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Language, as described by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, is “the jewel in the crown of cognition” (Siegler 212). Out of all our mental processes of cognition, language is arguably one of the most used and intricate process, as evidenced by the approximately 6,909 different languages used in the world today (Lewis, ethnologue.com). As Noam Chomsky wrote, “when we study the human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence'” (Chomsky 88). Chomsky refers to language as the “human essence” because it is one of the few cognitive abilities that is so central to human development, while at the same time putting human beings in their own echelon of biological complexity in organisms.
As much as we take language for granted, an alien species foreign to our methods of communication may become curious or puzzled when watching us communicate. After all, we sometimes sit for long periods of time, listening to our fellow humans make hisses and squeaks with their vocal chords. We do this because that these sounds that we make have structure, meaning, and significance. In our daily lives, each one of us wields the tools of language not only to convey information, but also to motivate, influence, or command attention. To understand language, there are four key areas that merit attention: the structure of language, different stages in language development, varying views in language acquisition, and the biology behind language.
Structure of language
Although language is incredibly complex, as mentioned before, linguists have found ways to separate language into different parts. According to the current methods, language is comprised of three simpler building blocks: phonemes, morphemes, and grammar.
The smallest unit of language is a phoneme, which are the basic sounds of a language. For instance, the English word cat is made up of three phonemes, including the starting c- sound, followed by the vowel a-, and finally the hard consonant t- ending. While at first glance phonemes may seem to be equivalent to letters, this is not the case. In English, combining two vowels often generates a new phoneme, such as the ou- vowel sounds in pout.
According to linguists who have studied over 500 different languages, humans use around 869 different phonemes. English is comprised of around 40 different phonemes, with other languages having anywhere from 20 to 90 (Meyers 383). A chart listing the main English phonemes is provided (see fig 1).
In language, changing phonemes in words alters their meanings. For instance, changing the phoneme between the letters b- and t- creates twelve new meanings: “bat, bout, beat/beet, bought, bet, boot, bit, boat, bite, but, and bait” (Wardbaugh 189). As important as vowel sounds may seem, consonant phonemes actually carry more information: “The treth ef thes statement shed be evedent frem thes bref dementretien” (Meyers 383).
Another interesting phenomenon that we encounter in our daily lives is the difficulty people have with pronouncing words from different languages. This is primarily because as we grow and learn language, we learn the set of phonemes required by our native language, but we also have difficulty with phonemes from other languages. For instance, a common example of this is a native German speaker’s difficulty with the English phoneme th-. When trying to pronounce the word this, German speakers often say dis instead. This is because the th- phoneme doesn’t exist in the German language. Likewise, English speakers have trouble with the German rolling r- and breathy ch- phonemes. Surprisingly, this is also common among sign languages as well. With almost 200 different sign languages used in the world today, native signers of one language may have difficulty with the phoneme-like building blocks of other sign-languages. According to the researcher Ursula Bellugi, “Chinese native signers who come to America to learn sign usually sign with an accent” (Klima and Bellugi 158).
Figure 1- English Phonemes
Morphemes are the second building block of language. While phonemes are the basic sounds of a language, morphemes are the smallest units of language that convey meaning. There is some overlap between morphemes and phonemes; some phonemes, such as the English a- and I-, are both basic sounds as well as words that carry meaning. More often, however, morphemes are combinations of multiple phonemes. Some may be entire words, but others are parts of words. While words like run and toy are morphemes, prefixes and suffixes like pre- and -ed qualify as morphemes as well.
The third and most complex building block of language is grammar. The English language is composed of 40 phonemes, which combine to form around 100,000 different morphemes, which then combine to form over 1,000,000 different words and derivations (Meyers 384). In order to handle all of these words in a structured and organized manner, we develop rules and patterns to create a standard method to communicate between one another. The two main divisions of grammar include semantics and syntax.
The first branch of grammar is semantics, which is the set of rules that governs how we derive meaning from words, morphemes, and sentences. In semantics, we study the relationship between signifiers and their denotata. Signifiers are the signs, words, or phrases that we are interested in, while denotata is what these objects stand for. For instance, from the rules of semantics, we know that adding -ed to the verb blast means that the action happened in the past.
