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Language acquisition. LING 200 Spring 2003. First language acquisition. (a.k.a. developmental psycholinguistics, L1). How is it that by age 5 children know their language? What they do along the way and why?. Methods for studying L1. Production studies

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Language acquisition

Language acquisition

LING 200

Spring 2003

First language acquisition
First language acquisition

(a.k.a. developmental psycholinguistics, L1)

  • How is it that by age 5 children know their language?

  • What they do along the way and why?

Methods for studying l1
Methods for studying L1

  • Production studies

    • Spontaneous productions (diary studies)

    • Elicited productions

      • “which doll should he pick up?”

    • Introspection

      • “Can you say ‘What did the hippo do?’”

Methods for studying l11
Methods for studying L1

  • Comprehension studies

    • Perception tasks

      • present, then change stimulus; measure pacifier sucking rate, heart beat

    • Judgement tasks

      • "The hippo fell over. Is that right?"

    • Act-out tasks

      • "make the hippo jump over the rhino, then make bullwinkle jump over him."

Production vs comprehension
Production vs. comprehension

  • Production lags behind comprehension

    • Recognition of polite forms precedes the ability to produce them.

      • Puppets requesting candy used direct forms like: ‘Give me candy.’

        Or indirect forms like: ‘I would like some candy.’ ‘May I have some candy?’

        Indirect forms were judged more polite.

Production vs comprehension1
Production vs. comprehension

  • Recognition of sounds precedes the ability to produce them.

    • ‘One of us...spoke to a child who called his inflated plastic fish a fis. In imitation of the child’s pronunciation, the observer said: “This is your fis?” “No,” said the child, “my fis”. He continued to reject the adult’s imitation until he was told, “That is your fish.” “Yes,” he said, “my fis.”

L1 milestones
L1 milestones

  • Babbling: 4-20 months

  • One-word: 12-18 months

  • Two-word: apx. 24 months


  • 0-1 months: crying, coughing

  • 2-3 months: “cooing and gooing” (production of velar consonants)

  • 4-6 months: produce greater variety of sounds, sounds more like language

  • 7-9 months: CV syllables, often reduplicated; e.g. [tata]canonical babbling


  • 12 months:

    • relatively long sequences of gibberish

    • possibly with intonation

  • (12-13 months: first words)

  • 18-20 months: babbling ceases

Characteristics of babbling
Characteristics of babbling

  • Early babbling is largely independent of what sounds are heard

    • deaf children babble

    • hearing children of deaf parents babble

    • sounds produced may not be those heard in child's linguistic environment

Characteristics of canonical babbling
Characteristics of canonical babbling

  • Simple syllable structure (CV)

  • Simple consonants and vowels

    • most common consonants:

      • stops, /s/, /m n/, glides, /h/

    • infrequent consonants:

      • other fricatives, affricates, liquids, [N]

    • voiceless aspirated stops common in input to English babies, rare in babble

Characteristics of later babbling
Characteristics of later babbling

  • Language specific differences begin to emerge

    • Japanese babies: word final [] common

    • Spanish babies produce longer words

    • French babies produce more nasals

    • ASL babies: produce ASL-like movement

Later correlates of babble
Later correlates of babble

  • Greater amount and complexity of babble correlates with

    • vocabulary size, 18-24 months

    • phonological development, 36 months

    • age of onset of meaningful speech

  • Lesser amount of babble often correlates with

    • later speech and language disorders

Functions of babble
Functions of babble(?)

  • Establishes an auditory feedback loop

  • Provides motor practice

  • Stimulates adult-infant interactions

One word stage
One-word stage

  • Emerges around 12-18 months

  • Characteristics

    • words used as sentences

    • incipient word meaning; typical communicative functions:

      • naming

      • child's action

      • child’s desire for action

      • child’s emotion

    • simple phonology: CV syllables; CVCV words

Words known by eve at 15 months
Words known by Eve at 15 months

  • Mommy

  • Daddy

  • go

  • go?

  • gimme

  • baba ‘grandma’

  • dollie

  • cup

  • what?

  • wawa ‘water’

  • nana ‘blanket’

One word stage1
One-word stage

  • Phonological properties of words

    • 52 children, mean 15 months

      • Syllable structure

        • 37% CVCV

        • 26% CV(V)

        • 10% CVC

      • C1 = C2 (85%)

      • Frequency

        • most common initial: /b d m/

        • most common V__V: /d b m/

        • most common final: /t s k/

2 word stage
2-word stage

  • Emerges few months after 1-word stage

  • Characteristics

    • short (2-word) sentences

    • no inflectional affixes (e.g., genitive, 3sS -s)

    • minimal use of syntactic function words (e.g. determiners)

    • pronouns rare

Eve at 18 months
Eve at 18 months

  • more grape juice

  • drink juice

  • eating

  • no celery

  • Mommy soup

  • open toybox

  • Oh! Horsie stuck

  • write a paper

  • my pencil

  • What doing, Mommy?

  • Mommy head?

Beyond 2 word stage eve at 27 months
Beyond 2-word stage: Eve at 27 months

  • Put my pencil in there.

  • I go get a pencil ‘n write.

  • Don’t stand on my ice cubes.

  • I put them in the refrigerator to freeze.

  • An’ I want to take off my hat.

  • You come help us.

  • Just like Mommy has, and David has, and Sara has.

  • What is that on the table?

  • We’re going to make a blue house.

  • You make a blue one for me.

Eve at 27 months
Eve at 27 months

  • I have a fingernail.

  • And you have a fingernail.

  • This is not better.

  • See, this one better but this not better.

  • There some cream.

  • Put in you coffee.

  • They was in the refrigerator, cooking.

