The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


October 2008

Around the Web – The Cause of Autism

This quote does a good job of summarizing the current state of our search for Autism’s cause.  It’s from a Dr. Susan Bryson, the head of an autism research department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and, according to the this Medical News Today article, one of the world’s foremost autism experts.  The article is titled, Is Jenny McCarthy Right?  Researcher Says no Proven Link Between Vaccines and Autism

“There is so much we still don’t know about autism. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we discovered there was just one protein missing in our DNA that caused the disorder, or something simple like that? All we can say is that there is nothing in the science that has been discovered so far that suggests the answer will be that easy.”

The Click Factor

We often seem to teach something for a long time before progress is made.  Then, it all seems to click, and suddenly the target is achieved.  In language, after this “click,” there is usually no need to continue teaching the structure.  The click factor encompasses two frequently observed phenomena:  1)  a student will use a target structure at a low percentage for some time, then suddenly use it at a high percentage.  2)  a student will not use a target structure at all, until being taught, after which time the student will suddenly use it at a high percentage.  There seem to be two reasons that this occurs.  One is that children may go awhile without a real world need for a target structure.  For example, Joe has been exposed to the word “she” in speech therapy, but with no sisters, and inconsistent correction from his parent on other occasions when the word “she” has been needed, he has continued to use “he” time and time again.  One day he refers to his grandmother as “he,” and is corrected by his grandfather.  Suddenly, it all clicks!  He realizes the reason for previous frustration, he knows how to eliminate this frustration, and he begins using “she” correctly.  If we’re all lucky, there’s quick generalization to other structures, and the goal of pronoun usage can be soon crossed off the SLP’s list. Continue reading “The Click Factor”

Some Significant “Effects”

The Matthew Effect – Named after a parable in The New Testament in which Jesus speaks (in fancier biblical words) of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  While the term has been bandied about in multiple fields, it’s special significance to special education was expounded by psychologist Keith Stanovich.  Because those who learn linguistic foundations, such as phonology, grammar, and reading, have the things they’ve learned, they then learn more.  Those without these foundations fall further behind.  A strong body of evidence supports The Matthew Effect’s common sense notion that the gap that exists in early language learning widens in part because of the very existence of the gap itself.

The Flynn Effect  – The research of James Flynn and others like him has demonstrated that IQs have gone up between 5 and 25 points among those in the general population during the past century.  While some have stated that this is proof positive of our ever increasing intelligence, explanatory opinions have ranged from more expansive schooling, to better nutrition, to better problem solving abilities due to the greater accessibility of puzzles and video games, as well as the greater complexity of society overall.  While a general consensus has remained out of reach, Flynn’s own hypothesis is that IQ testing correlates with intelligence more than it actually tests it.  Click here for a well balanced explanation.

Built by the mob?  Or partial reinforcement?
Built by the mob? Or partial reinforcement?

The Partial Reinforcement Effect This is the one that keeps building those large Las Vegas hotels.  Responses acquired after intermittent reinforcement (such as gambling wins) last longer than those acquired after continuous reinforcement.  Simply put, spacing rewards is the best way to reinforce desired behavior.  Despite it’s power, this one seems underutilized in education and teaching.  I think it just needs a catchier name.

The Spacing Effect Repeated spaced presentations naturally aid our memory in learning, much more than presentations that occur bunched together.  If you read my earlier post, the spacing effect may be helping you learn about the spacing effect.

The Mozart Effect – Does listening to classical music actually improve intelligence?  Probably not, but click here to read about why this effect has been so easy to believe.

The Perceptual Magnet Effect – According to this theory, this enables us to more easily learn differences between sounds that exist in learned language.  We perceive a sound as its intended exemplar, even when not produced exactly as that exemplar.  Here’s more info.

In The News

Study Looks at if Using Signs May Slow Language Learning

An international team led by Jana Iverson of the University of Pittsburgh, compared language learning between Italian children and American children, after first determining that Italian children do grow up using more gestures.  The study found that American children consistently use more words, and combine words more often.  The difference, however, was accounted for by the larger use of gestures in the Italian children.

The main implication seems to be this – gestures don’t slow language learning, and they don’t negatively impact one’s ability to communicate within a society in which everyone uses a lot of gestures.  As someone who works with young children with language impairments, I’ve seen a lot of practicioners encouraging the use of signs in children that weren’t verbally communicating.  This gnawed at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly until reading Cogntive Daily’s excellent summary of this study.  Teaching signs rather than oral language does not necessarily inhibit a child’s ability to learn language, but it does inhibit a child’s ability to communicate to others that don’t use signs.  This is not a problem in Italy where gesture use is the norm, but it does imply that in the U.S. where the norm is not to use signs, that for a child struggling to learn language, the use of gestures should only occur as an absolute last resort.

A Few Facts About… Verb Tense

Tense allows us to more effectively communicate information related to when something occurs, occurred, or will occur, as well as more effectively understand if the occurrence has been completed, is in progress, or will occur continuously.   Some key points include:

  • Research suggests that omission of tense marker (zero marking) is the most prevalent kind of tense error in children with SLI (Marchman, Wulfeck, Weimer, 1999). 
  • Different languages use various techniques to express differences in tense.  Latinate languages, in particular, use a variety of morphological endings to express when something happens (David Crystal, 1995). 
  • English only uses three morphological endings:  -s, -ed, and -ing.  Other tenses are communicated through irregular forms, auxiliary verbs, and adverbs.

Continue reading “A Few Facts About… Verb Tense”

Language Podcasts

Here’s a podcast on ASHA’s (The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) website on the value of early intervention for late talking children.  The podcast is a discussion between SLP Rhea Paul and child psychologist Leslie Rescorla.  Kummer joins Rescorla in another discussion, this time on language delay in young children in this ASHA podcastLink to other ASHA podcasts.

