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.
In an interview found on her website, Berko Gleason gave an eloquent explanation for what she thinks is going on.
I am inclined toward a parsimonious view that sees linguistic behaviour as similar to other behaviour that relies in part on a general cognitive capacity to recognize patterns in input and to generalize. That doesn’t mean that a part of our brain isn’t, at some point, dedicated to language: Babies build their brains, strengthening some connections and pruning others out, based on their experience. The fact that babies can learn to talk and my cat Wolfie can’t means that experience isn’t everything—humans have some genetic capacity to acquire language that cats do not. This is also true of playing the piano and dancing the csardas. But when people talk about language ‘mechanisms’ or ‘hard wiring’ I think we need to remember that these are metaphors, and the human brain may not function like the machines they are based on.
Read more about wugs at this improbable research blog.