Introduction to Language
One of the most complex forms of communication.
Most psychologists consider only human communication to be language.
Natural Language: Regular
Researchers have identified 3 criteria that outline a “true” language.
First, language is regular, meaning that it is governed by rules and grammar.
A sentence can be reorganized and still retain its meaning because a system of
rules details how each word fits with the ones around it.
Natural Language: Arbitrary
What specific sound is assigned to represent a concept is completely arbitrary.
There is nothing about the sounds of the word cat to indicate that it refers to a
furry animal with whiskers and a tail.
Lack of resemblance between words and their meaning.
Natural Language: Productive
There are almost limitless ways to combine words to describe objects, situations,
This is particularly evident when observing native language development in
infants: infants have an impressive propensity for learning language and actively
experiment with novel word and sound combinations that have never been
The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis
You use language to communicate with others, but you also use language to
form your thoughts.
Although thought and language are not one in the same, some thoughts do take
the form of language, and some researchers have suggested that language may
influence how we perceive and experience the world this idea is know as the
One line of evidence supporting this hypothesis comes from the study of the
Piraha, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil.
The Piraha language contains only three counting words corresponding to one,
two and many.
According to the strongest version of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, his tribe
should have trouble understanding fine numerical concepts because the
language lacks words for the fine distinctions. Many researchers are continuing to debate the influence that language can have
on our thoughts.
The Structure of Language
All human languages contain some similar features.
All languages use sounds or words, or symbols, to transmit information.
The symbols are called morphemes- in oral language these are the smallest units
of sound that contain information.
In a manual, or sign language, morphemes are identified in units of signs rather
Morphemes themselves can form complete words and a single word can be
made up of more than one morpheme.
For example, the word table is a single word that contains one morpheme, but
the word tablecloth is a single word that contains two morphemes: table and
Each of these morphemes provide a different piece of information.
We can break a morpheme apart into its constituent sounds, called phonemes.
For example, the morpheme dog has three phonemes: /d/, /o/, and /g/.
Various languages contain different libraries of useable phonemes and rules
about how they can be combined.
Even within English, you can follow the rules of phoneme combinations to make
up a plausible word that has no meaning.
Syntax and Semantics
Each language has its own distinct rules about the order in which sounds and
words can be combined.
The rules that govern how words are grouped together to form a sentence is
called syntax, or more commonly, grammar.
Differences in syntactic rules among language are as varied as the cultures they
While syntax defines the set of rules that organize the words and sounds in
language, semantics refers to the meaning of each individual word.
And so, a sentence may have perfect syntactical structure yet have no semantic
meaning whatsoever. Development and the Segmentation Problem
Language production increases systematically throughout infancy and childhood.
Some of the major language milestones are shown in this table.
Babbling characterized by drawn-out sounds made up of a variety of
combinations of vowels and consonants.
o May sound like a real sentence or question because of the use of
inflection and rhythm in the production of the babble.
o Combinations progress to form real words.
At about one and a half to 6 years of age, children enter the ‘language
Vocabulary increases very rapidly, and most children have mastered the major
aspects of language.
Throughout childhood, the complexity of their syntax continues to improve.
Production vs. Comprehension
Although language production and comprehension may be limited by cognitive
development, other factors may be important.
For example, while an infant may progress to gain language comprehension,
language production can be limited by factors such as vocal anatomy.
A challenge to researchers is to consider this important distinction. The Segmentation Problem
This problem translates into your perception that a person speaking an
unfamiliar language is speaking very quickly.
This illusion is caused by the difficulty you have segmenting the speech stream
into word units.
It’s a bit like the disorientating effect of reading a sentence with no natural
breaks to guide you.
It’s much easier when the stream is naturally spaced apart into words.
Early speech segmentation skills showed a strong positive correlation with
expressive vocabulary at 2 years of age.
Most children who now had large expressive vocabularies had earlier
demonstrated good speech segmentation skills as infants, while most children
who now had small expressive vocabulary had demonstrated poorer speech
segmentation skills as infants.
The tendency for mothers to use higher pitch and exaggerated changes in pitch
when speaking to infants.
May help infants learn to segment speech.
Universal Phonetic Sensitivity
Very young infants can actually discriminate more phonemes than adults can.
Remember that not all languages use the same phonemes.
Universal Phoneme Sensitivity
Infants demonstrate universal phoneme sensitivity.
The ability of infants to discriminate between any sounds their tested on. Includes sounds from non-native languages.
The fact that adults cannot do so indicates that there may be some
developmental basis for phoneme discrimination influenced early in life.
Researchers rely on clever techniques such as the head-turn procedure to
indirectly measure perception of phonemes.
In the training phase, an infant learns to discriminate two different phonemes,
and turn his head toward the speaker.
When he does so to a new sound, he is rewarded with the presentation of a toy.
In the second phase, a particular phoneme becomes habituated by playing it
over and over again until the infant stops looking.
A new tes