COM 374 -- Week 3 outline on Language Acquisition
How do children acquire language?
A. Memorization?
i. We memorize words (mental lexicon)
ii. But… the ability that we have to produce/understand an infinite # of novel
utterances (Productivity) must mean we do not store whole sentences in our
brains, but rather words and patterns, or rules (= Mental Grammar)
B. Imitation?
i. Children say things parents never say
1. Phonological: fis ‘fish’, goggie ‘doggie’
2. Overgeneralizations: When children apply rules incorrectly as a result
of hypothesis-testing
a. Morphological: runned, goed, bringed, holded
b. Syntactic: I am cute, amn’t I?
C. Teaching/Reinforcement?
i. Sometimes language is not taught
1. Rules of language are unconscious (e.g., expletive infixation, etc.)
2. Children can learn language parents don’t know (e.g., immigrants,
pidgins and creoles)
ii. Sometimes language can’t be taught
1. ‘Nobody don’t like me’ dialogue (from Aitchison)
2. ‘Other one spoon’ dialogue (from Aitchison)
Paradox of Language Acquisition
A. Problem: Children acquire unconscious patterns/rules unconsciously, with little or no
deliberate training.
B. Solution: Universal Grammar (the innate knowledge of language that all humans
are equipped with; it is what helps children during the language learning task)
C. Language = Part learned (Mental Grammar) + Part innate (UG)
Stages of acquisition: All (normal) children go through same stages in same order
(though age and rate of progression can vary)
A. Crying (0-1 month)
B. Cooing (2-3 months)
C. Vocal Play (3-6 months)
D. Babbling (6 months): http://www.vocaldevelopment.com/
i. CV monosyllables
ii. reduplicated babbling: repeated CV syllables (mamama, papapa, dididi)
iii. variegated babbling: different CV syllables (badigu, potaki)
E. Intonation (8 months): jargon babbling
F. One-word stage (1 - 1 ½ years):
i. Lexicon < 50 words (avg. ~ 15)
ii. Words for people and things
iii. Holophrases (one-word phrases, e.g., gimme, whassat, allgone)
G. Two-word stage (1 ½ - 2 years):
i. Lexicon > 50 words
ii. 2-word combinations indicate semantic rather than syntactic relations, e.g.,
Mommy book, baby sleep, kick ball, baby up
iii. No inflections
H. Telegraphic speech (2+ years):
i. Can combine more than 2 words
ii. contains only content words (i.e., nouns and verbs, but no function words)
iii. Syntactically organized (i.e., proper word order, etc.)
I. Word inflections (2+ years):
i. Progressive -ing
ii. Plural -s
iii. Possessive -s
iv. 3rd person singular -s
v. Past tense
vi. Negatives
Critical Period Hypothesis: (Eric Lenneberg)
A. Definition: Acquisition of a normal language is guaranteed for children up to the age
of six, is steadily compromised from then until shortly after puberty, and is rare
B. Evidence:
i. Brain plasticity
ii. Critical periods in animal kingdom (kitten vision, bird songs)
iii. Deaf exposed to sign language in adulthood vs. childhood
iv. Second language learning in adults vs. children
v. Pidgins vs. creoles
vi. ‘Wild children’
1. Isabelle (discovered at age 6): learned normal language
2. Chelsea (discovered at age 31): did not learn normal language
A. Isolated until age 13, never spoken to
B. Had cognitive development of 15-month-old when found
C. Went through early stages of acquisition, though more slowly
D. Learned first words (lexicon) faster than normals
E. Never mastered language
F. Cognitive development advanced beyond language ability after intervention
G. Provides evidence for special language-learning ability that is separate from generalpurpose learning abilities (e.g., intelligence) which can extend beyond childhood
Double dissociation of language and intelligence
A. Definition: When someone does well on task A but poorly on task B, while someone
else does well on task B but poorly on task A
B. Suggests that A and B aren’t governed by same mechanism in brain
Study questions:
What is the difference between Mental Grammar and Universal Grammar?
Provide examples of some rules that we use in speech that support the claim that children cannot
learn strictly by example. What does this say about the language learning process?
In what ways does Genie’s language acquisition deviate from normal language acquisition? In
what ways is it similar?
Why is Genie’s case important for theories about language learning? What does it say about the
relationship between language and other cognitive abilities, like intelligence?