Sometimes you just want to show your smarts skills by dropping a name, along with a few pieces of accompanying information.  This page is for those times.  Names associated with language and learning are the big names here.

Albert Bandura

Bandura, Bobo Dolls, and Social Learning


And the winner is…?

A once habitually traditional behaviorist, Bandura came up with his own spin on things by introducing children to bobo dolls – inflatable pear shaped balloons, weighted at the bottom to induce them to bounce back when hit.  Specifically, the children were introduced to the dolls after first watching adults hit, scream at, and kick them.  The children surprised no one by then punishing the dolls exactly as the adults had, though they’d been given no instructions to do so.  The fact that the children changed their behavior without rewards suggested the major implication of this study:  observation alone can change behavior, and significantly affect learning.  In many cases observation is the most effective mode of learning, with one obvious example being the enormous impact of peer influence.  Many recent theorists believe we are evolutionarily primed to learn through observation.

Bandura developed social learning theory in response to this and similar work.  Social learning theory emphasizes that  1) people can learn by observing;  2) specific learning may or may not be associated with an accompanying behavioral change;  3) cognition plays a critical role in learning.  Observation is better at teaching some things, such as morality and aggression, and not as good at teaching other things, such as calculus and physics.  With whatever is being taught, modeling can be one of the most effective components.  Here’s some good info on social learning theory, and here’s a good link on Bandura.

So what does this mean for language learning?  For one thing it provides a good counter argument to the assertion that children do not learn language through imitation.  They do, though because the imitation is often delayed after the observation, it’s hard to detect, and harder still to measure.  One example is when a child uses an adult’s (or a peer’s) cuss word.  When another adult says, “I wonder where he got that?”  the question is usually rhetorical.  The answer is obvious… he got it through observation and functional imitation.

Benjamin Bloom

bloom's triangle and circle
Bloom’s Taxonomy has been often represented by shapes –such as the triangle and the circle.

Conventional wisdom in education once held that only some children could be genuinely helped by their educators.  The others were pretty much doomed by their circumstances.  But then along came Benjamin Bloom, who in 1956 published his widely influential, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Bloom’s work helped lead an educational renaissance over the next several decades resulting in such things as Head Start and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Starting in the 1950s, research exploded exploring the hows and whys of using structure, individualized attention, and feedback, to give educators the tools to help all children maximize their potential.  Bloom contributed his list of cognitive processes that organized thinking and learning from the simplest (recall) to the most complex (judging or evaluating).  The point was to use the understanding of exactly where a person’s specific knowledge of a topic is to guide further teaching on that topic.  After acquiring recall knowledge of an objective, learning proceeded hierarchically from comprehension, to application, to analysis and synthesis, before ending up at the top step – evaluation.

Of course the taxonomy wasn’t perfect.  Since that time, educational researchers and cognitive psychologists have learned a great deal more about learning, especially concerning the impact of feelings and beliefs, as well as social and cultural influences.  Bloom’s hierarchy came to be seen as too rigidly denying these external factors, while oversimplifying the progression from one step to another, and too strictly separating specific areas of knowledge.  Other researchers, such as Marzano and Anderson have since made their own contributions, helping increase the taxonomy’s relevance and accuracy.  In particular, the skill of creativity has been added to the top level.  Creating specifically involves combining skills needed to generate, plan, and produce things, which are hopefully useful.

Other useful classifications often accompanying the taxonomy include procedural and declarative knowledge, and meta-cognitive knowledge.  Procedural knowledge can be thought of as “know how” knowledge.  An example would be knowing how to tie shoes.  This kind of knowledge, which is greatly helped by actually doing the task, is often seen as the most difficult to teach.  Declarative, or conceptual knowledge, is the “know what” type of knowledge.  This usually involves facts and/or linguistic representations.  This would involve, for example, the verbal instructions of what you do when you tie shoes (First you grab one lace in each hand, then…).  Meta-cognitive knowledge is the “know why,” of knowledge.   Why do we need to learn to tie shoes?  “Meta” knowledge can also be very difficult to teach and to learn.

For more in depth information, check out this from Intel.  Or this from Bloom’s hometown paper.

Roger Brown

Roger Brown influenced many other influential child language researchers with his work in the mid twentieth century. 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.

Other important works by Brown include his 1976 paper on “Flashbulb Memories“, concerning people’s memories of what they were doing at the time they heard about major traumatic events such as the JFK assassination, and work with David McNeill on the ‘tip of the tongue state.

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

Jerome Bruner

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.

Daniel Everett

Although linguist Daniel 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 article.  Language Log has some excellent links concerning the Piraha.

