Conjunctions are an important method of extending sentence length and complexity, because they are a common method of joining words or parts of sentences together. Coordinating conjunctions join independent clauses (as well as words and phrases), while subordinating conjunctions can join both dependent and independent clauses (as well as words and phrases).
The acquisition and frequency of conjunctions have both been studied extensively. Among the findings are that the word and often initially takes the role of other conjunctions (Bloom et al., 1980; Scott, 1988; cited by Owens, 1996). The conjunctions but, so, or, and if soon are acquired in typically developing children to serve functions that and isn’t as easily able to achieve. Conjunctions like because then develop to express not only a relationship between sentence elements, but additionally a temporal sequence. According to one estimate, by the time a normal child’s mean length of utterances reach 5.0 (at an average age of 4 to 5 years), 20% of the sentences they use in spontaneous speech contain embedded or conjoined clauses (Paul, 1981).
Language itself doesn’t require conjunctions, but effectively communicating advanced ideas usually does. As with other language modalities, conjunctions exist because they assist. We use them to achieve a goal. Just try giving a reason for something without using the word because, or try describing the time relationship between two completed events without using conjunctions such as before, after, or then. It can be done, but much less effectively.
Generally, developmental order of conjunctions is determined by the complexity of the relationship the conjunction serves. Conjunctions appear frequently in assessments such as the CELF, CASL, OWLS, and SPELT. Also, Conjunction Junction is a timeless piece of art.
That’s the gist of a new study by Lizbeth Finestack and Marc Fey from the University of Kansas, published in the August ’09 American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. Their study compared 6-8 year olds assigned to either a deductive training group, or an inductive training group. A computer program was used to teach a specific aspect of an invented alien language. The deductive training group received explanations, i.e. a brief description of the target. Both groups were made aware that the alien – “Tiki” – used many of the same words that we use, but this alien language also contained something different. In this case that was different word endings for male and female verbs. The kids in the deductive group were told that when it’s a boy you add -po to the end, and when it’s a girl you add -pa to the end. The kids in the inductive group were just supposed to figure it out on their own, another way of saying they were required to use inductive reasoning.
Finestack and Fey’s results showed that significantly more kids in the deductive group acquired the target. They concluded by asserting that generally, the most efficacious treatment may be one that combines natural language approaches with explanations. For those with access, here’s the link.
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?