  • That why Jacky comed.

  • How ‘bout another eggnog instead of cheese sandwich?

Theories of first language acquisition
Theories of first language acquisition

  • Imitation hypothesis: children learn solely by imitating what they hear

  • Reinforcement hypothesis: children learn by being positively or negatively reinforced for certain kinds of behavior

  • Active construction of grammar hypothesis: children are actively constructing and refining a grammar of the language of their environment

Against reinforcement hypothesis
Against Reinforcement hypothesis

  • Children don't get a lot of corrections

    • some lexical/content corrections

    • not a lot of grammatical corrections

  • Children don't absorb a lot of the corrections they do hear:

Against imitation hypothesis
Against Imitation hypothesis

  • Children produce novel utterances (not in imitation of adult productions)

    • ‘other one spoon’

    • causatives:

      • 'you're fedding me up'

      • ‘Don’t eat her yet. She’s smelly!’(wants mother to change sister’s diaper before feeding her)

      • ‘These flowers are sneezing me!’

  • novel verbs

    • ‘Why you didn’t jam my bread?’

    • ‘I hate you and I’ll never unhate you or nothing!’

    • ‘Put me that broom. Let’s get brooming.’

    • ‘Who growed it?’ (referring to potted plant)

Grammar construction hypothesis
Grammar construction hypothesis

  • Children make systematic, not random, errors

    • In phonology. Inventory of English consonants (age 2):

  • Systematic errors in morphology

    • Regularization of plurals

      • gooses

    • Regularization of past tense forms of verbs

      • heared, hitted, goed, bringed, comed;

      • I tooked it smaller

    • Regularization of comparative forms of adjectives:

      • He hitted me. He’s a puncher he is. He’s being badder and badder.

Acquisition summary thus far
Acquisition summary thus far

  • Regular stages of L1 can be identified

  • Theories of L1

    • only imitation

    • only reinforcement

    • grammar construction

      • errors are systematic

      • evidence of evolving grammar

        • phonology

        • morphology

Innateness hypothesis
Innateness hypothesis

  • Humans are equipped with Universal Grammar, or are genetically programmed for language.

  • UG severely constrains the possible form that a human language may take.

  • The actual form of language is determined by environment/language experience.

Innateness hypothesis1
Innateness hypothesis

  • Noam Chomsky (1988) Language and Problems of Knowledge:

    ...language appears to be a true species property, unique to the human species in its essentials and a common part of our shared biological endowment, with little variation among humans apart from rather serious pathology. (p. 2)

Do only humans have language
Do only humans have language?

  • Noam Chomsky: 

    ...the language faculty does appear to be a unique human possession. Other organisms have their own systems of communication, but these have properties radically different from human language...In the past years there have been numerous efforts to teach other organisms (forexample, chimpanzees and gorillas) some of the rudiments of human language, but it is now widely recognized that these efforts have failed, a fact that will hardly surprise anyone who gives some thought to the matter. The language faculty confers enormous advantages on a species that possesses it. It is hardly likely that some species has this capacity but has never thought to use it until instructed by humans. That is about as likely as the discovery that on some remote island there is a species of bird that is perfectly capable of flight but has never thought to fly until instructed by humans in this skill. Although not a logical impossibility, this would be a biological miracle, and there is no reason to suppose that it has taken place. Rather, as we should have expected all along, the evidence suggests that the most rudimentary features of human language are far beyond the capacity of otherwise intelligent apes, just as the capacity to fly or the homing instinct of pigeons lie beyond the capacity of humans.

Chimp studies
Chimp studies

  • Summary of attempts to teach chimps English, ASL, manipulation of symbols

  • Chimps show some spontaneity, creativity

  • Skills comparable to 1-2 year old child

  • Don't get past 2-3 word stage

  • Limited syntax. Trouble with:

    • word order

    • structure dependent operations (e.g. conjunction)

Language as a species specific property
Language as a species-specific property

  • Chimps:

    • are capable of learning some aspects of human language

    • are not predisposed to learn human language

    • lack latent capacity for human language

L1 vs l2
L1 vs. L2

  • Children are able to completely master a first language, whereas adults rarely do:

Creoles and l1
Creoles and L1

  • Pidgin

    • No native speakers

    • Derived from two or more languages in contact

    • Lexicon typically relatively small

    • Variable and relatively simple grammar

  • E.g. Chinook Jargon


  • Pidgin that has undergone L1 for some speech community

  • Examples

    • Hawaiian Creole

    • Jamaican Creole

Claimed characteristics of creoles
Claimed characteristics of creoles

  • Relatively uniform (in contrast to great variability of pidgins)

  • Fully expressive

    • substantial lexicons

    • grammar not ‘simple’

Hawaiian creole marking of tense aspect
Hawaiian Creole marking of tense/aspect

  • past/perfect bin or wen;bin get ‘there was’:

    • Bin get one wahine she get three daughter. ‘There was a woman who had three daughters.’

  • habitual/present stay:

    • John them stay cockroach the kaukau. ‘John and his friends are stealing the food.’

Implications of creoles for innateness hypothesis
Implications of creoles for Innateness Hypothesis

  • Derek Bickerton (U. Hawaii):

    • ‘since creoles must have been invented in isolation, it is likely that some general ability, common to all people, is responsible for the linguistic similarities’

    • i.e., creoles owe their uniform complexity to L1

Acquisition summary
Acquisition summary

  • Characteristics of first language acquisition suggest that language is an innate behavior.

  • There is a “Critical Period” for the acquisition of a first language (critical age cases, L1 vs. L2 differences)

  • Children do not learn grammar solely by imitation or reinforcement; they learn by working out rules for themselves.