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 two and a half 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; and 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 controversially large 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.
Ellipsis occurs when a nonessential word is omitted from speech or writing. This happens more frequently than most people realize, and it is the source of much confusion when learning oral language or written language (i.e. reading). An example: “I knew (that) I needed to speak up.”
- Ellipsis is common in clauses with relative pronouns, as in the above example or in this example: “There’s the place (where) I went to school.”
- Ellipsis is also common with prepositions, e.g. “Give (to) me a kiss.” or “Call (for) him a cab.”
- The inclusion of these prepositional phrases or relative clauses may be considered technically correct, but redundant nearly to the point of being superfluous.
- The existence of ellipsis is evidence for the notion that language is more convention based than rule based. We do what works best, even when it seems to defy grammatical rules. As with every other structure in language, ellipsis exists because it assists.
- (An ellipsis is a punctuation symbol (…) used to indicate omission.)
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.