PSYC 352 Final: Language Development

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7 Sep 2020
Language not just communication -> Systematic and conventional use of sounds, signs, or written
symbols for the intention of communication or self-expression
o Symbolic: units of language represent something in an arbitrary way
Words we use have no essential relationship with the things they’re referring to
i.e. “pen” doesn’t map onto the item itself, which is seen by the fact that other
languages have different words for them
o Grammatical: abides by a finite system of rules that is generative
We can produce and understand words that have never been said before because
of the rules, only in certain ways due to these morphological rules i.e. only way
to make “pen” plural is by adding “s” at the end
Currently ~7K distinct languages in world
o The language that children learn is the one that has emerged in their community as the
one that they’ve settled on
Language develops in all biologically typical children without special instruction -> “Biologically
primary” ability
What needs to develop in language
o Communicative/pragmatic: how to use and understand language to achieve
communicative ends in appropriate (and as you get older,
polite) ways
Early in life, encompasses understanding that language is communicative
Can make contents in mind manifest to others, and others will
comprehend what those contents are
As you get older, learn that you can communicate through a lot more ways than
just your words i.e. tone of voice
o Phonological: how to segment, discriminate, attend to the relevant aspects of the
language that has meaning (phonological representations)
o Semantic: how to attach meanings of the relevant units of the language
o Morphological: that allow you to understand how words in the language are structured
to create new, related meanings i.e. singular to plural, present vs future
o Syntactic: how to put those words together to make statements, ask questions, etc.
o Evidence for these aspects is that they occur early in development
Three perspectives on how language develops
o Basic learning -> It’s just a consequence of how good we are at learning associations of
increasing complexity
Other animals out there that are also good at learning, but they don’t have
language because humans just more capable -> “Big brain” theory
o Nativist -> Children are biologically prepared to learn language and they do so with
specially evolved learning mechanisms
Not just quantitative difference but qualitative -> Humans uniquely prepared to
create these associations and syntactic rules
o Social-interactions -> Children are prepared to learn about the way people use language
from people who are trying, at least a little, to teach them
Environments structured in ways that makes learning language possible for
infants, aware of their mental states, that they need simpler stimulus to process
In the psychological study of children’s language development, particular theoretical approaches
tend to go together with particular aspects of language and time frames
o General learning -> Phonology and segmentation
o Nativism -> Morphology and syntax
o Social-interactionist -> Words and semantics
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Perceiving language sounds
o Two-day-old infants prefer to listen to own language
Kids in France played either French or English speaker, prefer French
Not just preference for human voices mother’s voice specifically – but distinct
rhythms, melodies (prosody) of their own language relative to a different one
These cues relevant to whole bunch of language and communication factors,
shows they have some sort of representation or memory for the distinct linguistic
features of their language
o Categorical perceptions of phonemes /r/ vs /l/ or /ba/ vs /da/
Along with perceptual narrowing i.e. age differences in /r/ vs /l/ discrimination in
Japanese vs English speakers
Distinction important for English but not Japanese -> Even though
6-month-old Japanese child can hear it, since it’s not important in
their language they can no longer hear it at 10 months
o What’s the learning mechanism?
Maybe domain-general statistical learning
Learning of language distribution may slow down when our distinctions increase
Exposing American and Taiwanese babies who’d never heard a second language
to Mandarin, during critical period
Babies take statistics on new language -> Those exposed to
language in lab had equal performance as Taiwanese infants
Maye et al., 2002
o Original, controlled experiment where 6-month-old infants hear /da/ vs /ta/ in
either unimodal (either mostly da or ta dotted line) or bimodal (mostly in
between sounds solid line) conditions
When we’re all talking quickly, there are distributions in where your
tongue is lined up, which is the distinction between the two sounds
o Wanted to know over one session if they could change their diet of auditory experience
o When tested later, infants in bimodal more sensitive to differences than those in unimodal
General learning mechanisms allow children to identify, distinguish, and segment the speech
stream into meaningful units i.e. daropi
o But can the same be true for other aspects of language?
B. F. Skinner “Verbal Behaviour”
o Thought that basically just the same way that we now know that babies learn to find
words, we also learn to arrange words
o By hearing particular words come after one another we come to identify grammatical
versus ungrammatical sentences
Noam Chomsky
o Notes that language is probably not best thought of as a bunch of specific words coming
after one another, but as a bunch of rules that we use to arrange kinds of words
o “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”
The everyday “transitional probability” between these words is near zero,
yet, we have no trouble identifying this as a grammatical sentence
o Sentence needs to be followed by a noun phrase, then a verb phrase
o Raises question of how you learn what a grammatical category, and how you
learn the rules for around them?
o Chomsky’s [controversial] idea -> We don’t really learn, we discover
We innately/instinctively know to look for the categories and rules, and then we
discover how those map into our language
How do we look for evidence of a language instinct?
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o Difficult to test, because we don’t know whether they learned it through development or
came with the ability
o Biological constraints of language development (such as critical periods)
o Language development in exception environments (pidgins to creoles)
The case of Simon (often used to talk about whether there’s an innate distinction for language)
o Born deaf to hearing parents, parents decide to learn sign to communicate with Simon
o Parents late learners so their production won’t be perfect (more errors than native signers)
o What does Simon’s production look like?
Mom and dad -> Well below native proficiency for their age
Simon -> Mostly at native proficiency for his age
Went “beyond his [environmental] input”
Whatever cognitive skills he’s bringing to language, able to use that not
so good input and turn it into better language
Idea that we have native, biological input for language
o Young children’s acquisition of rules of language appears to be spontaneous, attributable
to biologically based learning mechanisms that become increasingly poor with age
“Language learning not something the child does, but something that happens to the child placed
in an appropriate environment, much as the child’s body grows and matures in a predetermined
way” -Chomsky
o Interested in underlying structure of language -> Common representations in brain
o Brains programmed as language acquisition device
“Crux of argument that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it,
generation after generation not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart,
not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it” -Pinker
o Complex language is an instinct for children to learn
Language as a biological “instinct”
o Broca’s area -> Speech area, helps in movements required to produce speech
o Wernicke’s area -> Sensory area, helping in understanding speech and using correct
words to express thoughts
Sensitive/critical period: developmental period in which organization of cognitive/perceptual
system is critically dependent upon and maximally sensitive to
relevant experience
o Evidence for a neurodevelopmental constraint on learning -> Timing of experience
needed to set up systems is constrained to particular time period
After this period, biological reason for learning shutting down
Critical period hypothesis for language
o Prior to 6 years good at learning language, but start to see decline in ability to learn
language between 6 years and puberty
o Recovery from aphasia
Age at which damage occurs predicts course of recovery
If damage occurs early, language recovers well but if damage occurs late,
recovery weak
Onset of puberty seems to mark time at which recovery function seems to bottle
down -> No big difference between someone who is 18 and 36, but big
difference between 8 and 18
o Down syndrome
Language development delayed but mental age appropriate and in sequence
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