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Is Language Inherited?


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 20 December 2004 - 05:26 PM

Psychologists claim that babies as young as seven months can work out the simple rules of language, and begin to build up vocabularies at the rate of 70 words a week. Learning language is the most difficult thing we have to do, yet we do it so fast. Noam Chomsky argues that this cannot be easily explained and has suggested that we inherit language. Any views on this?

#2 David Richardson

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 09:31 AM

Psychologists claim that babies as young as seven months can work out the simple rules of language, and begin to build up vocabularies at the rate of 70 words a week. Learning language is the most difficult thing we have to do, yet we do it so fast.

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No-one's taught the babies that learning a language is difficult - that's why they can do it so fast!

#3 Phoebe

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Posted 21 December 2004 - 08:40 PM

Psychologists claim that babies as young as seven months can work out the simple rules of language, and begin to build up vocabularies at the rate of 70 words a week. Learning language is the most difficult thing we have to do, yet we do it so fast. Noam Chomsky argues that this cannot be easily explained and has suggested that we inherit language. Any views on this?

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There was a TV programme recently on the subject of feral children - children who had been abandoned by their parents for a variety of reasons or who had been forcibly deprived of human contact. Two of the children had been about 13 years of age when they were discovered. One girl had been locked in a room and had been deprived of any sensory stimulation. The other had been abandoned and had been looked after by a pack of dogs. Both children were obviously severely affected by their experiences (one committed suicide), but it was discovered that they could very quickly learn hundreds of individual words but could not learn to form sentences as this process of language acquisition had not been stimulated. Brain scans showed a marked difference to those of 'stimulated' children.

The theory postulated was that there is a window of opportunity in children for language acquisition and that if this window was not used/ triggered, language use would be impaired. It would seem that 5/6 years of age is the upper limit for stimulation and to demonstrate this, the programme focused on a little boy called Edek, who had been discovered alone and with dogs when he was about 5. He seemed to be able to use sentences, but he was hesitant and there was some concern about whether they had disocvered him too late.

I found the programme profoundly moving but also very interesting, but it did seem to give credence to the idea of inherited language that must be triggered. There's an obvious link to be made between this idea and the many Primary teachers who can easily spot the children whose parents talk to or even read to them at home!
If you get a chance to see this programme, do. It also made me reflect upon the relative kindness of dogs compared to that of humans. The little boy, Edek, had been ignored by all the neighbours who had merely turned a blind eye to his plight; it was the dogs who aided him.
:rolleyes:

#4 Guest_Andrew Moore_*

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 03:55 PM

Professor Jean Aitchison argues that "language has a biologically organized schedule" and quotes Eric Lenneberg's theory that language is "maturationally controlled, emerging before it is critically needed".

We manifestly do inherit the capacity for learning language; but we still have to do the learning. I think this is not controversial. Neither is it controversial that this cannot be easily explained, either in terms of a description of the learning that happens, or as an explanation of how it happens. It does not happen among even the smartest of animals nor in some children with learning disabilities.

There are no exact dates, and some children learn more or less quickly than any notional normal child. The speed of learning is influenced both by innate abilities and by environment. Since language is partly learned by imitation, language learning may be accelerated by the example of parents and siblings. Baby talk may promote language development in infants who have yet to learn to speak but the same baby talk might hinder them later.

However, there is a generally accepted sequence for language learning. Professor Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 43) gives a speech timetable from birth to 10 years old.

Some kinds of language learning are done much better by very young children than by older ones, let alone adults. The English approach to teaching modern foreign languages disregards this, and waits until the capacity for learning has weakened - with the result that only a few of us are able to learn new languages.

Jean Aitchison also quotes the examples of seemingly fluent teenage and adult speakers who have learning difficulties. That is, their capacity to form relatively sophisticated linguistic structures is well-developed, but they are limited in their ability to communicate or interpret meanings. This is an acute case of something we can observe every day, as people speak volubly but without really responding directly to each other.

If anything John's suggestion is too conservative. Babies may not have a theory of mind and an articulate self-awareness in the first few months, though this can emerge before the first year is out. But they are observing a mass of sensory information, and learning to make sense of it from the moment they enter the world.

I take the view that children of any age can cope with the standard lexicon. I have not yet met a child who minded this. But I would accept that the gentle encouraging tone of some kinds of child-directed utterances may be helpful in promoting the child's emerging use of speech.

#5 John Simkin

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 07:15 PM

Professor Jean Aitchison argues that "language has a biologically organized schedule" and quotes Eric Lenneberg's theory that language is "maturationally controlled, emerging before it is critically needed".

There are no exact dates, and some children learn more or less quickly than any notional normal child. The speed of learning is influenced both by innate abilities and by environment. Since language is partly learned by imitation, language learning may be accelerated by the example of parents and siblings. Baby talk may promote language development in infants who have yet to learn to speak but the same baby talk might hinder them later.

However, there is a generally accepted sequence for language learning. Professor Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 43) gives a speech timetable from birth to 10 years old.

Some kinds of language learning are done much better by very young children than by older ones, let alone adults. The English approach to teaching modern foreign languages disregards this, and waits until the capacity for learning has weakened - with the result that only a few of us are able to learn new languages.

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As someone who is playing a significant role in the education of my 4.8 year old grandson I find this subject fascinating. We were having a discussion on food the other day. He was explaining the reasons he liked certain foods. He took great care about finding the right words to use. He seemed particularly keen to find words that had not already been used in the discussion. He also looked for other ways to explain his thoughts. For example, he said he liked a particular food because it reminded him of playing with his friend Joe on a sunny day in the garden.

