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Chapter 9: Language & Communication
THE ROAD TO SPEECH
Elements of Language
• Language is a system that relates sounds or gestures to meaning. It differs from simple
o It has arbitrary units, and is therefore symbolic. The words only have meaning because meaning
has been assigned to those sounds.
o It is structured and meaningful
o It shows displacement. One can communicate about events distant in time and space
o It is characterized by generativity. One can produce an infinite number of utterances from a
language’s vocabulary, provided one follows grammatical structure.
• In language development, comprehension always precedes production
• Spoken languages usually consist of 5 distinct but interrelated elements:
o Phonology: The sounds of a language. In English, all words are constructed from 45 sound
o Morphology: The rules of meaning within a language. The smallest unit of meaning is a
morpheme, which are meaningful combinations of phonemes. Free morphemes can stand alone,
while bound morphemes cannot, such as “-s” for plurals or “-ing” suffix. Morphemes are NOT
syllables: “happy” is one morpheme, “unhappy” is two, “unhappiness” is three.
o Semantics: The study of words and their meaning. E.g. Dictionaries
o Grammar: Rules that describe structure of a language. The most important element is syntax,
which specifies how words are combined to form sentences.
o Pragmatics: The study of how people use language to communicate effectively.
• Learning a language necessitates mastering: learn to hear differences in speech sounds and how to
produce them, learn meaning of words and rules for combining them, learn appropriate and effective
ways to talk to others.
• Phonemes are unique sounds that can be joined to create words, and act as the basic building blocks
of language. This includes “t” in toe and tap, or the vowel “e” in get and bed
• Infants can distinguish these sounds as early as 1 month. This is demonstrated in habituation studies;
a baby is given a pacifier connected to a tape recorder, and soon learns that sucking rapidly turns on the
loudspeaker. After some time, infants tire of this repetitive sound and suck less often; however, if the tape
is changed to a different sound, infants suck rapidly again – they recognize it is different, and suck more
often to hear it.
• Speech perception at 6 months strongly correlated with later language skills
• Infants can distinguish between speech and non-speech sounds, listening longer to speech sounds
• Infants use visual cues about sounds – notice when video shows “ba” but audio is “sha”
The Impact of Language Exposure
• Not all languages use the same set of phonemes – for example, French differentiates between nasal
and non-nasal sounds, but English does not.
• Evolutionarily, an infant is adaptive and can perceive a wide range of phonemes at birth – has ability to
learn any language from its environment. Page 298-335, 37 pages Page 2 of11
• Ability to distinguish phonemes not in native language declines over first year. At 6 months, infants in
both Japanese and English-speaking environments can distinguish r in rip from l in lip, but by 11-12
months only infants in English-speaking environments can.
• Why is it lost? Partially due to decline in environmental experience, with infant needing continual
stimulation to maintain the ability to perceive and discriminate phonemes. With time, they perceptually re-
organize to match the native language they are most exposed to, specializing in one.
• A challenge for infants is to identify recurring patterns of sounds, i.e. words. When 7-8 month olds
hear a word repeatedly in different sentences, they later pay more attention to this word than other novel
• How do infants distinguish individual words where there are no gaps between spoken words? Stress is
an important clue – stressed one-syllable words and stressed-unstressed two-syllable words (doughnut)
• However, there are also unstressed-stressed two-syllable words (surprise). Infants also use statistical
methods, noticing syllables that go together frequently. After given a steady flow of syllables like pa bi ku
and da ro pi, they pay less attention to these familiar patterns than novel combinations like tu da ro later
• Other rules used include statistical analysis of sound pairings: st and sd sounds are both quite
common at the end of one word and beginning of another (bus takes, this dog) but while st occurs
frequently within words (stop), sd does not. Thus, the sd sound signals a new word.
• Infant-Directed Speech includes adults speaking slowly and with exaggerated changes in pitch and
loudness to engage infants, aka motherese. This pace and accentuated changes provide infants with
salient language clues.
• Phonetic category learning when infants distinguish stress patterns as phonemic distinctions, aided
by infant-directed speech using exaggerated forms of phonetic distinctions.
• 10% of deaf youngsters are born to deaf parents, and these children master sign language in much the
same way and at the same pace as hearing children with spoken language.
• The remaining 90% are born to speaking parents, and are typically made to learn spoken language by
lip reading and speech therapy; however, this is rarely effective.
• Cochlear implants pick up sounds and convert them to electrical impulses to stimulate auditory nerve
cells. Do these implants provide sufficient quality sensory information to guide language acquisition?
• Language development clearly enhanced in children with cochlear implants, received at average age
4.5 years, but may still be substantially behind hearing children. An implant also requires other forms of
therapy for best results.