The second branch of grammar deals with syntax. Syntax is the set of rules that gives meaning to the order of the words in the sentence. Syntax varies wildly from language to language, as there is no universal set of rules. In English, for example, adjectives often come before their nouns, as in the phrase “large house.” However, in Spanish, syntax dictates that adjectives usually come after the nouns they describe. The same phrase in Spanish would be “casa grande,” with the adjective coming after the noun it describes.
Grammar has and always will be incredibly intricate. As Steven Pinker wrote in 1994, “There are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone Age language” (Pinker 15). However, this is the innate beauty of language: complexity built out of simplicity. When you look at each of the different building blocks of language by themselves, they aren’t too hard to understand; in fact, at some points, they may even be seen as intuitive and simple. However, the infinite combination of words, phrases, and sentences that we are able to form with the aid of language enables us to express almost any emotion or feeling through language.
Stages in language development
While we often take human communication for granted, humans have an amazing knack when it comes to developing a high proficiency in language in such a short period of time. Many of us have tens of thousands of words stored in our minds as we go about our daily lives, and we are able to construct sentences with these words with almost perfect syntax with ease. We use approximately three words a second as we speak, and this is often done spontaneously, with little to no planning beforehand. This section seeks to explore how we get to this level of proficiency.
Each person enters this world as a tabula rasa for language; we have no knowledge of language at all, and for quite some time, we remain this way. At 4 months of age, babies begin to develop their receptive language, or ability to understand and comprehend spoken word. Initially, they begin to match sounds with moving lips. They prefer to be looking at the face that makes the sound, and they begin to learn that certain manipulations of the mouth make distinct sounds. Then, at 7 months of age, they are able to differential separate words from a stream of spoken sound.
What’s quite amazing is that researchers have found that young children around 7 months of age have an innate advantage when it comes to segmenting spoken sounds. A study conducted in the mid-1990s placed several adults and 7-month old children in rooms with a computer emitting a sound. To most of us, the sound that the computer was making would sound like completely random sounds jumbled together. However, the researchers had placed repeating syllables inside these sounds, and it turned out that the young children had an easier time distinguishing the repeating syllables than the adults (Meyers 387). This information plays a large role in studies of second language acquisition, which we will examine more closely when looking at critical periods for language acquisition.
At 4 months, children also begin developing their productive language. The first stage is referred to by scientists and psychologists as the babbling stage. During this stage, babies create random sounds strung together that have no meaning. Babbling is universally similar; in other words, a Chinese baby’s babbling would be no different from a Russian baby’s babbling. The household language has no bearing on the sounds created during this stage. However, if the babbling has no meaning, what is its purpose? The babbling stage is nature’s way of preparing the child for a vast array of phonemes, since different languages require different phonemes.
At 10 months, babbling has changed. Instead of ranging a vast array of phonemes, the sounds created by the child will be the same as the sounds of the household. At this point, a well-trained ear can listen to the sounds that a child makes and will be able to distinguish with a fair degree of certainty which language is spoken in the household. At this point, children are said to be functionally deaf to sounds outside of their native language. This is similar to scenario presented earlier contrasting a German speaker with an English speaker. Likewise, this effect can also be seen in Japanese adults who move to an English speaking country. Japanese speakers cannot differentiate between the English r- phoneme and the l- sounds. For instance, a Japanese speaker will hear the same thing when an English speaker says both right and light. This is because the Japanese speaker is functionally deaf to the difference between these two phonemes (Meyers 385).
Young children usually enter the stage known as the one-word stage around their first birthday. At this stage, most know that sounds convey meanings, and they are able to connect words with pictures. I addition, the children will usually begin to use one syllable phrases or short words to communicate with others. This stage is where the infant’s language begins to match the language spoken by the family in the household. Vocabulary acquisition is relatively moderate, with the infants learning around a word a week, but this speeds up to a word a day 18 months of age.
Finally, at the age of 2, children enter the two-word stage. Because the phrases used are usually in the noun-verb pattern, the speech is often called telegraphic speech since it resembles the short messages that telegraphs relayed. Also, just like the old telegraphs, the speech almost always follows the rules of syntax (big dog instead of dog big).
Once children move out of this stage, they usually begin to create longer phrases rather rapidly. An interesting fact that is noted regards children who get a late start in learning their language. This problem can arise if a child is an international adoptee, moving to a foreign country where another language is used in the household. Psychologists have noted that even though the children get a late start on learning the language, they move through all of the stages noted above, except they do so at a faster pace (Meyers 386).
