PSY 369: Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Acquiring language
Dr. Cutting, language sure
is complicated. How do you
expect us to learn all this stuff?

Student in my
psycholinguistics
course
Acquiring language
Whadda’ ya mean, mommy.
I can talk.
I can understand what you say.
What’s so hard?

Student in my
psycholinguistics
course

2 year old
Acquiring language

How do we (humans) do it? How do we learn to use
this complex behavior?

Student in my
psycholinguistics
course

2 year old
Overview

Some of the major issues

Imitation vs Innateness
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Born to walk
Born to talk?
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How much explicit teaching do we get?
Commonalities across languages and cultures
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Language is complex everywhere
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Sounds, words, syntax, and more
No primitive (simple) languages
Language development is similar everywhere

Similar stages
Typical language development
6 Months

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Responds to his name
Responds to human voices without
visual cues by turning his head and
eyes
Responds appropriately to friendly
and angry tones
Typical language development
12 Months

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Uses one or more words with meaning
(this may be a fragment of a word)
Understands simple instructions,
especially if vocal or physical cues are
given
Practices inflection
Is aware of the social value of speech
Typical language development
18 Months

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Has vocabulary of approximately 5-20 words
Vocabulary made up chiefly of nouns
Some echolalia (repeating a word or phrase
over and over)
Is able to follow simple commands
Typical language development
24 Months
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Can name a number of objects common to his
surroundings
Is able to use at least two prepositions
Combines words into a short sentence
Vocabulary of approximately 150-300 words
Volume and pitch of voice not yet well-controlled
Typical language development
36 Months
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Use pronouns I, you, me correctly
Is using some plurals and past tenses
Knows at least three prepositions
Handles three word sentences easily
Has in the neighborhood of 900-1000 words
About 90% of what child says should be intelligible
Verbs begin to predominate
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

What was that?
You’re
mumbling.
We experience language before we’re even born


Normal human language uses sounds between
100 and 4000 Hz
Sound travels through skin and fluids too

In the womb, sounds up to 1000 Hz
 Can’t hear individual words
 But can hear:
 Intonation, durations, rhythm, stress
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

We experience language before we’re even born
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Mahler (mid 80’s, in France)
4 day old babies
Nonnutritive sucking method
Played French or Russian
Sucking pattern changed if language
was switched
Sucking pattern didn’t change if
language wasn’t switched
Babies knew (something about) the
languages
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

We experience language before we’re even born
Fetal heart monitor

DeCasper, et al (1994)
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

We experience language before we’re even born
Fetal heart monitor



DeCasper, et al (1994)
Had mothers read stories everyday
to fetuses during 34-38 weeks of
pregnancy
After 38th week, two stories were
played to the fetuses (but mom
couldn’t hear it)


Same story
Different story
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

We experience language before we’re even born
Fetal heart monitor



DeCasper, et al (1994)
Had mothers read stories everyday
to fetuses during 34-38 weeks of
pregnancy
After 38th week, two stories were
played to the fetuses (but mom
couldn’t hear it)


Same story
Different story
In the beginning… and the womb

Prelinguistic communication

We experience language before we’re even born
Fetal heart monitor
DeCasper, et al (1994)
Had mothers read stories everyday
to fetuses during 34-38 weeks of
pregnancy
After 38th week, two stories were
played to the fetuses (but mom
couldn’t hear it)

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Decreased fetal
heart-rate

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Same story
Different story
Baby learned something about
the story
The early days
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Prelinguistic communication

After birth
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Child-directed speech (motherese)
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Phonological differences are key
 Higher in pitch
 More variable in pitch
 More exaggerated intonation
All may help to orient and maintain
attention of infant
May help “bootstrap” later learning
The early days

Prelinguistic communication

After birth

Early “conversations”

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Turn taking behaviors
 From the movie - breast feeding
“conversations”
Parents interpret infant’s
vocalizations as having meaning
(also from the movie, Snow’s work)
The early days: phonology

Eimas et al, (1971)

Categorical perception in infants (1 month olds)
100
Sharp phoneme boundary
Young infants can
distinguish different
phonemes
% /ba/
0
1 ...
3 … 5 …
7
The early days: phonology

Categorical perception in infants

A number of studies suggest that very young
infants can perceive between a number of
phonemic distinctions (e.g., Kuhl & Meltzhoff, 1997)

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Not limited to their language context
However, as they age/experience their context
language the ability to perceive some of these
distinctions are lost (~10 to 12 months)
Nature/nurture debate:

Are humans “pre-programmed” to distinguish speech
sounds?
We’re listening
The early days: phonology

