Blah Blah Blah: A Discussion of
Language
Josh Hall
Caitlin O’Brien
Sam Pierre
Bilingualism
Caitlin O’Brien
Innate Propensity for Language
• Language Predisposition
• Language Acquisition Device
• Recognition and Production of all
phonemes
Bilingual Experiences
1. Compound Bilingualism- Acquisition
• Characteristics:
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Languages gained concurrently
Stronger use of LAD
Localized in Brain
Usually occurs when young
Subconscious process
Not aware of rules of language
Concepts have verbal labels from both languages
Languages are interdependent
• Stages:
– Stage 1: Initial Single Language System
– Stage 2: Different Languages
Bilingual Experiences
2. Coordinate Bilingualism- Learning
• Characteristics
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Languages learned in separate environments, gained sequentially
Spread out over brain, more right hemisphere
Can occur after a critical period
Conscious of learning new language
Aware of knowledge and rules of language
• Role of Native Language
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Avoidance
Differential Learning Rates
Different Paths
Over Production
Predictability/ Selectivity
3. Different representations of languages with different characteristics
Evolutionary Importance
• Relevance with early human ancestors
– Early cooperation and exchange between
groups
– Warfare or little interaction
• Decline of LAD
– Greater Reproductive Success
Benefits of Multilingualism
• Greater general cognitive development
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Greater mental flexibility at an earlier age
Earlier awareness of how language works
More skilled at discovering and applying rules to tasks
Increased focus
Outperform monolinguals on tests and scholastically
• Delays memory loss in old age
– Decreases impact of Alzheimer's and Dementia
The Temporary Language: Baby
Signing as a Response to
Evolutionary Design
Sam Pierre
In the beginning…
• Slow acceptance of sign language
• Seen as inferior to spoken language
• Eventually recognized as helpful for learning
disabilities
• Opened the door to sign language use outside
the deaf community
Two Theories
Acredolo and Goodwyn’s “Baby
Signs” Program
-Invent and adapt signs
Garcia’s “Sign with Your
Baby” Program
-ASL and BSL Based
Signal Categories
• Common nouns:
– foods, toys, everyday objects
• Description words:
– More, done, etc.
• Feelings and emotions:
– Afraid, sad, etc.
• Baby Signing Example
Benefits
• Increased performance on verbal tasks
• Improved communication between child and
parents
– Nurturance benefits
• Decreased frustration in parents and child
• Higher IQ
“But I want my child to speak!”
Most common concern:
• Slowed verbal acquisition
– No evidence in support
– Actually the opposite
Evolutionary Need for Language
• Humans crave communication
• Communication had strong benefits:
– Alerts to danger
– Foraging and hunting
– Collaboration feeding development
• Main purpose: survival of the species
Baby Signing’s Role in Evolution
• Human desire for communication still exists in
infants
• Verbal motor skills develop slowly
• Rudimentary hand gestures are easier
• Baby signing fills that need for communication
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Or, Linguistic Relativism
The Premise
• A theory of the relation between language,
perception, and cognition
• Simple version:
– Language is fundamental to the way we think
and understand the world
– Therefore, the particular language of an
individual will influence his or her thought
– Different languages will create different
patterns of thought
Background
• Edward Sapir (18841939)
• First hypothesized that
languages are complete
formal systems which are
mutually influential with
thought
• Benjamin Whorf (18971941)
• Took Sapir’s work a step
further, claimed that
language mediates all
thought and action
• Whorfian Hypothesis
Whorfian Examples
• English metaphors equating time and
money – spend time, waste time, etc.
• Hopi language describes time as process,
not objective quantity
• Perception of sound – Chinese
consonants, etc.
• Orwellian “Newspeak”
• Inuit words for snow – whoops
Two Formulations
• Strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
– Complete linguistic determinism
– No concepts outside of cultural language
– Some concepts should be impossible to grasp
• Weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
– Language does not determine, only influence
– Alien concepts should be more difficult, but
not impossible to understand
The Opposition
• Linguistic Universalism
– Claims that all concepts are universal, or
more fundamental than language
– Language and culture, then, have no real
effect on cognition
– No such thing as “alien” concepts
Empirical Testing
• Color Triads
• Other experiments
– Chinese “classifiers”, etc.
Results
• Most studies show that subjects can
distinguish colors for which they have no
linguistic definition
• Small, consistent errors appear in most
cases, though
Implications
• No definite answers yet
• Experiments seem to support weak SapirWhorf hypothesis
– Concepts are understandable for all subjects
– Small relativist influence still present
• Ultimately, points to need for further study
– Implications for multilingualism and sign
languages?
With Evolutionary Psychology…
• From the perspective of evolutionary
psychology, this would seem to support a
modular theory of the mind
– Fundamental concepts built upon by
subjective/relative influence
– Language becomes a basic heuristic of sorts
– Would give an evolutionary advantage by
allowing for faster, more efficient learning and
cognition
Conclusion
• Language deserves plenty of attention as an
evolutionary mechanism
• Bilingualism and sign language fill human need
for communication
• Theories such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
point to the fundamental nature of language
Questions?
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