Linguistics 105 * Words and Sounds
Lecture Number Seventeen
Language Acquisition in Humans

  1. How Children Acquire Language
    1. The acquisition of language (i.e., of a grammar) is stage-dependent, beginning at the age of 2, ^3 months. If language is not learned between 2 and, say, 8, it cannot be learned. (Proof: feral children.)

      • Babbling
      • One-word (holophrastic)
      • Two-word
      • Telegraphic
      • "Later Development"

    2. An abstract system of knowledge which operates independent of other cognitive processes to generate phrases never previously encountered. That is, we do not simply memorize the information we need, we "construct" the language for ourselves. (Proof: stages with multiple grammars.)
    3. This type of learning requires the presence of inherent structures in the brain which (i) differ from structures involved in other types of cognitive processing and (ii) which are absent in other species. These structures are the PRINCIPLES of Universal Grammar, with default and marked PARAMETERS which the child must set. The extent of our Universial Grammar is not well understood, and several views exist. (Proof: speed of language acquisitioin; poverty of "negative" evidence.)

  2. The Data.
    1. Wild Children (Tomorrow's in-class video.)
      2. GENIE
      3. Mother lost two children before she was born. Brother barely made it. Father was psychopath. Locked up in 10'x10' room at 20 months. Tied to chair or potty most of the time: never could walk completely upright. Near-sighted beyond 10'. Father and brother barked at her, kept her mother away until she was 13.
      4. Acquistion after 13. Initially in one-word (holographic stage):
        X: What do you want?
        G: Turnon
        G: Getit.
        G: Open.
      5. Two-word stage lasted 4 months (rather than 2-3 weeks). Negative phrases remained in same state for 3 years. No explosion. Speech telegraphic 4 years after therapy began.
      6. Word order: Modifier-N, Possessor-Possessed, Subject-V-Object, P-NP.

        Sample sentences from Genie
        small two cup
        big two square pillow
        Fred have feel good
        where is tommorow Mrs. L.
        I like M. fix teeth
        Boy is picture
        I like animal have bad cold
        angry burn stove
        very angry clear water

        (Keep this in mind for next week and compare Genie's sentences with Kanzi's "sentences," or with a 2-year-old's).

    2. Learnability: Building grammars.
      1. Children learn by constructing and reconstructing grammars, not by repeating what they hear.

        Target Child Talk Illegal options
        Is daddy going? daddy go? never *Is daddy?
        Is that mommy's cookie? mommy cookie? never *Is that, *that mommy's?
        You're a good doggie. good doggie never *You are, *are a, *a good

      2. In adult speech they do not hear such derived forms as

        Early Sentences
        Daddy no play.
        Allgone cookie.
        Mary hitted me.

      3. Children are as often rewarded for speech errors as corrected

        a. underbrella
        b. beach-lookers (binoculars)
        c. tree-knocker (woodpecker)

      4. They receive no negative evidence, i.e. they also hear speech errors, but are not given evidence that these are errors.
      5. At age when they cannot learn similarly complex systems

    3. Holophrastic, telegraphic, multiword stages show a restructuring of the "grammar." The creation and discarding of complete grammars with which we generate new phrases.
      1. Move from holophrastic to telegraphic by BOOT-STRAPPING (Pinker), using semantic cues to get at grammar, usually accompanied by
        1. OVEREXTENSION, the use of a word to refer to a superordinate category, e.g. doggie to refer to cats, horses, cows, etc.
        3. , the use of a word to refer to a subordinate category, e.g. doggie to refer only to the family dog.
      2. Consistent word order.

        Order Example
        possessor + possessed mommy book
        demonstrative + thing this chair
        subject + action baby sleep
        subject + quality book big
        subject + location teddy bed
        action + object kick ball
        action + location sit chair

      3. Consistent learning order. (Brown)
        1. present progressive
        2/3. prepositions in/on
        4. plural
        5. irregular past tense
        6. possessive
        7. copula, uncontractible (is, was, were)
        8. articles
        9. regular past tense
        10. 3rd person present, regular
        11. 3rd person present, irregular (?)
        12. auxiliary, uncontractible
        13. copula, contractible ('s, 're)
        14. auxiliary, contractible

      4. Only marginally related to frequency
      5. Developmental Sequence Relative Frequency
        1. -ing the, a
        2. plural -s -ing
        3. possessive -'s plural -s
        4. the, a auxiliary be
        5. past tense -ed possessive -'s
        6. 3rdSg -s 3rdSg -s
        7. auxiliary be past tense -ed

        Time-Line of Language Acquisition

      6. OVERREGULARIZATION: As children learn rules, they overregularize their vocabulary, e.g. taked, hitted, [also Jean Berko Gleason's wugs experiments]
      7. Universal parameters. Negation is learned in 3 stages (Bellugi 1967):
        1. No cars there Not Fraser read it (2.0 MLU)
        2. that not mine I no eat it I can't see (3.0 MLU)
        3. Auxiliary negated I didn't eat it (3.5-4.0 MLU)

        Notice: no eat/not eat is how sentences are negated in Russian, French.

      8. Default parameter settings. Children learning English tend to leave out the pronoun it in sentences where it has no referent, e.g. Raining, even after they have learned it. Probably most languages are "pro-drop", i.e. they omit the Subject when there is no referent, e.g. Russian Idót do˙d' 'Goes rain'. English-speaking children apparently try the default setting of the "pro-drop" parameter before trying the "neutral pronoun" parameter.
      9. We can learn 2 or 3 languages as easily as 1 between ages 2-5 (roughly)
      10. No learning degeneration: we learn all of the language even though they may not hear all the constructions. Imagine studying mathematics at Bucknell for four years and graduating knowing everything, perhaps even more, than all your teachers know, regardless of your inherent "intelligence".
    4. ANALYTIC versus SYNTHETIC learning.
      1. Some children tend to build vocabulary, e.g. want go
      2. Others speak in "phrase-words": wanna-go
      3. Most speak in a mixture of these two: Broca's & Wernicke's areas?
  3. Conclusion:

  4. Children acquire a "generative grammar" (Chomsky's term) which operates independent of other components but dependent in many ways on them. They do this by postulating hypothetical grammars along the way, testing them, then discard-ing the imperfective ones until they find a perfect match with the target language. It is generally accepted that there is some level of innate language structure from birth, but the actual complexity of this "innate grammar" is not yet determined.

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