Chapter 9 Language and Thought
- English boy, Christopher...amazing talent for languages but scores on intelligence tests were far below
normal. Does not have cognitive capacity to make decisions, reason, or solve problems, but can speak 16
languages and learn them quickly. This is evidence that cognition is composed of distinct abilities.
- Language is a system for communicating with others using signals that are combined according to rules of
grammar and convey meaning.
- Grammar is a set of rules that specify how the units of language can be combined to produce meaningful
- Human language evolved from signaling systems used by other species but there are three differences
that make the human language unique: 1. The complex structure distinguishes from simpler signaling
systems. Most humans can express a wider range of ideas and concepts than are found in the
communication of other species, and can generate infinite number of novel sentences. 2. Humans use
words to refer to intangible things. 3. We use language to name, categorize, and describe things to
ourselves when we think, which influences how knowledge is organized in our brains.
- The smallest unit of sound that is recognizable as speech are phonemes (building blocks of spoken
- Phonological rules indicated how phonemes can be combined to produce speech sounds. People generally learn
these rules without instruction and if rules are violated=sounds like an accent.
- Phonemes are combined to make morphemes, the smallest meaningful units of language (pat, the, boy)
- All languages have grammar rules that generally fall into two categories: rules of morphology and rules of
syntax. Morphology rules indicate how morphemes can be combined to form words. Content and
function morphemes can stand alone.
- Content morphemes refer to things and events (“cat”, “take”). Function morphemes serve grammatical
functions such as tying sentences together (“and”) and indicating time (“when”).
- About half of the morphemes in human language are function morphemes...they are what make human
language grammatically complex.
- Syntactical rules indicate how words can be combined to form phrases and sentences (every sentence
must contain one or more nouns).
- Misunderstandings occur in language and it is often because of the differences between deep structure of
sentences vs. Surface structure.
- Deep structure refers to the meaning of a sentence. Surface structure refers to how a sentence is
- To generate a sentence, you begin with the deep structure (the meaning) and create a surface structure
(Particular words). When you comprehend a sentence, you do the reverse.
- Three characteristics of language development: 1. Children learn language at an astonishingly rapid rate. 1 yr.=
10 word vocab. Over 10,000 in next 4 yrs= 6 or7 words per day. 2. Children make few errors while learning to
speak, and when they do make errors it is a result of applying but over generalizing grammatical rules they’ve
learned. (over 3 mill. Ways to rearrange words in 10 word sentence, only a few and grammatically correct and
meaningful). 3. Children’s passive mastery of language develop faster than their active master. Children
understand lang. Better than they speak.
- Infants can distinguish among all of the contrasting sounds that occur in all human languages but lose this ability
within the first 6 months of life and can only distinguish among the contrasting sounds in the language they hear
spoken around them
- Between 4 and 6 months they begin to babble speech sounds
- All infants go through the same babbling sequence. D and t appear in babbling before m and n. Deaf babies
babble sounds they’ve never heard. This is evidence that babies aren’t simply imitating the sounds they hear.
- At about 10 to 12 months of age babies begin to utter (or sign) their first words. 18 months= 50 words and can
understand more than that
- Fast mapping is when children map a word onto an underlying concept after only a single exposure, enables
them to learn at a rapid pace.
- Around 24 months, children begin to form two word sentences (“more milk”, “throw ball”). This is referred to as
telegraphic speech because they are devoid of function morphemes and consist mostly of content words.
Despite absence of function words, two word sentences tend to be grammatical.
The Emergence of Grammatical Rules
- As children acquire the grammatical rules of their language, they tend to over generalize
- Errors such as “runned” show that language acquisition is not simply a matter of imitating adult speech. Kids
acquire grammatical rules by listening to the speech around them and using the rules to create verbal forms
they’ve never heard
- By 3 yrs, children generate complete simply sentences. By 4 or 5 many aspects of language acquisition are
- Language development unfolds as a sequence of steps which could result from general cognitive development
that is unrelated to experience with a specific language. But by contrast might depend on experience with a
- If orderly sequence of milestones that characterize the acquisition of English by infants is a by product of general
cognitive development, then different patterns should be observed in older internationally adopted children,
who are more advanced cognitively than infants. But, if the milestones of language development are critically
dependant on experience with a specific language then language learning in adopted children should show the
same orderly progression.
- Language acquisition in preschool adopted children showed same orderly progression of milestones that
characterizes infants (began with one word utters, and then simple word combos). Their vocab (like infants)
initially dominated by nouns, and then produced a few function morphemes.
- Some of the key milestones of language development depend of experience with English
- Observed shifts in early language development reflect specific characteristics of language learning rather than
general limitations of cognitive development
Theories Of Language Development
- 3 theories of language development: Skinner’s behaviourist explanation of language learning was that we learn
to talk the same way we learn any other skill: through reinforcement, shaping and extinction (and other basic
principles of operant conditioning). Vocabs that are not reinforced, diminish. This theory cannot account for
many fundamental characteristics of language development: 1. Parents don’t spend much time teaching their
kids to speak grammatically but rather respond to the truth content of the child’s statement. 2. Children
generate many more grammatical sentences than they ever hear. They don’t just imitate, they learn the rules
for generating sentences. 3. The errors children make when learning to speak tend to be over generalizations of
grammatical rules. Behaviourist explanation would not predict these over generalizations if children were
learning through trial and error or simply imitating what they hear
- According to Chomsky, language learning capacities are built into the brain, which is specialized to rapidly
acquire language through simple exposure to speech.
