Timothy Mason, a faculty member at Université de Paris 8, has written prolifically, and much of this writing is generously available on his web site. A part that I particularly enjoy is some extensive information on language acquisition that comes from some previous lectures.
His Could Chomsky be Wrong? is an interesting mix of multiple links, synopses of others writings, and Mason’s well thought out arguments. For anyone wanting this often ignored side of the story this is a great place to go. I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Sampson’s linked There is no Language Instinct, which can be found on his site.
First magnetic field brain scanner opens for operation in Australia.
Cognitive scientists from Macquarie University will use a brain imaging system called MEG, or magnetoencephalography – the first brain imaging system specifically designed for children’s smaller head sizes – to discover how much of our language ability is learned from experience, and how much is part of our biological make-up. Professor Stephen Crain, Director of the Centre for Language Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS), said the child MEG system promises to lead to major advances in our understanding of children’s knowledge of language.
According to Crain, ”Until now, it’s been impossible to investigate young children’s knowledge of language, because young children can’t tell us about what they are hearing. Now, using the child MEG, we can witness precisely what’s going on in the brain of a child without requiring the child to communicate what they are experiencing.” Full Story Here
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.
Brown described five stages of language development based on a child’s mean length of utterance (MLU). His research demonstrated that MLU was a better predictor of what linguistic structures a child was able to use than was chronological age. This research, which examined three children whom Brown dubbed Adam, Eve, and Sarah, was the ultimate explanation of language acquisition for years. The complexity of Brown’s description has also, unfortunately, painted language acquisition as a complicated morass of agent+actions, entities+locatives, recurrences, and nominatives that quite frankly, has turned off many students (especially speech-language pathology students) from this entire area. The structural analysis of language samples based on Brown’s language description is a staple of the SLP college experience often remembered with revulsion. Despite this, the influence of this study can not be denied. Neither can it’s untouched accuracy in describing the process of language development.
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.
A child with a deficit in a skill typically has not discovered the power of that skill. Thus remains the initial opening for novelty. I believe that children are often more open to suggestion than we often give them credit for. In other words, initially discussing the benefits of a skill can be an extremely effective introduction to the teaching of a skill. However, because complex language is not yet a favored method of input for children in language therapy, these explanations can be brief. Why are working on verbs? Because every sentence has them, and with them you can talk about what anything does. Why practice comparatives and superlatives? Because with them we can greatly increase our powers to describe. And it always helps to relate these introductions in personal ways. Statements such as, “With superlatives you can tell me that you are a faster runner than your brother.” tend to work well.
In this article from Nature magazine, psychologist Paul Bloom discusses research suggesting that infants are born with the ability to distinguish phonology and certain aspects of meaning. He specifically discusses a study that suggested babies are born with the ability to distinguish between loose fits and tight fits. In English we lose this distinction, while in the Korean language the distinction is maintained with two separate verbs. This research (and research like it) involves showing 5 month olds things like a ring around a post that is initially tight, until they bore of it and look away. The researchers then show them the varying instances of the same or the converse – like a ring fitting loosely around a post. If the babies seem more interested in the contrast they are said to be innately predisposed, which is in fact what happens. For the study’s authors, Paul Bloom, and even St. Augustine, this kind of thing is considered evidence that we are all born with cognitive precursors to language – a variation of the famed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Read on for my take… Continue reading →
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?
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.
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)
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.