Daniel L Everett (right): Photograph: Martin Schoeller Martin Schoeller/PR from

The debate caused by Everett’s studies of the Pirahã, has mirrored much of the long debate on nature vs. nurture.  Those supporting universal grammar seem hung up on attacking Everett’s methodology, which are offered up as evidence that his conclusions are false.  Interestingly, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was practically discarded for years because of Benjamin Whorf’s misleading claims about the number of words Inuit Eskimos had for snow.  It should be noted that it has been far from proven that Everett’s methods actually were problematic.  Meanwhile, the consensus appears to be favoring the truth as lying somewhere between linguistic relativism, or what is sometimes called the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and claims that all of language is determined by structures born into our brains.

Everett’s quote from this story excellently sums up what may be closest to the truth:

“The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. But that language is a human invention to solve a human problem. Other creatures can’t use it for the same reason they can’t use a shovel: it was invented by humans, for humans and its success is judged by humans.”

Jerome Kagan

Whether Jerome Kagan has been pulled or thrown himself full bore into the nature-nurture debate, there is no doubt that his work on babies, children, and the development of temperament has greatly influenced both sides ofuntitled-1-kagan-pic the discussion.  What is in doubt is which side Kagan is on.  His views have both been lauded (a 2002 study published in the Review of General Psychology named Kagan as the 22nd most influential psychologist of the 20th century), and criticized for “blowing in the wind.”   His early work downplayed the significance of early mother-child interaction in lieu of later life experience, which had before Kagan and his contemporaries, been overestimated.  Thus, his initial stance seemed anti-nature.  Later work on the incorrigibility of inborn traits seemed to many to endorse the genetic/nature side.  Specificially, longitudinal studies done by Kagan and colleagues at Harvard have found that of of all infants 20% demonstrate “high reactive” personalities, and of this 20%, roughly two-thirds develop into shy adolescent children.  Lately Kagan has scathingly criticized Judith Rich Harris’s popular dismissal of parental influence on child rearing.

One main reason for the signficance of Kagan’s work is that it has painted some colorful strokes to the canvass that is reality.  While everyone seems to want Kagan on their side, Kagan has long seemed more interested in discovering the truth.  Perhaps Kagan’s most important contribution is his notion that we seem to inherit a bias toward varied personality dispositions.  Like the personalities of dogs, these biases predispose us toward different temperaments – some dogs are naturally friendly, others are naturally aggressive, and many fall at different points along a continuum between friendliness and aggression.  Especially significant to Kagan’s notion here is that these biases can be overcome.  Under certain environmental influences shy creatures can be “made” more aggressive, while conversely, aggression can be molded into affability.  Our inborn temperaments may make this molding more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.

The implications of this often overlooked point abound.  Research has already strongly suggested that stuttering is the result of a combination of an inclination (or bias) toward stuttering combined with the right environmental factors.  This inclination tugs, but does not guarantee.  Other disorders – such as autism – share many etiological similarities.  Kagan’s descriptions of high-reactive infants may, after further research, prove particularly enlightening to an accepted description of autism’s complex causes.

A good in-depth (albeit somewhat critical) article was published in the Boston Globe in 2004, and can be accessed here.  Much of my information came from a great All in the Mind podcast, which unfortunately is no longer available – although the transcript is here.  An excellent post about Kagan’s recent critique of high rates of psychological diagnosis comes from the Smooth Pebbles blog.

Jean Piaget

As a pioneering psychologist in the merging studies of cognition and learning, Jean Piaget helped change the common assumption that as thinkers, children are merely less complex versions of adults.  His twentieth century work built upon the classical roots of Socrates, and more recent work of Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and others who believed learning to be a process facilitated, rather than caused, by teachers.  At the forefront of constructivist assumptions are the notions that the most effective learning takes place when learners are active and motivated participants in the process.

Visual of assimilation - accommodation cabinetVisual of assimilation–accommodation cabinet

While constructivism as a system has been criticized as being too subjective and difficult to manage, as with so many complex systems it has several components that stand out as applicable outside of the larger theory as a whole.  The notions of assimilation and accommodation are two of my favorites.  Assimilation occurs when a learner adds new information, basically layering it on top of the old.  Accommodation occurs when a learner must change previously learned information before placement of new information is possible.  Assimilation is like placing files in a file cabinet, while accommodation is like needing to add new folders, or rearrange existing ones.  Because of this, learning is said to get more difficult as we age, with the tendency of older people to get what has been deemed, “hardening of the categories.”

Piaget and the constructivists also coined all kinds of terms, such as schema and equilibrium, not to mention those associated with the famed stages of development, such as the sensorimotor, concrete operational, and preoperational stages.  Piaget’s ballyhooed notion of object permanence (the understanding that an object exists even when out of sight) has been extensively studied and debated.

As with seemingly all mind related theories, the popularity of constructivism has followed the pendulum of favorability.  There are many specific aspects of constructivism, though, that should stand the test of time.  Some additional good information can be found hereThis, also is kind of cool.