- Chomsky and others have argued that humans have a particular ability for language that is separate from
general intelligence. This nativist theory hold that language development is best explained as an innate,
biological capacity. According to Chomsky, the human brain is equipped with a language acquisition device (LAD)- a collection of processes that facilitate language learning. Language processes naturally emerge as infant
matures; provided infant receives input to maintain acquisition process
- Language capacity can be distinct from other mental capacities.
- Genetic dysphasia is a syndrome characterized by an inability to learn the grammatical structure of language
despite having otherwise normal intelligence. (runs in families, single dominant gene)
- Studies of people with genetic dysphasia suggest that normal children learn the grammatical rules of human
language with ease in part because they are “wired” to do so. The biological predisposition to acquire language
explains why newborn infants can make contrasts among phonemes that occur in all human languages.
- Nativist theory also explains why deaf babies babble speech sounds they have never heard and why the pattern
of language development is similar in children throughout the world
- Consistent with the nativist view is evidence that language can be acquired only during a restricted of
development; once puberty is reached, acquiring language becomes extremely difficult
- Acquiring a second language between 1 and 5 yrs results in very different representation of that language in the
brain than does acquiring that language much later (after 9 yrs)
- Nativist theories are often criticized because they do not explain how language develops (only why it does).
- The interactionist approach is that although infants are born with an innate ability to acquire language, social
interactions play a crucial role in language. Parents tailor their verbal interactions with children in ways that
simplify that language acquisition process; They speak slow and enunciate clearly, using simpler sentences than
they do when speaking with adults.
- Mature languages break down experience into separate components. This is a defining characteristic of mature
- Younger children did not copy signs from the older users suggests that a predisposition exists to use language to
dissect our experiences.
Language Development and the Brain
- As the brain matures, specialization of specific neurological structures takes place, and this allows language to
- In early infancy, language processing is distributed across many areas of the brain, but it gradually becomes
more concentrated in two areas; Broca’s and Wernicke’s (language centers of the brain)
- Damage to these areas is called aphasia, difficulty in producing or comprehending language.
- Broca’s area is located in the left frontal cortex, involved in the production of the sequential patterns in vocal
and sign languages (paul broca). Speech problems occur with damage to this area.
- Broca’s aphasia patients understand language well, although they have increasing comprehension difficulties as
grammatical structures get more complex. Real problem is with speech. Sentences are short, staccato phrases
that consist of mostly content morphemes, function morphemes are missing and gram. Structure is impaired.
- Wernicke’s area is located in the left temporal cortex, is involved in language comprehension (spoken or signed).
(carl wernicke first described patient with speech difficulty with damage to left posterior temporal cortex.
- Patients with wernicke’s aphasia differ from those with broca’s in two ways: 1. They can produce grammatical
speech, but it tends to be meaningless, and they have difficulty understanding language
- Wernicke’s area is highly active when we make judgments about word meaning, and damage to this area
impairs comprehension of spoken & signed language, though ability to identify nonlanguage sounds is
- 4 kinds of evidence indicate that the right cerebral hemisphere also contributes to language processing-
especially to language comprehension: 1. When words are presented to the right hemisphere of healthy
participants , the right hemisphere shows some capacity for processing meaning. 2. Patients with damage to the
right hemisphere sometimes have subtle problems with language comprehension. 3. A number of neuroimaging
studies have revealed evidence of right-hemisphere activation during language tasks. 4. Some children who have
had their entire left hemisphere removed during adolescence (treatment for epilepsy) can recover many
language abilities. - Bilingual and monolingual children do not differ significantly in the course and rate of many aspects of their
language development. Middle class participants who are fluent in two languages have been found to score
higher than monolingual participants on measures of cognitive flexibility and analytic reasoning.
- Bilinguals tend to have a smaller vocabulary in each language than their monolingual peers.
- They also process language more slowly and can sometimes take longer to formulate sentences
- Greater activity in frontal lobe for second than first language words, reflecting greater cognitive effort. These
efforts are reduced after a few months’ experience with second language, suggesting that first and second
languages come to depend increasingly on a shared brain network as second language proficiency increases
- Left parietal lobe involved in language has gray matter that is denser in bilinguals than in monolinguals and
increased density is most pronounced in individuals who are most proficient in using their second language.
Learning a seconds language seems to increase the ability of the left parietal lobe to handle linguistic demands
- Apes can acquire sizable vocabularies, string words together to form short sentences, and process sentences
that are grammatically complex. (Young Loulis learned 68 signs by watching Washoe communicate)
- The Neurological wiring that allows us to learn language overlaps with apes’
- Limitations apes exhibit when learning, comprehending and using human language: 1. The size of the
vocabularies they acquire. 2. The type of words they can master, primarily names for concrete objects and
simple actions. 3. The complexity of grammar that apes can use and comprehend. They can string signs together
but constructions rarely exceed three or four words, and when they do they are rarely grammatical
- The linguistic relativit