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Noam Chomsky, whose theories greatly influenced the study of language in the 1960s, called creativity the core problem of human language. He pointed out that almost every sentence we speak is unique, never before produced in that exact form. Yet other people can understand what we mean. It is an everyday miracle.

What did Chomsky say was the "core problem of human language"?

Most humans develop their ability to create and exchange language easily and naturally. We learn our native language in the first years of life, without any special training.

All normal humans in all cultures go through roughly the same stages of language development. This suggests the unfolding of a biologically guided process.

However, there are about 6,500 different human languages at this time. Clearly much depends on experience.

Normal language development, like virtually all human behavior, involves a complex interplay between learned and inherited factors. We will start by looking at the predictable stages of language development in young children.

Language Learning in Babies

Language learning begins before birth. A baby in the mother's womb hears noises from the outside environment and becomes sensitized to language sounds.

The sensitivity of newborns to language can be demonstrated through various means. One line of research uses the release from habituation paradigm discussed in Chapter 5.

Hearing babies habituate to repeated language sounds. They stop responding as the same sound is repeated. They dishabituate (respond again) when a new sound is played into their earphones.

This shows that hearing babies can discriminate basic language sounds called phonemes soon after birth. High-speed photographic analysis also reveals hearing newborns make tiny movements synchronized with phonemes.

Newborns who can hear respond to language sounds from any language, not just their own. However, by the age of six months, a baby's response to phonemes becomes more selective. They stop responding to phonemes absent from their own linguistic environment. (Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens and Lindblom, 1992).

What happens to the newborn's sensitivity to human language sounds?

Babies who are born deaf do not show phoneme sensitivity. However, they show all other stages of language development as they learn to use sign language.

The fact that deaf babies go through normal stages of language develop­ment with sign language shows language development is built in to humans. It also shows language does not depend on speaking or hearing words. The essence of human language is expression of meaning in a symbolic code.

Language development typically goes through the following sequence of stages:

Phoneme perception Babies who can hear become sensitive primarily to sounds in their own language.

Cooing Babies produce soft vocalizations around 3 months of age

Babbling The 6 month old begins to play with language sounds (for example, "Ba-ba-ba.") Deaf babies babble with their hands.

First words and holophrases Around 9 months of age, toddlers use single words (holophrases) to make requests or express feelings.

For example, "Doot!" might mean "Get me juice!" The same word might be applied to many things (which is called overextension ). Any animal might be called "doggie."

Protosentences Around a year and a half of age (18 months) toddlers produce two-word sentences, such as "Mommy go" or "Daddy go." Vocabulary starts to grow rapidly at this age.

Telegraphic speech. Sentences increase in length, but small connective words like "and" or "the" are left out. Bigger words are simplified. A two year old might say, "You go bye-bye car?" instead of "Are you going bye-bye in the car?"

What are holophrases? What is overextension, in language learning? What are protosentences? What is telegraphic speech?

Sentences are initially composed using irregular words like went properly, based on imitation, for example, "Mommy went bye-bye." Following this, there is a phase in which sentences are composed using irregular words improperly, based on grammatical rules, for example, "Mommy goed bye-bye." This is called overregularization.

The error actually reveals progress, showing the child learned the rule, "add -ed for past tense." Later, the child learns exceptions to the rules (the irregular words) all over again. A child who says goed will learn to say went again.

What is the overregularization, and what does it reveal?

In general, psychologists find errors very informative. Errors reveal the rules of language.

A child might say gooder instead of better. This shows the child has learned the rule "add -er to indicate one thing is more than another." The same child might say funner instead of "more fun."

Second Language Learning

Acquisition of a native language is swift and painless during childhood. Children also pick up a second language quickly while in a foreign land.

Parents may be much slower to learn the new language. In the 1960s, Eric Lenne­berg of Cornell rallied evidence to show language learning in childhood was biologically prepared until about age 11.

Then the gate closes. The adolescent or adult finds it much harder to learn a second language.

What did Lenneberg argue? What finding with Cuban refugees supports these ideas?

Studies of refugees who came from Cuba to the United States are consistent with Lenneberg's theory. Those who came to the United States before adolescence learned to speak without an accent. Those who came as adults never lost their accents, even after decades in the United States.

The implications are clear. To help children speak fluently in multiple languages, children should be exposed to several languages while they are still young. Then they have a better chance of becoming a polyglot (somebody who speaks several languages fluently).

How do you make a child into a polyglot?

Asher (1981) did research on language learning in adulthood. He noted that American students at the time were very reluctant to study foreign languages.

Asher called this a "peculiarly American" phenomenon. Educated people in other parts of the world are more likely to be multilingual.

Asher found many United States students tried to learn foreign languages but did poorly. He noted that "traditional teaching methods...are highly stressful for all but the most linguistically gifted."

Traditional teaching methods involved repetitive drills based on commands from the instructor. For example:

"Listen and repeat after me."

"Memorize this dialogue."

"Pronounce these words."

How does the Total Physical Response method differ from traditional language learning methods?

According to Asher, "All are excellent procedures for advanced students but traumatize most beginners so thoroughly that roughly 98% do not go beyond the first two years of study." Asher recommended an alternative that he calls the Total Physical Response method.

The idea of the Total Physical Response method is to imitate the learning experiences of babyhood, connecting language with concrete action. Using Japanese as an example, Asher described a typical learning session:

The instructor says tate and stands up, as do the students; then the instructor says suware, and everyone sits down. Next, tate again, and everyone stands.

Likewise, with the instructor as a model, the students walk, stop, turn, and run. Afterward, each student has a chance to perform in response to directions uttered in Japanese (Asher, p.54).

After 20 hours of such training, students reverse roles and issue commands to the teacher or to other students. Pronun­ciation is clumsy at first but improves with time. Students learn words for abstract concepts only after learning words for concrete objects and actions.

Another "total" approach to language learning is total immersion in the language and the culture. If you want to learn Japanese, enroll in a special program that requires you to eat, think, and breath Japanese, or visit Japan.

The best way to learn a language is to spend some time in the country where it is spoken. To maximize the opportunity for language learning, exchange students are encouraged to spend most of their time with native speakers and not spend all their time with other exchange students who speak the same language.

What is the best way to learn a language?

Some colleges and universities offer intensive courses that meet twice as often as usual and offer twice the usual number of academic credits. They are aimed at providing intense exposure to a language.

Such "immersion" might work well for some students, resulting in rapid, effective language learning. However, it contradicts the spacing effect research, which suggests that new material sticks in memory best if study sessions are spaced widely apart.


Asher, J. (1981, August). Fear of foreign languages. Psychology Today, pp.52-59

Kuhl, P. K., Williams, K. A., Lacerda, F., Stevens, K. N., & Lindblom, B. (1992). Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by six months of age. Science, 255, 606-608.

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