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Child Language Acquisition • A miracle?! • How do children learn to speak when nobody explicitly teaches them? • In only a few years, they learn lexis, word order, pronunciation, semantics, word endings • Why do adult learners find foreign languages so difficult – can rarely pass as native speaker
An ancient predicament • Plato’s ‘Meno’ - wrote about one of first psychological experiments • Slave boy – no education. Through only questions by Socrates, was able to show that he knew some truths about geometry (Pythagoras) –though he had never been taught it. • Where did knowledge come from? • Plato: boy had learnt it in a previous life.
How do we do it? • Same problem with language – if never taught it, how do we learn such complicated rules? • e.g. – likely / probable = synonyms • But: • It is likely that John is here • It is probable that John is here. • John is likely to be here • *John is probable to be here • Not enough evidence in childhood for us to learn this, but as native speakers we ‘just know’
The big debate: Central debate over LA = nature vs. Nurture, genetic vs. learned? Nativism Behaviorism We learn language through a process of stimulus (hearing, input) and response (our trials). Correct responses are rewarded, as is our correct language use, which increases over time. We are born with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and access to Universal Grammar (UG). We are not born knowing English, or French, or Thai. Rather, we are born with innate knowledge of certain universal structures.
More about Behaviourism: the theory that language is learned by imitation • BF Skinner – behaviourist psychologist • 1959, wrote ‘Verbal Behaviour’ which states that language is just another form of learned behaviour – positive and negative reinforcement • Believed that children are born as ‘blank states’ Arguments for this explanation: 1. Learn many things by imitating. 2. Learn the language of our home and environment, vocabulary and accent.
Problems with this • Parents are more interested in the truth or meaning of a child’s utterance than it being non-standard, e.g. “no cross, car do come” – not likely to be corrected • Research shown that correcting a non-standard utterance might actually impede language development • Over-generalisation: “I runned”, “I broked it” - these errors show children actively applying rules of grammar. Haven’t heard these words being used. • Imitation does have role: accent, swearwords…but something else needed to explain acquisition of such complex system
Nativism: the theory that the ability to acquiure language is genetic and innate • Noam Chomsky: Can’t be all about behaviour because: • Children exposed to very little ‘correctly’ formed language – interruptions, slips of tongue, mistakes • Children don’t just copy the language they hear around them. They don’t have to wait until they’ve heard an exact sentence before they can repeat it – they formulate rules. Accounts for “linguistic creativity”
Theory • Language has a quality of innateness. • Big gap between evidence available to child and linguistic system they ultimately construct • Language Acquisition Device (LAD: an instinctive mental ability to develop language) • Universal Grammar (initial state of LAD) – what child has at birth • Children assemble sets of rules as they see language about them UG Output (Adult grammar: principles, parameters and lexicon) Input (Primary linguistic data)
Principles of the UG • There are linguistic universals – rules that arte common across all languages. E.g. • Distinction between nouns and verbs (Goldin-Meadow et al. (1994) describe the case of David, a deaf child with no exposure to sign language who invented his own system of gestures. He used one kind of gesture for nouns and another kind of gesture for verbs, suggesting the distinction may be universal.) • Structure dependency - grammatical rules operate on categories (a particular type of word or type of phrase in a particular syntactic position) rather than directly on words • Other syntax rules
Parameters • Explain differences between languages • Have to be set – have the switch flipped – by time children reach puberty • Null subject (pro-drop): kids go through stage where they say “go bed”, “want toy” then switch flips • French: je comprends la théorie de Chomsky • * comprends la théorie de Chomsky • Spanish: comprendo la teoría de Chomsky • Head parameter – English : I watched television, Japanese – I television watched
Parameters are set during acquisition • The child’s task is to discover which of the possible settings for each parameter is used in the language that they are acquiring • The child’s UG works out the settings using evidence in the input (“primary linguistic data”) • Genie story – 1970, 13 yrs, could only ever say three word sentences – didn’t acquire full grammar
Evidence for UG • All children around world go through similar stages • Medical – specific areas of brain for lang • Derek Bickerton – Hawaii: Pidgins to creoles (grammatically rich) in one generation – evidence of underlying grammar • Young children bilingual
Criticisms of Chomsky’s Theory • Just focuses on grammar: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” • Ignores environment • Ignores relationship between cognition and language
Piaget • Suggested that LA is part of child’s wider development – language comes with understanding. • A child cannot linguistically articulate concepts he does not understand • Eg, can only use superlative and comparative adjectives such as bigger, longest, when they have grasped concept of relative sizes • Can’t employ adverbs of time (yesterday, tomorrow) until they have grasped concept of time passing • Problems: some children with cognitive problems still manage to use lang beyond apparent understanding
Bruner • Social interactive approach – puts forward idea that interactions between child and carer are crucial to lang development and help children develop important abilities such as turn-taking. • Importance of conversations, routines of social interaction, • Must be LASS (support system) as well as LAD. Parents provide ritualised scenarios – bath, meal, getting dressed – phrases of interaction rapidly recognised and predicted • But: not the case in all cultures – western mothers particularly concerned with children acquiring language. Africa – sitting up.
Vygotsky • Social interaction plays important role • Cognitive process develop through social interaction • Need to be able to talk about a problem in order to understand it - language developed through need to learn
Caregivers help their children learn by using parentese and giving them a holliday! • Halliday • Children are born with a drive to make sense of their environment • Caregivers are predisposed to conversing with their infants by attaching meaning and intentionality to shared objects or events through dialoguing • Mother: There he goes! • Child: [u uu] • Mother: Oh, you want me to throw him up again, do you? All right. There he goes! • Child: [loudly] [mng] • Mother: No, that's enough. Let's find something else to do.