The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


August 2008

Which Language Development Theory Best Helps Us Teach?

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?


Continue reading “Which Language Development Theory Best Helps Us Teach?”

Learning Link

Verbally aggressive mothers direct child behavior

This study done at Purdue showed that mothers who scored high on measures of verbal aggression tended to direct their young childrens’ behavior, while mothers scoring low on these measures followed their child’s lead during play activities.  The study supports the importance of parents’ give and take in early communication development.

The link was found here.  The original story can be found here.

Functional Language Units (Continued)

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…

List of Classic Child Development Studies

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:

  Infant Memory Works From Very Early

  How Children Learn the Earth Isn’t Flat

  Infants Imitate Others When Only Weeks Old

  When Children Begin to Simulate Other Minds

  How Infants Start the Journey to the First Word

The signficance of language in these and other classic studies highlights the signficance of language in overall development.  This is a great list!

A Few Facts About… Complex Sentences

Compound sentences are made up of two or more independent clauses – clauses that can stand on their own.  Complex sentences combine dependent clauses, independent clauses, and/or phrases in varying ways to form sentences.  Embedding occurs when a phrase, clause, or sentence becomes part of another sentence, serving key grammatical roles.  Among other facts are:

  • Phrases and clauses are the most advanced method of language sophistication known to man.  With them a sentence can theoretically be made to communicate almost anything that can be thought  (Pinker, 1995).
  • “The range of structures that contribute to linguistic complexity, the vulnerability of these forms to contextual constraints, and the low freqency of occurrence of some structures present a considerable assessment challenge.”  (Gummersall and Strong, 1999).
  • The preceding sentence is an excellent example of how complex sentences can be used to advance many ideas at the same time, while increasing the level of processing required to interpret the overall sentence, particularly when one or more of the ideas themselves may require some degree of advanced understanding.  (That last sentence was another good example.)
  • Use and understanding of complex sentence structure is a critical and often overlooked aspect of communicative development.

Research Rehash… (1996)

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.

More on the Functional Units of Language

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.

Language Feature – Questions

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.

Birds learn “language”

  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)

A Few Facts About… SLI (Specific Language Impairment)

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.

Research Rehash… (from 2007)

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.

The Functional Units of Language

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.

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