Psychology- Chapter 8: Language & Thought
What is Language?
A language consists of symbols that convey meaning, plus rules
for combining those symbols, that can be used to generate an
infinite variety of messages.
First, language is symbolic. Symbols allow one to refer to
objects that may be in another place and to events that
happened another time. People use spoken sounds and written
words to represent objects, actions, events, and ideas.
Second, language is semantic, or meaningful. The symbols used
in language are arbitrary in that no built-in relationship
exists between the look or sound of words and the objects they
stand for. Ex. The word pen has shared meanings for people who
speak English, French, and Spanish.
Third, language is generative. A limited number of symbols can
be combined in an infinitive variety of ways to generate and
endless array of novel messages. You comprehend many sentences
that you have never encountered before and you create
sentences that you have never spoken before.
Fourth, language is structured. Rules govern the arrangement
of words into phrases and sentences; some arrangements are
acceptable and some are not. The structure of language allows
people to be inventive with words and still understand each
The Structure of Language
Human languages have a hierarchical structure.
Basic sounds are combined into units with meaning, which are
combined into words. Words are combined into phrases, which
are combined to sentences.
Phonemes are the smallest speech units in a language that can
be distinguished perceptually.
A letter in the alphabet can represent more than one phoneme
if it has more than one pronunciation.
Ex. The letter a is pronounced differently in the words
father, had, call, and take. Each of these pronunciations
corresponds to a different phoneme.
Morphemes & Semantics
Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language.
Many words such as fire, guard, and friend consists or a
Ex. The word unfriendly consists of three morphemes: the root
word friend, the prefix un, and the suffix ly.
Semantics is the area of language concerned with understanding
the meaning of words and word combinations.
Learning about semantics entails learning about the infinite
variety of objects and actions that words refer to. A words meaning may consists of both its denotation, which is
dictionary definition, and its connotation, which includes its
emotional overtones and secondary implications.
Syntax is a system of rules that specify how words can be
arranged into sentences.
A simple rule of syntax is that a sentence must have both a
subject and a verb.
Moving toward Producing Words
Janet Werker argues that human infants are well prepared to
learn language and that babies have perceptual biases that
facilitate and guide the acquisition of phonology.
Some of these perceptual biases that facilitate language
acquisition may be derived from listening to speech in utero.
Werker argues that there are optimal periods for the different
subsystems involved in language acquisition but that they are
not as rigidly absolute as is sometimes thought (she prefers
the term optimal period to terms such as critical period or
sensitive period because the latter imply more invariance in
the onset and offset periods).
By 7.5 months, infants begin to recognize common word forms
and by eight months many infants shows the first signs of
understanding the meanings of familiar words.
During the first six months of life, a babys vocalizations
are dominated by crying, cooing, and laughter, which have
limited value as a means of communication. Soon, infants are
babbling, producing a wide variety of sounds that corresponds
to phonemes and, eventually, many repetitive consonant-vowel
combinations, such as lalalalala.
Babbling gradually becomes more complex and increasingly
resembles the language spoken by parents and others in the
childs environment. Babbling lasts until around 18 months,
continuing even after the children utter their first words.
According to Laura-Ann Petitto, babbling is considered to be
one of the monumental milestones in language acquisition.
While most agree that babbling is a universal stage in
language acquisition, there is considerable disagreement about
its origins. One view is that babbling is a motor achievement
in which the babbling reflects the brains maturation in
controlling the motor operations needed to eventually produce
speechin essence, developing and practising the mechanics of
Here the babbling is a byproduct of the development of the
brain and its control over motor operations. An alternative
view is that it is a key linguistic achievement, a mechanism
that affords the infant the opportunity to both discover and
produce the patterned structure of natural language.
Using Words Toddlers typically can say between 3 and 50 words by 18
months. However, their receptive vocabulary is larger than
their productive vocabulary. That is, they can comprehend more
words spoken by others than they can actually produce to
Toddlers early words tend to refer most often to objects and
secondarily to social actions.
Children probably acquire nouns before verbs because the
meanings of verbs, which often refer to more abstract
relationships. However, this may not apply to all languages.
Youngsters vocabulary soon begin to grow at a fast pace, as a
vocabulary spurt often begins at around 18-24 months.
By the first grade, the average child has a vocabulary of 10
000 words, which builds to 40 000 words by fifth grade.
Fast mapping is the process by which children map a word onto
an underlying concept after only one exposure. Thus, children
often add words to their vocabularies after their first
encounter with objects.
An overextension occurs when a child incorrectly uses a word
to describe a wider set of objects or actions than it is meant
to. Ex. A child might use the word ball for anything round
oranges, apples, even the moon.
Overextensions usually appear in childrens speech between
ages one and two-and-a-half.
Toddlers also tend to be guilty of underextensions, which
occur when a child incorrectly uses a word to describe a
narrower set of objects or actions that it is meant to. Ex. A
child might use the word doll to refer only a single,
Telegraphic speech consists mainly of content words; articles,
prepositions, and other less critical words are omitted. Thus,
a child might say Give doll rather than Please give me the
Telegraphic speech is not cross-culturally universal.
Researches sometimes track language development by keeping
tabs on subjects mean length of utterance (MLU)the average
length of youngsters spoken statements (measured in
Overregulations occur when grammatical rules are incorrectly
generalized to irregular cases where they do not apply. Ex.
Children will say things like The girl goed home or I
hitted the ball.
Cross-cultural research suggests that these overregulations
occur in all languages.
Refining Language Skills
Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to reflect on the use