On another occasion I asked him if his mum had given Jon (one of his friends) a toy that had been purchased by his grandmother. He replied that his mum had eventually given Jon the toy. I later found out from my daughter that she had kept on forgetting to give the boy the toy. He was therefore right to use the word “eventually”.

He is clearly fascinated by new words. In fact, he treats them like new toys. He sees them as a gift that he wants to play with. He especially likes the idea of linking words together that make the same sounds.

I have been shocked by his use of language. I don’t think he is especially bright. It is just that I have always underestimated the ability of young children to handle sophisticated language. I remember reading about how John Stuart Mill’s father always treated him as an adult. He claims this was the reason he was so intellectually precocious. Maybe all children would respond to this approach.

#6 David Richardson

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Posted 31 December 2004 - 07:34 PM

I've got two daughters - one who's now 13 and one who's just 7 months old. They're both growing up in an environment where English is used by me and by the television, and Swedish by my wife, and by the people both of them meet all the time.

Both of them are reacting/reacted in the same way to this mix of linguistic environments. Amy, the baby, is doing exactly what Linnéa, the teenager, did when she was at Amy's age: if I speak Swedish, or my wife speaks English, she reacts to the anomaly. Amy (and Linnéa in her time) started doing this as soon as she was born - in other words, there's something in the way my voice and my wife's voice sound when we speak our native languages and our first foreign languages.

The theory that children are most influenced by their peers, rather than their parents, is definitely borne out by the evidence from Linnéa - when she was around 6-7 years old, she was making 'Swenglish' errors in English (in other words, Swedish linguistic patterns were influencing her English), and the Swedish she used was definitely that of the playground, rather than the kitchen.

We moved down south when she was 10 years old, to an area with an entirely different dialect of Swedish than the one she grew up with. She started reproducing the sounds of the area we live n now within hours of starting school (not days or months!).

Schools do get learning wrong, in my opinion, here in Sweden as much as in England, but perhaps this is one of the trials people have to go through in order to break into adulthood!

Happy New Year!

#7 Graham Davies

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 03:31 AM

Chomsky didn’t actually say that language is inherited but that the human mind is a genetically determined cognitive apparatus that enables us to pick up languages to which we are exposed, particularly in our formative early years, and this is what makes us different from human beings - although I am sometimes amazed by the number of different words that my dog can recognise even when I am not talking to him directly.

When my first daughter was born I noted down every new recognisable utterance that she made. It began slowly, with her first recognisable utterances consisting mainly of bilabial consonants and a variety of vowels - apparently randomised. By the age of 18 months the new utterances were coming in a flood, so much so that I gave up trying to note them down, and they were becoming more and more recognisable. I am from the South East of England and have a typical Estuary accent. My wife is from Northern Ireland and retains her Belfast accent. Our first daughter was born and grew up in Devon until the age of three. She had begun to mix with local children at play school, and by the time we left Devon she pronounced the Devon rolled “r” and produced sentences such as “’Er’s mucking about, ‘er is”. Peer-group rules, OK?

My first granddaughter has just reached the age of six months, and I can recognise familar early language development signs already, e.g. playing around with different, easy-to-produce sounds.

Some years ago a friend of mine was severely brain-damaged by a German Measles virus that deprived him of the power of language – not just speech but language in general. While he was in hospital I was most interested in how the speech therapist helped him regain his language. She used a chart produced by David Crystal that maps a typical child’s speech development and submitted him to language exercises that followed the chart, e.g. one month he would be given exercises that could be tackled by a 4-year-old and the next month exercises that could be tackled by a 5-year-old. It took him around 18 months to recover fully the language of an adult – which seems to indicate that his language was not lost but just lurking beneath the surface. I helped out by providing simple computer programs, mainly Cloze exercises and text reconstruction exercises in which he had to key in missing words. This was in response to the speech therapist’s request for such programs. Practice, practice, practice was the key to success, she said, and she could never give my friend the same kind of intensive practice that the computer programs could give him. My friend never regained the power of speech, as the virus had damaged the part of his brain that controls the larynx, the swallowing reflex etc, but he was able to read again, understand everything that I said and communicate with me with a laptop speech synthesiser.

#8 Graham Davies

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  • Interests:I began my career as a teacher of German and French in secondary education in 1965, moving into higher education in 1971, where I taught German (and also English as a Foreign Language to students training to become professional translators) until 1993. I have been involved in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) since 1976. In 1982 I wrote one of the first introductory books on computers in language learning and teaching, which was followed by numerous other printed and software publications. In 1989 I was conferred with the title of Professor of CALL by the Academic Board of Ealing College of Higher Education (later integrated into Thames Valley University). I retired from full-time teaching in 1993 but I continued to work as a Visiting Professor for Thames Valley University until 2001. I was the Founder President of EUROCALL, holding the post from 1993 to 2000. I am a partner in Camsoft, a CALL software development and consultancy business, which was founded in 1982. I have lectured and run ICT training courses for language teachers in 22 different countries and I sit on a number of national and international advisory boards and committees. I have been actively involved in WorldCALL since 1998 and I currently head a working party that is in the process of setting up WorldCALL as an official organisation that aims to assist countries that are currently underserved in the area of ICT and the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages. I am fluent in German, I speak tolerable French, and I can survive in Italian, Russian and Hungarian. I enjoy golf, skiing, walking my dog (a retired racing greyhound) and travelling. I used to scuba-dive regularly - my last dive was on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 - but now I just swim at my local fitness centre.

Posted 02 January 2005 - 03:34 AM

Whoops! I must sort out my own language development!

I meant, of course: "and this is what makes us different AS human beings" not "and this is what makes us different FROM human beings". :)




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