CH 1: How do we Acquire Language?
• Acquiring language begins in the womb for hearing fetuses, and our accessible memories
don’t go back that far
• A common misconception: Children need to be taught language
o Acquiring language happens naturally
• Children don’t need to be taught language in an explicit and conscious way
o There are language communities in which no conscious language teaching occurs, but
language acquisition proceeds normally Ex. Somoa
o Conscious language teaching is not necessary for first language acquisition
• Mimicking alone is not a sufficient means of acquiring language.
o In the case of the Wild Boy of Aveyron in 1799, he never acquired more than a small
vocabulary, with no signs of a system of rules for putting those words together.
o Genie, in 1970 had been living in captive isolation that limited both her physical activity
and her linguistic input. She never progressed beyond an unsystematic stringing together
of a few words, and in middle age she stopped talking altogether.
o There are children often raised by depraved adults who never acquired facility with
language and often researchers attempted to teach these children to mimic, but mimicry
did not result in language acquisition.
• Most children, although not overtly corrected by their parents when they make linguistic
mistakes, are exposed to a tremendous amount of language modeling. Most children do a lot
of mimicry as part of the process of acquiring language.
• Overt teaching is not necessary, and mimicry is not sufficient. Biology is the crucial factor.
• Members of a British family who exhibited an inherited and rare language disorder were
studied. When another child (not related) was found who exhibited the same severe disorder,
a gene called FOXP2 was discovered (in 2001). FOXP2 is directly involved in language ability.
• Language is a biological matter, and humans diverged from chimps and other primate lineages
in this regard approximately 4.6-6.2 million years ago.
• Linguists have hypothesized that there is a language mechanism in the brain (physical
mechanism), that is responsible for all aspects of language, including learning, processing,
o This mechanism is probably physiologically discontinuous, and various parts of the
language mechanism are located in separate spots in the brain, and they work together to
produce comprehensive language ability.
o The language mechanism somehow changes at an early age, perhaps the age of 5 so the
ability to acquire a first language after that critical period is diminished or even erased.
• Data on linguistic damage and language pathologies provide evidence for the existence of the
o Strokes can result in severe language loss in a person whose intelligence is otherwise
o Damage to the front part of the brain’s left hemisphere results in the loss of the ability
to use a coherent word order & general sentence structure. The afflicted person produces
short & choppy utterances and exhibits a general lack of fluency Broca’s Aphasia
o Damage to the rear part of the brain’s left hemisphere results in loss of the ability to
use words appropriate to meaning, to interpret language, or both. Wernicke’s Aphasia
o Global Aphasia = Damage to the brain’s entire left hemisphere results in all of these
o In such instances, damage has been done to different parts of the language
• Also, certain pathologies are linked to congenital problems.
1 CH 1: How do we Acquire Language?
o Children born with spina bifida sometimes experience devastating retardation But they
can articulately recount imagined events (that never occurred), sounding entirely of
normal intelligence when they do so Here the language mechanism clearly operates
independently of the damaged intelligence.
o Some children are born with a set of syndromes that have been called specific
language impairments (SLI) = these children do not have abnormal intelligence or any
kind of sensory or emotional, social, or behavioral problems. They have trouble
understanding language and producing well-formed sentences The language
mechanism has a pathology independent of any other brain function
• The language mechanism exists in the brain as a physical entity and changes over time.
• The following cases are representative of ordinary language acquisition
o Newborns: recognize their mother’s voice. Newborns come into the world recognizing the
voices of their mother and those who constantly surround her. They have learned to pick
out certain sounds as relevant to their various needs and wants.
o Children 4 months old and younger have been studied to show that English speaking
children can pick out English from French and other languages, just as French-speaking
children can pick out French from English and other languages. The children’s
recognition of English is indicated by increased eye activity and heartbeat. So by very
early in the 1 year of life, children manage to separate, from all of the various noises
they encounter, not just speech sounds but also the speech sounds of their own, native
language They are on the road to acquire the sound system of their language.
o Children exposed to ordinary talk acquire speech at the same rate as those exposed to
large amounts of motherese. Children learn to pick out individual words.