The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


Language Acquisition

Why We Learn Language

What follows is an abbreviated list of some linguistic aspects of the English language along with their functions. As with any system of symbols, such as drawing, math, and language, this list is meant to convey an interpretation of reality. Just as the Mona Lisa is not the actual woman used as the model, squiggles on a map of England are not the actual England, and buildings and roads are composed of bricks and mortar rather than the equations used to combine building materials, this list is meant merely as a representation. Significant overlap exists. And as with any symbolic representation, any part of it that does not assist may reasonably be ignored. Keep in mind that the functions answer the question of why we learn the units. For example: Why do we learn idioms? To provide flexibility, creativity, and social status to our language.


A Few Facts About…Second Language Acquisition

There are many different terms and abbreviations used in discussing the topic of second language acquisition.   Just some of these include second language learning, L2 acquisition, ELL (English language learners), and ESL (English as a Second Language).  ESL and ELL are sometimes used interchangeably, and sometimes argued to be completely different things.  ESL seems to be an older term that, depending upon the source, is either being phased out, or is continuing to be used to distinguish a specific pull-out program, as opposed to somebody in the general education environment who happens to not speak English.  Some claim that ELL is more politically and technically correct, since English could be a third or fourth language.  In all my years I’ve never experienced any language issues with a student learning English as a third or fourth language (I mean actual language disorders where the language deficits occur in similar dimensions across all languages), but I suppose it is technically possible.  Also, use of these terms seems to be different in different places.  There is a good little description of ESL and ELL issues in this link.

One of the preeminent researchers in second language acquisition is Stephen Krashen.  According to Krashen, learning is less important than acquisition.  His theory includes five main hypotheses, which he’s labeled the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, the Monitor hypothesis, the Natural Order hypothesis, the Input hypothesis, and the Affective Filter hypothesis.  His Affective Filter hypothesis embodies one of his main views that  a number of affective variables play a facilitative, but non- causal, role in second language acquisition.  These variables include: motivation, self – confidence, and anxiety.  You can find a lot of his stuff at his site.

Sphere Flags Clip Art

Second language acquisition presents some interesting challenges for those who teach language.  In school settings, speech-language pathologists are supposed to only work with students with disabilities.  For students whose primary language then is something other than English, this means that a language disability should exist in that student’s first language in order to qualify for services.  Theoretically and legally, the disability should have nothing to do with the fact that the student has learned another language prior to English.  In the real world, it gets complicated.  Some kids do all right with their first language in preschool, and then face problems as parents may attempt to use more English at home.  Maybe one parent speaks more English.  Aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, etc. all bring their own language preferences and abilities to the mix.  Then there are things like code-switching, the switching between languages in a conversation or with different conversation partners.  Commonly, these kids also display a silent period, in which they are so focused on comprehension that they don’t speak much.  Also, there can be language loss of the first language if it is not continuously reinforced.  There have been controversies over the extent to which academics should be taught in one language over the other, as well as the extent to which English must be learned, and who is responsible.  I think most experts agree that bilingualism is an awesome attribute.  More info can be had here.

As an interesting aside, this recent study suggested that second language learners may have an advantage in learning to read compared to native language speakers.  The study’s authors suggested that this may be due to an increased awareness in language overall – metalinguistic awareness.

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?”

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”

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.

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.

Daniel Everett and the Pirahã

Although Everett has been studying the Pirahã (pronounce pee-da-ha) Amazonian tribe, and their unique language since the 1970’s, his work remained relatively obscure until 2005, when an article he’d published on his website was then published in Cultural Anthropology.  According to Everett’s studies, the Pirahã’s language lacks many aspects of language that linguists argue are basic necessities of a universal grammar, such as color concepts, perfect tense, quantity concepts, and numbers over two.  Why?  According to Everett, their hunter-gatherer lifestyles have such little use for these concepts, that words to convey them simply don’t exist.  This research, which overtly repudiates the Chomskyian theory that has dominated the study of language for decades, has been called by Steven Pinker, “A bomb thrown into the party.”

The coverage of this study has greatly expanded recently, exemplified by this New Yorker articleLanguage Log has some excellent links concerning the Piraha.

Roger Brown’s Stages – 1973

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.

The best online description of Brown’s work is at Caroline Bowen’s speech therapy site.

The Hart-Risley 30 Million Word Gap Study – 1995

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.

For an excellent summary of this study, read this.  A good comment on this study and poverty’s influence on education can be found here.

High Fives… Language Acquisition Studies – “Wugs”

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.

image from (

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

Continue reading “High Fives… Language Acquisition Studies – “Wugs””

What Happens When We Learn – And When We Don’t

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.

Continue reading “What Happens When We Learn – And When We Don’t”

Does Thought Precede Language?

In this article from Nature magazine, psychologist Paul Bloom discusses research suggesting that infants are born with the ability to distinguish phonology and certain aspects of meaning.  He specifically discusses a study that suggested babies are born with the ability to distinguish between loose fits and tight fits.  In English we lose this distinction, while in the Korean language the distinction is maintained with two separate verbs.  This research (and research like it) involves showing 5 month olds things like a ring around a post that is initially tight, until they bore of it and look away.  The researchers then show them the varying instances of the same or the converse – like a ring fitting loosely around a post.  If the babies seem more interested in the contrast they are said to be innately predisposed, which is in fact what happens.  For the study’s authors, Paul Bloom, and even St. Augustine, this kind of thing is considered evidence that we are all born with cognitive precursors to language – a variation of the famed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Read on for my take… Continue reading “Does Thought Precede Language?”

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