First Steps to Speech
• Cooing starts at 2 months, with vowel-like sounds such as “oooooooooo” or “ahhhhhhhh”
• Babbling starts around 6 months, and are speech-like sounds with no meaning, such as single syllable
sounds like “bah” and “dah”. Babbling becomes more elaborate as babies experiment with more complex
speech sounds, like “dahmahbah”
• Babbling is fundamentally linguistic: When adults speak, mouth open somewhat wider on right side due
to left hemisphere’s control of language; this is the same for infants when they babble, but not with other
• Intonation, the pattern of rising or falling pitch, starts appearing in babbling at 8-11 months. This
includes declarative pattern (pitch falls towards end) and the questioning pattern (pitch rises at end). Page 298-335, 37 pages Page 3 of11
• The appearance of intonation is evidence that babbling is influenced by characteristics of the speech
• Through babbling, infants learn to use lips, tongue, and teeth to produce specific sounds which
gradually approximate real words
Approximate Age Major Linguistic Development
Birth Vegetative, undifferentiated sounds; reflexive, nonintentional sounds like crying or burping
2 months Greater variation in cries
Cooing to indicate comfort and pleasure
4 months Distinctive cries to signal specific states
Cooing and laughing
6 months Babbling with repeated vowel-consonant pairs
Ignore distinctions among sounds not used in language of environment
8-12 months Echolalia: Immediate imitation of words
Variegated babbling with multiple, differing syllables
Jargon babbling which includes native language intonation patterns, rhythms, and stresses
Protowords: Consistent sound patterns to refer to specific objects and events
One year First true words, usually accompanied by gestures, babbling, and protowords
Understand about 50 words
18 months Naming explosion, learn 10 or more words a week
2 years Telegraphic speech
3 years Simple pragmatics
4 years Rules of grammar
6 years Know about 10,000 words
LEARNING THE MEANING OF WORDS
• Most infants say their first words around 1 year, an extension of advanced babbling and consisting of a
repeated consonant-vowel pair, such as Mama.
• Other words include those for animals, food, body parts, and clothing, particularly for children who
already have some sensorimotor concepts, notably “concrete” and items they commonly interact with
Understanding Words as Symbols
• Speech is more than just entertaining sound, rather it refers to objects, actions, and properties – words
are recognized as symbols that stand for other entities.
• Children also use symbols in other areas, such as gestures. Children may smack their lips to indicate
hunger, or wave “bye bye” when leaving.
• Gesture pave the way for language, convenient substitute for “it” and causes the adult to say the
Fast Mapping Meanings to Words
• Naming Explosion occurs at 18 months, where new words – particularly names of objects – are
learned much more rapidly than before, about 10 or more each week.
• This is particularly impressive when we realize words have many plausible but incorrect references;
when denoting a flower as “flower”, it could actually refer to the petals, the colour of the flowers, or the
action of pointing to the flowers.
• Fast Mapping is children’s ability to connect new words to their meanings rapidly in just a few
presentations, rejecting all the other possible meanings
• Parents encourage word learning by observing what interests their children. When toddlers turn their
attention to an object by looking or touching, parents often label it for them. Page 298-335, 37 pages Page 4 of 11
• Infants readily tell apart when adults are labelling instead of just conversing – when adults are looking
at the object while saying its name, much more likely to be labelling.
• However, this is not required: children can also learn new words from use in ongoing conversation
Constraints on Word Names
• How does a toddler know banana refers to the object, as opposed to her activity with it (touching) or to
the object’s colour? Simple rules help limit conclusions about labels.
• 1) If an unfamiliar word is heard in presence of familiar objects that already have names, and objects
that don’t, the word refers to one of the objects that doesn’t have a name.
• 2) A name refers to a whole object, not its parts or its relations to others, and not just to this particular
object but to all of the same type. Dinosaur refers to the entire stuffed animal, not just its nose, and not
just to this one.
• 3) If an object already has a name and another name is presented, the new name denotes a
subcategory. Knowing dinosaur, when one is called a T-rex, the child concludes T-rex is a special type of
• 4) Given many similar category members, the word applied consistently to only one of them is a proper
noun – one dinosaur always called Dino
• The other familiar words and the overall sentence structure are helpful cues for a word’s meaning.
• E.g. When asked to point to “the boz block”, point to the one with
defining characteristics – adjective precedes the noun so boz
must be a special adjective, and only one block can be “the”
• Increasing cognitive skill helps the learning of new words. As thinking becomes more sophisticated to
encompass goals and intentions, language becomes a means to express those goals and achieve them
– intention provides an important motive to learn language.