Autism Podcast has many interesting podcasts, such as this one, a discussion with Rick Rollins on the causes of autism, and the need to deal with increasing numbers of children identified as autistic.

The Word Nerds often provide interesting and entertaining work, such as this podcast on syntax.

Research Rehash – Patricia Kuhl Cracks the Speech Code

A Summary of Patricia Kuhl’s Work:

Patricia Kuhl is co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.  Her ongoing work, which began in the 1970’s, has altered how modern language theorists view the predisposition to language learning that infants are born with.  Prior to her work most followed the Piagetian view that babies were social isolates not yet ready to learn.  Kuhl’s research has changed this prevailing perception in a number of ways: 

  • Human infants, as well as the young of other species such as birds, monkeys, and chinchillas, are born with an ability to distinguish between all sounds that exist in the particular language of that species.
  • Human infants lose the ability to distinguish between sounds not in their language at about the same time that they begin producing varied babbling.  Humans have evidently evolved a predisposition toward learning a specific language.
  • Parents have evolved specific techniques for teaching language – most prominantly is the high pitched, simplified version of language called “motherese.”  Kuhl’s research has shown a strong positive correlation between a child’s early language acquisition and the amount of “motherese” heard (or “parentese” as Kuhl diplomatically has called it).
  • Interaction is crucial.  Babies that are not interacting as much do not learn language nearly as effectively, even if they appear to be attending to caregivers.
  • The explosion in language learning that takes place between six months and three years of age in typically developing children seems to be the result of a combination of a child’s innate ability to detect sound differences, a seemingly innate ability to apply computational strategies to make language learning more efficient (Kuhl calls this statistical learning), and a nurturing social setting.

A recent summary of Kuhl’s research backed opinions can be found here.  A very interesting Seattle Times article on Kuhl and her work can be accessed here.

Recent Research

Study suggests that learning from mistakes works only after age 12.

At some point between the ages of eight and twelve, learning shifts from being dependent upon positive reinforcement to relying more on learning from mistakes – so says this study.  Researchers at Leiden University gave computer tasks to groups of children and adults while they lay in an MRI machine.  The results surprised them.  It was expected that the children would learn in the same way as adults, only with less efficiency.  What the results indicated was actually happening was that there was a fundamental shift in how children were learning.  This shift was observed by measuring differences in brain function between groups of eight and nine year olds and eleven and twelve year olds.  Simply put, the younger kids seemed to learn more efficiently when given positive feedback (e.g. “Good job!”), while the older kids learned better when adjusting to their mistakes.  Adults also learned better when adjusting to their mistakes, but were more efficient.  For the full story, click here

Image courtesy of Leiden University)
Learning activation in younger children (Credit: Image courtesy of Leiden University)

On Teaching Vocabulary

Estimates exist that vocabularies can consist of 60,000 to 80,000 words or more by graduation from high school (Bloom, 2005; Miller and Gildea, 1987).  We can’t possibly teach this number of words.   Fortunately we don’t have to.  This is due to the fact that teaching vocabulary relies on three equally important modes.  1)  Discovering which of the words that are considered appropriate for a child’s age and abilities have not been learned;  2)  Meaningful exposure;  3)  Providing opportunity for meaningful use.  Formal language testing may uncover some words within specific areas that are problematic, but criterion testing is important to determine a significant quantity of these words.  Discovering these words may be more important, if not equally important, as actually teaching these words.  This is because of the sheer quantity of words that children are expected to learn.  We can’t teach them all, but we can provide exposure, opportunity, and critically – acceptable expectations.

For use in my own teaching, I’ve compiled lists of words for each of various language areas that SLPs typically address.  The words that I’ve chosen are considered high impact and foundational for further learning.  The key “curriculum” vocabulary words are almost entirely nouns and  verbs.  Other words are usually addressed when specific language deficits are addressed.  The order comes from developmental data, state goals, benchmarks, and often educated guesswork.  There is a variable developemental order for each linguistic unit.  A preponderance of unknown words equals a deficit area.  A preponderance of known words equals an area thay is likely not considered deficient.  Many language categories are divided into basic, early elementary, later elementary, and advanced.  Here is how this looks with adjectives, as one example:

     Basic:  ahead, alike, afraid, bad, behind, big, fat, funny, good, great, etc.

     Early Elementary:  angry, better, best, beautiful, bright, closed, covered, dizzy, etc.

     Later Elementary:  crooked, dull, equal, exact, gorgeous, grumpy, handsome, level, etc.

     Advanced:  backward, precise, rectangular, slanted vast, etc.

Division into linguistic units such as adjectives is done merely to facilitate teaching.  This facilitation is possible because of tendencies in children’s unassisted learning.  Without help, a child with a few errors in one area tends to have errors concentrated in that area.   Because there’s a potentially infinite number of adjectives, the grammatical class of adjectives is considered open-ended, which is the reason for each division’s “etc.” ending.  Once it is discovered which words a child doesn’t, but should, know, this information can be passed on to parents, teachers, and to the students themselves.

Continue reading “On Teaching Vocabulary”

Around the Web

You can participate in an online language experiment at the Cognition and Language Lab.  It takes about five minutes.  I can’t tell you what it’s about, though you can read about it’s purpose after finishing the experiment.  I can tell you that it’s interesting stuff.

In the News

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

Honorable Mention Language Acquisition Studies

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.

Research hasn't proven this chimp knows what's you're thinking

Theory of MindTheory 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 hereThis information is especially informative.

I can’t not mention Broca, Vygotsky, or Kegl’s study of Nicaraguan sign language.

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