PSYC 2450 Chapter Notes - Chapter 11: Language Acquisition Device, Noam Chomsky, Language Development

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Developmental Psyc Chapter 11
Language: a small number of individually meaningless symbols (sounds, letters, gestures) that
can be combined according to agreed-on rules to produce an infinite number of messages
Communication: the process by which one organism transmits information to and influences
Vocables: unique patterns of sound that a pre-linguistic infant uses to represent objects, actions,
and events
The Five Components of Language
Psycholinguistics: those who study the structure and development of children’s language
The most basic question that psycholinguistics have tried to answer is the “what” – what
must children learn to master the intricacies of their native tongue?
Researchers have concluded that 5 kinds of knowledge underlie the growth of linguistic
proficiency phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics
1. Phonology
Phonology refers to the basic units of sound, or phonemes, that are used in a language
and the rule for combining these sounds
Phonology: the sound system of a language and the rules for combining these sounds to
produce meaningful units of speech
Phonemes: the basic units of sound that are used in a spoken language
Each language uses only a subset of sounds that humans are capable of generating and no
two languages have precisely the same phonologies
2. Morphology
Rules of morphology specify how words are formed from sounds
In English, these rules include the rule for forming past tenses of verbs by adding ed, the
rule for forming plurals by adding s, rules for using other prefixes and suffixes, and
rules that specify proper combinations of sounds to form meaningful words
3. Semantics
Semantics refers to the meanings expressed in words and sentences
the smallest meaningful units of language are called morphemes, and there are two types
Free morphemes can stand alone as words (e.g. dog) whereas bound morphemes
cannot stand alone but change meaning when attached to a free morpheme (e.g. adding
the bound morpheme s to the word dog means that the speaker is talking about more
than one animal)
4. Syntax
Syntax are the rules that specify how words are to be combined to form meaningful
phrases and sentences
Example: 1. Garfield Odie bit. 2. Garfield bit Odie 3. Odie bit Garfield
The second and third sentences are grammatical English sentences that contain the same
words but convey different meanings
5. Pragmatics
Pragmatics is the knowledge of how language might be used to communicate effectively
o More specifically, the principles that underlie the effective and appropriate use of
language in social contexts
Pragmatics also involves sociolinguistic knowledge culturally specified rules that
dictate how language should be used in particular social contexts
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A 3 year old may not realize that the best way to get a cookie from grandma is to say
“grandma, may I please have a cookie?” rather than demanding, “Give me a cookie”
Children must become social editors
The task of becoming an effective communicator requires not only a knowledge of these
5 aspects of language but also an ability to properly interpret and use nonverbal signals
(facial expressions, gestures and so on)
Theories of Language Development
In addressing the “how” question, we will once again encounter a nativist/empiricist
(nature/nurture) controversy
Learning theorists represent the empiricist point of view from their perspective,
language is obviously learned
These linguistic universals (an aspect of language development that all children share)
suggested to nativists that language acquisition is a biologically programmed activity that
may even involve highly specialized linguistic processing capabilities that operate most
effectively early in childhood
There are three different perspectives on language acquisition
1. The Learning (or Empiricist) Perspective
Learning theorists have emphasized the processes imitation and reinforcement
B.F. Skinner’s book: Verbal Behaviour – argued that children learn to speak
appropriately because they are reinforced for grammatical speech
He believed that adults begin to shape a child’s speech by selectively reinforcing those
aspects of babbling that most resemble words, thereby increasing the probability that
these sounds will be repeated
Once they have “shaped” sounds into words, adults then withhold further reinforcement
(attention or approval) until the child begins combining words, first into primitive
sentences and then into longer grammatical utterances
Evaluation of the Learning Perspective
Parents who frequently encourage conversations and who produce many novel and
sophisticated words in the context of play, storybook reading, and other supportive
interventions have children who are more advanced in their language development
Despite these observations, learning theorists have had little success accounting for the
development of syntax
If a child gazing at a cow says, “Him cow” (truth-based but grammatically incorrect), his
mother is likely to approve (“That’s right!”), yet if the child says, “There’s a dog!”
(grammatically correct but untruthful), his mother would probably correct him (“No,
that’s a cow!”)
Many of a child’s earliest sentences are highly creative statements such as “Allgone
cookie” that do not appear in adult speech and could not have been learned by imitation
2. The Nativist Perspective
Nativists believe that human beings are biologically programmed to acquire language
Noam Chomsky argued that the structure of even the simplest of languages is incredibly
elaborate far too complex, he believed, to be either taught by parents, as Skinner
proposed, or discovered via simple trial-and-error processes by cognitively immature
toddlers and preschool children
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Instead, Chomsky proposed that humans come equipped with a language acquisition
device (LAD) an inborn linguistic processor that is activated by verbal input
Language acquisition device (LAD): innate knowledge of grammar that humans were
said to possess, which might enable young children to infer the rules governing others
speech and to use these rules to produce language
According to Chomsky, the LAD contains a universal grammar, or knowledge of
universal rules common to all language
Dan Slobin does not assume that children have any innate knowledge of language (as
Chomsky did), but he thinks that they have an inborn language-making capacity
(LMC) a set of cognitive and perceptual abilities that are highly specialized for
language learning
Presumably, these innate mechanisms (a LAD or LMC) enable young children to possess
linguistic input and to infer the phonological regularities, semantic relations, and rules of
syntax that characterize whatever language they are listening to
Support for the Nativist Perspective
Nativists interpret these linguistic universals as clear evidence that language must be
guided by some species-specific biological blueprint
Even some retarded children who perform very poorly on a broad range of cognitive
tasks nevertheless acquire a near-normal knowledge of syntax and become adequate
Brain Specialization and Language
The brain is a lateralized organ with major language centres in the left cerebral
Damage to one of these language areas typically results in aphasia a loss of one or more
language functions
The symptoms an aphasic displays depend on the site and the extent of the injury
Injuries to Broca’s area, near the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere typically affect
speech production (language production) rather than comprehension
By contrast, patients who suffer an injury to Wernicke’s area, on the temporal lobe of
the left hemisphere, have difficulty understanding speech but may speak fluently albeit
nonsensically (it is responsible for interpreting speech)
The Sensitive-Period Hypothesis
Nativist Erik Lenneberg proposed that languages should be most easily acquired between
birth and puberty, the period when the lateralized human brain is becoming increasingly
specialized for linguistic functions
Sensitive-period hypothesis: notion that human beings are most proficient at language
learning before they reach puberty
the sensitive period hypothesis was prompted by observations that child aphasics often
recover their lost language functions without special therapy, whereas adult aphasics
usually require extensive therapeutic interventions to recover even part of their lost
language skills
what about learning a second language? Is acquiring a foreign language a tougher task for
a post-pubertal adolescent whose sensitive period for language learning is over?
o This may be the case
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