined in response to Chomsky’s LAD, or Language Acquisition Device. The LASS refers to the importance of a child’s social support network, which works in conjunction with innate mechanisms to encourage or suppress language development. Every child has one, and particularly during the years of the language explosion (roughly ages 2 to 5), differences in the LASS significantly explain differences in language acquisition, according to Bruner’s model.
Part of the LASS is another key component of Bruner’s explanation of how the most effective learning occurs – the “spiral curriculum.” Bruner used the spiral curriculum to argue against the modes of teaching that deem some subjects too difficult for learners to grasp before they’re ready, which was partially in response to Piaget’s strict stages of cogntive development. Many have come to accept Bruner’s view that learning is more successful with early exposure and subsequent scaffolding of more complex concepts that occurs over earlier developing ones.
So how does a spiral curriculum differ from a traditional one? Traditionally subjects are taught in big chunks to everyone at the same time. Spiral curriculums are broken up into smaller chunks which are revisited, moving from exposure to more in-depth understanding with each revisit. Optimally,this gives greater flexibility for learner’s individual differences, while providing the more opportunities for challenge, creativity, and advanced mastery of subjects.
And, it mimics how we naturally learn language. A child doesn’t learn his first words in one day sections devoted to each word. A “Today we’re going to learn the word, doggy.” day would not be as effective as how kids naturally learn the word doggy. Initial exposures are added to with repeated revisits, increasing a word’s understanding with each revisit. The most effective learning of subsequent words occurs in the same manner.
Whether Jerome Kagan has been pulled or thrown himself full bore into the nature-nurture debate, there is no doubt that his work on babies, children, and the development of temperament has greatly influenced both sides of the discussion. What is in doubt is which side Kagan is on. His views have both been lauded (a 2002 study published in the Review of General Psychology named Kagan as the 22nd most influential psychologist of the 20th century), and criticized for “blowing in the wind.” His early work downplayed the significance of early mother-child interaction in lieu of later life experience, which had before Kagan and his contemporaries, been overestimated. Thus, his initial stance seemed anti-nature. Later work on the incorrigibility of inborn traits seemed to many to endorse the genetic/nature side. Specificially, longitudinal studies done by Kagan and colleagues at Harvard have found that of of all infants 20% demonstrate “high reactive” personalities, and of this 20%, roughly two-thirds develop into shy adolescent children. Lately Kagan has scathingly criticized Judith Rich Harris’s popular dismissal of parental influence on child rearing.
One main reason for the signficance of Kagan’s work is that it has painted some colorful strokes to the canvass that is reality. While everyone seems to want Kagan on their side, Kagan has long seemed more interested in discovering the truth. Perhaps Kagan’s most important contribution is his notion that we seem to inherit a bias toward varied personality dispositions. Like the personalities of dogs, these biases predispose us toward different temperaments – some dogs are naturally friendly, others are naturally aggressive, and many fall at different points along a continuum between friendliness and aggression. Especially significant to Kagan’s notion here is that these biases can be overcome. Under certain environmental influences shy creatures can be “made” more aggressive, while conversely, aggression can be molded into affability. Our inborn temperaments may make this molding more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.
The implications of this often overlooked point abound. Research has already strongly suggested that stuttering is the result of a combination of an inclination (or bias) toward stuttering combined with the right environmental factors. This inclination tugs, but does not guarantee. Other disorders – such as autism – share many etiological similarities. Kagan’s descriptions of high-reactive infants may, after further research, prove particularly enlightening to an accepted description of autism’s complex causes.
A good in-depth (albeit somewhat critical) article was published in the Boston Globe in 2004, and can be accessed here. Much of my information came from a great All in the Mind podcast, which unfortunately is no longer available – although the transcript is here. An excellent post about Kagan’s recent critique of high rates of psychological diagnosis comes from the Smooth Pebbles blog.
A Summary of Patricia Kuhl’s Work:
Patricia Kuhl is co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. Her ongoing work, which began in the 1970′s, has altered how modern language theorists view the predisposition to language learning that infants are born with. Prior to her work most followed the Piagetian view that babies were social isolates not yet ready to learn. Kuhl’s research has changed this prevailing perception in a number of ways:
- Human infants, as well as the young of other species such as birds, monkeys, and chinchillas, are born with an ability to distinguish between all sounds that exist in the particular language of that species.
- Human infants lose the ability to distinguish between sounds not in their language at about the same time that they begin producing varied babbling. Humans have evidently evolved a predisposition toward learning a specific language.