Figure 2- Summary of stages of development
How we learn language
In the realms of psychology, many people have tried to explain the method behind how we acquire language at an early age. Although no universal theory has been developed, the contrasting views of two important people- B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky- provide differing opinions about language acquisition.
B. F. Skinner, a noted behaviorist, believed in a theory known as Operant learning. According to his theories, children acquired language through three well known principles: association, imitation, and reinforcement. Association deals with connecting sounds with words, images, or objects. A child who is told to point to his nose will be able to locate his own nose with practice. Imitation, the second principle, explains how children pick up grammar. Children hear adults using proper grammar, and then imitate the patterns that they hear. Finally, the last principle is reinforcement. According to Skinner, acquisition of language isn’t complete until children receive positive feedback for creating sentences or communicating correctly (Meyers 386).
When the famous linguist Noam Chomsky heard of Skinner’s theory of language acquisition, he believed that it didn’t explain the whole picture. Chomsky firmly believed that children learned new vocabulary and principles of grammar too quickly to be explained by Skinner’s Operant learning. For example, Chomsky pointed out that children tended to overgeneralize grammar rules when first starting out, creating fresh sentences using rules they hadn’t been taught before. In Chomsky’s view, language acquisition was like “helping a flower grow in its own way” (Holyoak and Thagard 170). Chomsky proposed the idea of a language acquisition device. Though it has not been proven scientifically, the concept behind the language acquisition device is that it acts as a switch box, with certain “switches” needing to be turned on or off in order to produce language. These switches are conditions that we are exposed to as we developed or language.
In addition to the language acquisition device, Chomsky also believed in a concept often called the “inborn universal grammar.” Chomsky noted that all of the world’s languages were built out of the same building blocks-nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Thus, we learn the specific grammar of languages that we experience readily, since universal grammar comes prewired into our brains. This proposal is supported by the fact that all children begin saying nouns before moving on to other parts of speech, such as verbs and adjectives.
While both Chomsky and Skinner propose valid arguments defending their theories, psychologists believe that true language acquisition is a medium between both theories. Skinner’s ideas were more related to the nurture aspect of the debate, while Chomsky believed in the nature side. As with almost every psychological subject, the true answer is that development is only possible with both nature and nurture working together.
Research has also shown that critical periods do in fact exist for language acquisition. Deaf children who received cochlear implants before the age of two developed far better speech than those who received the implants after the age of four. Children who aren’t exposed to language until the age of 2 or 3 receive a “rush of language,” “unleash[ing] their brain’s idle language capacity” (Meyers 387). These children usually go on to become strongly proficient in language skills.
However, children who haven’t been exposed to any language (such as deaf children without exposure to sign language) by the age of seven slowly start losing the ability to master any language. A recent study compared children deaf by birth who didn’t learn sign language until the age of nine with children who learned English before becoming deaf around the age of nine and learning sign language. The children who learned English first developed a far greater mastery of sign language than the children who were deprived of language. As Meyers concluded in his book, “when a young brain does not learn any language, its language-learning capacity never fully develops” (Meyers 388).
This window for language learning also plays a part in second language acquisition; those who wait longer to begin learning another language tend to have a more difficult time with the process. In a study done in the early 1990s, two researchers asked Korean and Chinese immigrants whether each of around 270 short sentences that they were displayed were grammatically correct or not. Some of the immigrants had come to the United States in their childhood, but all of the immigrants tested had lived in the United States for around 10 years. When the data was collected and documented, it was seen that the older the immigrant was when he or she arrived in America, the worse they performed on the grammar test. The results of the study are graphed in Figure 3. Research done into the brain’s involvement in second language acquisition is covered in the next section.
Figure 3- Results of the immigrant study
The biology behind language
When it comes to language and communication, people are ready to believe that many of the skills that we associate with language- reading, writing, and speaking- are governed by the same areas of the brain. However, studies looking into the effects of aphasias, or injuries that impair language ability, revealed some surprising results. According to Meyers, “some people with aphasia can speak fluently but cannot read (despite good vision), while others can comprehend what they read but not speakâ€¦ still others can write but not read, read but not write, read numbers but not letters, or sing but not speak” (Meyers 389).
Puzzled by the varying effects of aphasia, scientists began studying patients with these mental disorders and
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