Eimas et al, (1971)

Categorical perception in infants (1 month olds)
100
Sharp phoneme boundary
Chinchillas do it too!
% /ba/
Kuhl and Miller (1975)
0
1 ...
3 … 5 …
7
Are they “preprogrammed to
perceive human
speech?
Prelinguistic communication

Prelinguistic gestures (around 8 months)

Demonstration that the infant is trying to
communicate in some way

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e.g., pointing behaviors
Criteria
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Waiting
Persistence
Development of alternative plans
Early speech production

Vocal track differences
Infant
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Adult
Infants vocal tracts are smaller, and initially shaped differently
The infant’s tongue fills the entire mouth, reducing the range of movement
As the facial skeleton grows, the range for movement increases (which probably
contributes to the increased variety of sounds infants start to produce)
May be (in part) why production lags behind comprehension
Early speech production

The progression of cooing and babbling
follows a universal pattern.

Role of both nature and nurture
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Nature/Biology plays an important role in the
emergence of cooing & babbling.
The form of the child’s vocalization is also
affected by the linguistic environment.
Early speech production

The progression of cooing and babbling
follows a universal pattern.

Babies, until around 6 months old, can produce
sounds/phonemes that their parents cannot
produce or distinguish
 6 - 8 weeks: cooing
 4 - 6 months: babbling

Clear consonants and vowels are produced

“da”, “gi”
Early speech production

The progression of cooing and babbling
follows a universal pattern.

Babies, until around 6 months old, can produce
sounds/phonemes that their parents cannot
produce or distinguish
 6 - 8 weeks: cooing
 4 - 6 months: babbling
 6 - 7 months: Reduplicated babbling

“dada”, “gigi”
Early speech production

The progression of cooing and babbling
follows a universal pattern.

Babies, until around 6 months old, can produce
sounds/phonemes that their parents cannot
produce or distinguish
 6 - 8 weeks: cooing
 4 - 6 months: babbling
 6 - 7 months: Reduplicated babbling
 8 - 9 months: CVC clusters may appear

“bod”, “tat”
Early speech production

The progression of cooing and babbling
follows a universal pattern.

Babies, until around 6 months old, can produce
sounds/phonemes that their parents cannot
produce or distinguish
 10 or 11 months: Variegated babbling
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Combining “incomprehensible words”
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Intonation patterns
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“dab gogotah”
May reflect phonological rules of spoken language
context
By 12 to 14 months some evidence of language
specific phonological rules
Early speech production
Of course he said “arf.”
What else did you expect
his first word to be?
Language Sponges
Learning words

12 ms
2 yrs
3 yrs
6 yrs
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first words
200 words
1,000 words
15,000 words
About 3,000 new words per year, especially in the primary
grades
As many as 8 new words per day
Production typically lags behind comprehension
Language Sponges

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Lots of individual differences
But there is also a consistent pattern
Vocabulary growth
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Methods used to study this
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Observational data (60s to present)
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Diary studies
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Taped language samples (Roger Brown)
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Parents record their kids language development
Small numbers of children (Eve, Adam, Sarah)
Went to home every month made tape recordings
Extensive study needed
 Hard to kids to “say all the words you know” or “say a
question”
 Early phonological production isn’t like adult production,
often need to take great care deciding what the child
meant
Large database CHILDES
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Many kids, many languages, including children with language
difficulties
Early speech production

Transition to speech
This Your
is your
fis?
fis?
Oh, your fish.
No.No.
…My
my fis!
fis.
Yes, my fis.
Early speech production

Transition to speech
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Can’t hear the difference?
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Your fis.
Oh, your fish.
Can’t produce the correct
sounds?

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Rejects adult saying fis
This is your fis? No, … my fis.
Sometimes, but evidence
suggests not always the case
More general process of
simplification

“frees up” resources for
concentrating on other aspects of
language learning
No, my fis.
Yes, my fis.
Early speech production

Transition to speech
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Early words
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Common Phonological processes
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Reduction
 Delete sounds from words
Coalescence
 Combine different syllables into one syllable
Assimilation
 Change one sound into a similar sound within the
word
Reduplication
 One syllable from a multi-syllabic word is repeated
Early speech production

First words
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Around 10-15 months (lots of individual differences)
Emergence of systematic, repeated productions of
phonologically consistent forms
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Idiomorphs - personalized words

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Developed in systematic ways
 Sometimes simplifications of adult speech
 Or relate to sounds of the objects
Demonstrate
 Creative, not simply imitation
 Learned importance of consistency of names
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PSY 369: Psycholinguistics