- Parents have evolved specific techniques for teaching language – most prominantly is the high pitched, simplified version of language called “motherese.” Kuhl’s research has shown a strong positive correlation between a child’s early language acquisition and the amount of “motherese” heard (or “parentese” as Kuhl diplomatically has called it).
- Interaction is crucial. Babies that are not interacting as much do not learn language nearly as effectively, even if they appear to be attending to caregivers.
- The explosion in language learning that takes place between six months and three years of age in typically developing children seems to be the result of a combination of a child’s innate ability to detect sound differences, a seemingly innate ability to apply computational strategies to make language learning more efficient (Kuhl calls this statistical learning), and a nurturing social setting.
I couldn’t decide on just one more language acquisition study, like I initially wanted to, so I’ll simply give out a few honorable mentions.
Eric Lenneberg and the critical period hypothesis - In 1967 Eric Lennneberg released a widely influential book based on his research popularizing the notion that if language is not learned before an early age – usually estimated at 4 to 6 years – a child’s ability to learn any language becomes greatly compromised, or disappears altogether. Though this research has been advocated for and debated against by linguistic giants such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, the evidence from Lenneberg and others is flimsy, draws extensively from widely divergent examples of feral children, and is largely theoretical.
Theory of Mind – Theory of Mind describes the ability to infer the mental states of others. D.G. Premack and G. Woodruff initally espoused Theory of Mind in their seminal 1978 paper, “Does the Chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Research by Wimmer and Perner in 1983 used a famous false belief task to test study participants’ abilities to put themselves in others’ shoes. Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith published research in 1985 suggesting that children with autism have deficits in theory of mind. Research in this area has been widespread, divergent, and often theoretically powerful.
Jean Piaget – The study of his own three children formed the basis for much of Piaget’s work. Not strictly language, per se, but his view of language acquisition was extremely influential, while the middle ground belief (in terms of nature versus nurture) of cognition’s intertwining with language is probably closer to the truth than anything else currently out there. Good info exists here and here. This information is especially informative.
Although Everett has been studying the Pirahã (pronounce pee-da-ha) Amazonian tribe, and their unique language since the 1970′s, his work remained relatively obscure until 2005, when an article he’d published on his website was then published in Cultural Anthropology. According to Everett’s studies, the Pirahã’s language lacks many aspects of language that linguists argue are basic necessities of a universal grammar, such as color concepts, perfect tense, quantity concepts, and numbers over two. Why? According to Everett, their hunter-gatherer lifestyles have such little use for these concepts, that words to convey them simply don’t exist. This research, which overtly repudiates the Chomskyian theory that has dominated the study of language for decades, has been called by Steven Pinker, “A bomb thrown into the party.”
After decades of collaborating to increase child language vocabulary, Betty Hart and Todd Risley spent 2 1/2 years intensely observing the language of 42 families throughout Kansas City. Specifically, they looked at household language use in three different settings: 1) professional families; 2) working class; 3) welfare families. Hart and Risley gathered an enormous amount of data during the study and subsequent longitudinal follow-ups to come up with an often cited 30 million word gap between the vocabularies of welfare and professional families by age three. This number came from the data that showed welfare children heard, on average, 616 words per hour, while children from professional families (essentially children with college educated parents) heard 2153 words per hour. The longitudinal research in the following years demonstrated a high correlation between vocabulary size at age three and language test scores at ages nine and ten in areas of vocabulary, listening, syntax, and reading comprehension. This study was subsequently used to fuel the fire of arguments for early childhood programs such as Head Start.
Over the next few days I will be describing some of what I feel are the language acquisition studies marked by their significance to both our current knowledge of language acquisition as well as historical impact upon subsequent research in the field. Without any adieu, and with no particular order, here they are.
Jean Berko Gleason’s “Wugs” – 1958
Berko Gleason and colleagues presented pictures of imaginary creatures to children. The pictures were given labels such as “wug,” made up by the researchers. The children were then presented with varieties of the make believe creatures to test their ability to apply linguistic rules. The famous example is “This is a wug.” (1 wug) “What are these?” (More than one.) Very young children had difficulty, but children by age 4 or 5 could usually label the plural “wugs,” and most importantly – could do it without ever having heard the word used before. These sorts of pictures were also used to test other aspects of syntax acquisition, such as possessives and verbs. The nativists have long used this as evidence that language is not memorized. A shortened explanation of what I think is going on can be found here.
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.
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.