Chapter 8 - Language and Thought
Language: turning thoughts into words
Cognition: refers to the mental processes involved in acquiring knowledge. Cognition and
language are closely linked. Cognition involves thinking
Language distinguishes humans from other animals
What is Language?
Language: consists of symbols that convey meaning, plus rules for combining those symbols, that
can be used to generate an infinite variety of messages
1. Language is symbolic; this expands what people can communicate about.
2. Language is semantic (meaningful): Arbitrary- words and their sound or looks don’t have no
3. Language is generative: a limited variety of words can make infinite sentences.
4. Language is structured: Sentences have to be structured in a limited way (grammar), this is
necessary for understanding of language.
The Structure of Language
Hierarchy structure of language:
Phonemes: smallest speech units in a language that can be distinguished perceptually. Phonemes
are sounds. Alphabets can have more than one phoneme.
Morphemes and Semantics
Morphemes: the smallest units of meaning in a language.
Semantics: area of language concerned with understanding the meaning of words and word
combinations. Word’s meaning consists of denotation and connotation.
Syntax: a system of rules that specify how words can be arranged into sentences. A simple rule
would be that a sentence must have a subject and a verb.
Milestones in Language Development
How children learn to pronounce words, then use of single words and then ability to combine
words to form sentences.
Moving Toward Producing Words
Babies learn the structure of their native language before even speaking it.
Infants are well prepared to learn language- acquisition of phonology.
Optimal periods for the different subsystems involved in language acquisition.
During first 6 months babies coo cry and laugh. Then they bable, and then produce sounds that
are corresponding to phonemes of their native language ( eg. “lalalalalalala”). By 7.5 months infants recognize common word forms- 8 months they show first signs of understanding meaning
of familiar words. Babbling becomes complex and starts to resemble language spoken by parents.
Babbling lasts until 18 months and continuing after children learn first words.
Two views on babbling:
1. Motor achievement- babbling reflects the brain’s maturation in controlling the motor
operations needed to eventually produce speech. Developing and practicing sounds.
Babbling is a by-product of brain development.
2. Linguistic achievement- discover and produce the patterned structure of a natural
language. Babbling allows babies to get basics of language. This is supported by studies.
10-13 months: most children utter sounds that correspond to words. Words like papa and mama
are common names for parents in most language because they are easy to produce.
After first words, vocabulary grows slowly. 18 months- can say between 3-50 words. Receptive
vocab is bigger than productive vocab- comprehend more words than can say words. Babies can
typically understand nouns better than verbs because nouns are concrete and non-abstract
18-24 months: vocabulary spurt. Some 2-year olds learn more than 20 words every week.
Fast mapping: process by which children map a word onto an underlying concept after only one
Overextension: occurs when a child incorrectly uses a word to describe a wider set of objects or
actions than it is meant to. Eg. “ball” for every round object . ages 1-2.5
Under-extensions: occurs when a child incorrectly uses a word to describe a narrower set of
objects or actions than it is meant to. Eg. “Doll” to refer to a single, favourite doll.
Combine words at end of second year.
Telegraphic speech: consists mainly of content word; articles, prepositions, and other less critical
words are omitted. Eg. Child may say “give doll” instead of “please give me the doll”
Mean length of utterance (MLU)- the average length of youngsters’ spoken statements (measured
in morphemes). Vocal expressions become longer as children grow and combine words.
Over-regularization: occur when grammatical rules are incorrectly generalized to irregular cases
where they do not apply. Eg. “the girl goed home” or “I hitted the ball” universal in all languages,
children learn rules of language but not grammar.
Refining Language Skills
4-5 years- largest language strides. School training helps them make complex and longer
sentences. Through written language. Begin to understand ambiguity in language (same sentence
can mean different).
Metalinguistic awareness: the ability to reflect on the use of language. Children begin to “play”
with language- puns and jokes. Make use of metaphors.
6-8: appreciate irony and sarcasm. Right hemisphere plays key role in understanding sarcasm even
though left hemisphere dominates language.
Learning more than one language: Bilingualism
Bilingualism: acquisition of two languages that use different speech sounds, vocabulary, and
grammatical rules. Nearly half of world grows up bilingual. Does Learning Two Languages in Childhood Slow Down Language Development?
Kids who know two languages know as small number of words in both languages and kids with
one language know a lot in their one language. But kids who have both languages in total know
more vocab then kids who know one language.
Little evidence of language disadvantage. Children can differentiate the languages before saying
first word. Bilingual and monolingual have similar development in language acquisition
Does Bilingualism Affect Cognitive Processes and Skills?
1. Bilingualism has cognitive advantage. They score higher in cognitive flexibility, analytical
reasoning, selective attention and metalinguistic awareness. French immersion enhances literacy
2. Bilingualism is associated with higher controlled processing. On tasks that require control and
attention. Bilinguals can juggle the two languages (lol so true).
3. Bilingual individuals show increase of grey matter in left inferior parietal cortex. Early bilingual
experience is good for language processing.
What Factors Influence the Acquisition of a Second Language?
Younger is better for acquiring languages
Acculturation: the degree to which a person is socially and psychologically integrated into a new
culture. Greater acquisition= greater effect in learning the language of that culture
Learner’s motication and attitude towards people of that language. Integrative motivation-
willingness to be like valued members of the language community.
Can Animals Develop Language?
Washoe- taught her ASL. Acquired vocabulary of 120 words and combined it to form sentences
such as “washoe sorry” or “gimme flower”
Showed little evidence of mastering rules of language
The sentences were products of operant conditioning and imitation instead of product of language
Kanzi- taught him ASL, acquired hundreds of words and combined them in 1000s of ways. Many
were spontaneous and seemed to follow rules of language.
Tested if Kanzi understood spoken language- he could carry out 72% of the requests correctly.
Understood sentence structure “put coke in lemonade” and “put lemonade in coke”
Chimps have an analogous area in the left hemisphere ( neurological substrates underlying
language may be present in chimps)
Babies are better at language than the most trained chimps- humans are far superior in language
Language in Evolutionary Context
Language is an innate human characteristic.
Product of natural selection. Language has enormous adaptive value. Language evolved as a
device to build and maintain social coalitions in increasingly larger groups.
“communication of knowledge and intentions” – MANY genes are responsible for language. Theories of Language Acquisition
Nature vs nurture.
Skinner- “verbal behaviour”. Children learn language through imitation, reinforcement, and other
principles of conditioning. Reinforcing verbal behaviour is how children learn language.
Noam Chomsky- infinite sentences in language. Children learn rules of language , not specific
verbal responses. Parents won’t shape their kids language by reinforcement because they
understand what the kids are saying. Children have a inborn or ‘native’ propensity to develop
Language acquisition device (LAD)- an innate mechanism or process that facilitates the learning of
language. This is what nativist theory proposes. Humans learn language because they are