• Improving the basic processes of attentional and perceptual skills also help. An object’s shape can be
used to learn new words, e.g. “ball” associated with a specific tennis ball, then all similarly-shaped
objects – reach conclusion balls are round. The rule is that objects that have the same shape have the
• If shape bias helps learn words, then age of emergence of shape bias should coincide with jump in
number of learned names. The child subjects were told to give all U-shaped “dax” objects to the
experimenter, from other objects of the same colour or material but different shape.
• Onset of shape bias (give only U-shaped objects but no others) and onset of naming explosion (10 or
more new words in a week) highly correlated at 0.85
• Underextension is defining a word too narrowly, such as car only for the family car.
• Overextension is defining a word too broadly, typically at ages 1-3. Includes using car to refer to
buses. This error occurs more frequently when children are producing words, than when comprehending
words – it may reflect another fast-mapping rule to say the name of a related object if you can’t
remember its name.
Individual Differences in Word Learning
• The range in vocabulary size at one age, and timing of the naming explosion differs greatly. At 18
months, the typical age of the naming explosion milestone, the range can be anywhere from 25 words in
the 10 percentile to 250 in the 90 percentile. Heredity plays a small role, along with 2 other factors.
• Phonological Memory is the ability to remember speech sounds briefly, often measured by asking
children to repeat a nonsense word such as “ballop”. Children who have difficulty remembering speech Page 298-335, 37 pages Page 5 of11
sounds accurately find word learning particularly challenging, as it involves associating meaning with an
unfamiliar sequence of speech sounds.
• Language environment is single most important factor in vocabulary growth, particularly number of
words to which a child is exposed to in early years. A longitudinal study from ages 7 months to 3 years
found that children from professional families heard 30 million more words than children from the lowest
socioeconomic group – exposure to high-quality and quantity of language are important to number of
words learnt and grammatical sophistication.
Word Learning Styles
• Referential Style is vocabulary consisting mainly of words that name objects, persons, or actions.
Expressive style focuses on social phrases used as a single word, such as “go away” or “I want it” and
question words like “what”
• Children differ in their word learning based on these two basic styles, along a continuum. For children
with referential emphasis, language is primarily an intellectual tool for learning and talking about
objects; for expressive children, language is more of a social tool.
Encouraging Word Learning
• Children learn more rapidly if their parents speak to them frequently. Parents can also foster learning by
naming objects that are the focus of a child’s attention in everyday life. Reading is another fun
• When parents describe pictures as they read, preschoolers’ vocabularies increase; simply reading the
story is not as effective. Stopping periodically to ask questions which the child could answer with a
target word is also effective – helps engage children and aid comprehension
• Asking questions provides children the opportunity to practice saying or using the word, and forces
children to identify meanings of new words
• Television programs can also help word learning, especially Sesame Street which involves children in
interactive language activities over other cartoons
• Children who read frequently tend to have larger vocabularies, with written material almost always
containing more unfamiliar words than conversational language
Growing Up Bilingual
• In 2001, more than 5 million Canadians, or 1 in 6 people, had a mother tongue other than English or
• When 1 and 2-year olds learn two languages simultaneously, they may progress somewhat slowly at
first due to mixing words from the two. By age 3 or 4, however, children separate the languages and
become proficient in both by elementary school.
• Bilingual children may have somewhat smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual
children, but their total vocabulary is greater.
• Bilingual preschoolers are better in other language skills; they are more likely to understand printed
word form is unrelated to word meaning – metalinguistic understanding of words as symbolic
o Less likely to believe words denoting large objects are longer than words for small objects (e.g.
bus vs bug)
o More likely to understand that, as long as all English speakers agreed, then dog could refer cats
and cat could refer to dogs
• Bilingualism may have an effect on reading ability, report that French Immersion students tend to
perform better on reading tests than non-immersion students even with socioeconomic factors taken into
account. Page 298-335, 37 pages Page 6 of 11
• However, no effect when reading Chinese and English. This may be because Chinese is an
ideographic character-based language, while English and French are written using the same letters and
constructs – difference in medium of presentation may mean reading effects not pronounced.
• At the same time, the different word and grammatical structures may foster cognitive fluency
• Allophones are people who speak a language other than one of the two official languages of Canada
• Research shows the best method of schooling for immigrant children uses the child’s native language
and the local language. Initially, they receive basic English-language teaching while other subjects are
taught in native language; gradually, more instruction is in English to accompany child’s growing
proficiency in it.
• This is similar for Anglophone children in French Immersion schooling
• Exposure to bilingual materials can help people improve or maintain competency, although minimal
input of overhearing that language occasionally is not sufficient to learn it.
Beyond Words: Other Symbols
• Words are powerful and useful symbols; children also learn other symbol systems, such as pictures –
which are not the actual object but a representation of it. 9 month olds may try to grasp a rattle in a