The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


February 2009

Texting Aids Language – Recent Research

After studying 88 children between the ages of 10 and 12, researchers at England’s Coventry University concluded that contrary to texting-picture1public perception, increased texting correlates to increased reading scores.  The study was published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, and supports similar results of other studies such as from the University of Toronto.

The study’s relevance to the larger notion of language and learning is this:  no matter the form, meaningful exposure to language assists language learning.  According to Dr. Beverley Plester, the study’s lead author, “The more exposure you have to the written word the more literate you become and we tend to get better at things we do for fun.”  The BBC story link is here.

Around the Web – Recent Language Learning Blog Posts

This interesting post regarding the frequent confusion in differential diagnosis with autism and late talking comes from the Eide neurolearning blog.  A reference within the post links this neuroimaging study that concludes that late talking children apparantly use their right brains more than their left brains during speech.

This post from one of my favorite blogs – Cognition and Language Lab – briefly laments the notion that language studies over-focus on nouns, ignoring the different processes involved in learning other parts of speech.  To compensate they’ve set up a web based verb study.

Teach Effectively! comments here on a study that illustrates the effect of early instructional methods on adult reading strategies.  Essentially, adults who’d had phonics instruction as a child relied less on vocabulary based context in reading nonwords than adults who’d had no phonics.  The larger point was to emphasize the long term impact of differing instructional methods.

Jerome Bruner – Research Rehash

As a psychologist, Jerome Bruner has led much of modern thought among those labeled interactionists, constructionists, and cognitivists.  As a professor and researcher, Bruner has taught and researched for over sixty years at Harvard, Oxford, and at his current position at New York University.  He has been looked at as one of the instrumental inciters of the so called cognitive revolution, and his ideas have had great influence over the current states of psychology, education, and language.

One frequently cited idea of Bruner’s is the LASS, or Language Acquisition Support System, a term coined in response to Chomsky’s LAD, or Language Acquisition Device.  The LASS refers to the importance of a child’s social support network, which works in conjunction with innate mechanisms to encourage or suppress language development.  Every child has one, and particularly during the years of the language explosion (roughly ages 2 to 5), differences in the LASS significantly explain differences in language acquisition, according to Bruner’s model.

In a spiral curriculum simple subject matter is introduced at the bottom, and made gradually complex with each revisit
In a spiral curriculum simple subject matter is introduced at the bottom, and made increasingly complex with each revisit

Part of the LASS is another key component of Bruner’s explanation of how the most effective learning occurs – the “spiral curriculum.”  Bruner used the spiral curriculum to argue against the modes of teaching that deem some subjects too difficult for learners to grasp before they’re ready, which was partially in response to Piaget’s strict stages of cogntive development.  Many have come to accept Bruner’s view that learning is more successful with early exposure and subsequent scaffolding of more complex concepts that occurs over earlier developing ones.

So how does a spiral curriculum differ from a traditional one?  Traditionally subjects are taught in big chunks to everyone at the same time.  Spiral curriculums are broken up into smaller chunks which are revisited, moving from exposure to more in-depth understanding with each revisit.  Optimally,this gives greater flexibility for learner’s individual differences, while providing the more opportunities for challenge, creativity, and advanced mastery of subjects.

And, it mimics how we naturally learn language.  A child doesn’t learn his first words in one day sections devoted to each word.  A “Today we’re going to learn the word, doggy.” day would not be as effective as how kids naturally learn the word doggy.  Initial exposures are added to with repeated revisits, increasing a word’s understanding with each revisit.  The most effective learning of subsequent words occurs in the same manner.

Bruner went on to write more on the significance of cultural influences in education.  For more on Bruner and his work, click here or here.  A good article on the spiral curriculum can be found here.

Recent Research – Baby Vocab and Gestures Linked

According to a study published in the February 13th issue of Science Magazine, researchers found that the babies of parents with higher education levels and income had both higher use of gesture and higher baby-gesture1vocabulary.  While its not clear if the chicken or egg comes first in this case, the established link between these three things (socioeconomic status, vocabulary, gesture use) is an important step toward future research.  The story, linked here from US News and World Reports suggests that the next step may be trying to determine if increasing gestures in babies may lead to later vocabulary growth.  One element that may also contribute to this link is motivation – a child who is more motivated to communicate in general may be likely to use whatever means necessary, whether gesture or language.  Gesture is also often an important foundation for oral language, as children not motivated to speak frequently need the motivation to communicate that pointing and other gestures can provide.

Commentary – In Language, Form Follows Function

Skyscraper or Groundgrazer?
Skyscraper or Groundgrazer?

American architectural great Louis Sullivan adopted this now famous phrase in the 19th century to help bring about a revolution in building design.  A change was necessary in part because changing tastes of the time no longer called for the traditional ornamentation that had been habitually maintained.  While language certainly can possess its own form of ornamentation, such as flowery prose, lyrical cadences, and stylistic fiction, the language of communication owes its existence to function.  Anything that consistently exists in language exists to assist.

Take for example, the use of categories.  It is possible to form categories in a great many ways where words possess feature overlap.  We do this when it serves our purposes.  By classifying trees into deciduous and evergreen we can better understand and describe trees.  For instance,

          Husband:  “I planted a new tree in front of the house today.”

          Wife:  “What kind?”

          Husband:  “An arborvitae.  It’s an evergreen.”

          Wife:  “Good.  We’ll have something to screen our front window year round.”

There are two main ways of describing this aspect of the husband’s new tree.  If he didn’t understand the classification of trees into deciduous and evergreen, he could have said “I bought an arborvitae.  It does not lose its foliage for much of the year like some trees do.”  Here is one instance of where a category has saved time, effort and potential confusion.  Because any two words that share features can potentially be categorized, and that some words are and some aren’t, demonstrates our power over language.  We could categorize all tall buildings as skyscrapers, which we have done, but only recently.  This categorization was not helpful before the 19th century, and was not done even though “tall” buildings did exist.  We could just as easily give some label to short buildings (groundgrazer?) but we have not found it in our interests to do so. 

All of this has implications for where words come from, and consequently where language comes from.  The existance of language has been explained in a myriad of ways, from nativism, universal grammar, statistical computation, connection, behaviorism, and so on.  All of these explanations exclude a particularly human element, that of human ingenuity, creativity, and motivation.  These attempts to systematically explain language may touch upon key linguistic aspects, but any one that omits the human element, ignores something critical.

More on this topic can be found in this earlier post.

Recent Research – Body Language and SES

Study shows link between body language and socioeconomic status (SES). – Researchers at UC-Berkeley used videotaped sessions of various people in one-on-one interviews to confirm their hypothesis that people use nonverbal cues to communicate their SES.  These behaviors included disengagment behaviors, such as doodling and fidgeting, and engagment behaviors, such as eye contact, head nodding, and laughing.  Their results showed that individuals from higher SES groups displayed more disengagment behaviors, and that observers were able to identify the SES of study participants after looking at 60 second clips of their interviews.  The researchers surmised that wealthy folks depend on others less, something which is reflected in their nonverbal communication. 

Here’s the journal reference:  Kraus et al. Signs of Socioeconomic Status: A Thin-Slicing Approach. Psychological Science, 2009; 20 (1): 99 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02251.x   The Science Daily report is here.  A PsychCentral commentary is here.

How Many Words Should A Child Know?

Comparing Estimates of Vocabulary Acquisition

Many estimates of vocabulary size exist, with variability being their one constant.  The difficulties inherent in measuring vocabulary size have not stopped multiple researchers from coming up with their own numbers, some of which I’ve summarized below.


Despite the almost inevitable variation, the studies that support these estimates have told us some important things, such as…

  • School age language acquisition occurs primarily through incidental experience more than formal teaching.
  • Word learning shifts from concrete and functional to abstract and unusual.  This shift occurs gradually from third grade through the high school years.
  • Environment matters.  Extreme environments extremely matter. 

There are many more of these studies than even what I’ve listed, and while I’m not saying I’ve seen it happen, it is possible that people could cherry pick ones that most support the point trying to be made.  Also, there is no consensus among anyone really, of what exactly counts for a word in these studies.  Does examine, examines, examined, etc. count as different words or variations of the same word?  Ultimately the numbers themselves aren’t as important as are examining what’s possible and what’s actually occurring.  We know from these studies that it is possible to learn many, many words – at rates of up to 14 words a day according to at least two sources.  Methods of teaching vocabulary – such as teaching categories, word webs, and using reading to facilitate vocabulary acquisition – can be helpful, but ultimately nothing works like an enriched experience.

Keep reading for more information about the sources of these studies.

Continue reading “How Many Words Should A Child Know?”

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