Learning Language
small step for
a man; one
giant leap for
learning language a universal process
Learning a Language Involves...
 Learning the language’s sounds and sound patterns, its
specific words, and the ways in which the language allows
words to be combined
 Using the finite set of words in our vocabulary, we can put
together an infinite number of sentences and express an
infinite number of ideas— generativity
 To learn language, children must also be exposed to other
people using language—spoken or signed
Required Competencies for Learning Language
• Phonological development: The acquisition of knowledge
about phonemes, the elementary units of sound that
distinguish meaning
• Semantic development: Learning the system for expressing
meaning in a language, beginning with morphemes, the
smallest unit of meaning in a language
• Syntactic development: Learning the syntax or rules for
combining words
• Pragmatic development: Acquiring knowledge of how
language is used, which includes understanding a variety of
conversational conventions
Children develop and mature
simultaneously in four inter-related areas
1. Physically
2. Cognitively
3. Linguistically
4. Socially
Tabula Rasa
How does a child develop physically, cognitively, linguistically and
socially during the first two years of life
The growing child
 Gains an awareness of its environment
 becomes aware of distinctions between self and others
 Begins to interact with the things and people in his or her
 Grasps the idea that the behaviours and noises that people
make have meaning
 Deciphers the code used by his or her parents
 Realizes that language is meaningful and can be used to
get what he or she wants, i.e. has purpose
 Learns to become a social person
Children basically begin with a blank slate, and in a non-conscious way,
have to decipher the rules of how the sounds of an unknown language
are put together to create meaning.
How do they do it?
Short answer:
“children develop knowledge of their language through unfolding and
maturing cognitive and linguistic abilities internal to themselves while
helped by their parents”
And how do their parents help?
Cognitive Abilities
 The acquisition of linguistic ability is linked to the maturation of
cognitive processes
 What does the ability to use language imply about
cognitive abilities?
 growth of capacity for symbolic representation - grasping that sounds
are arbitrary and represent things and activities (have names or labels)
(i.e. are symbolic)
 Increasing ability to remember things and experiences and to associate
them with past and future events
 an understanding of causality – that people can affect other people and
 That relationships exist between objects, people and activities
that language can be used to express personal attitudes, emotions, and
 B. F Skinner 1957
 argued that children learn to speak by copying the utterances
heard around them and by having their responses strengthened
by the repetitions, corrections and other reactions that adults
 through positive reinforcement
Teacher: What time is it?
Student: Half past ten.
Teacher: Very good
Noam Chomsky – Universal Grammar
 Fundamental question is how to account for a speaker’s ability to
produce and instantly understand new sentences that are not similar
to those previously heard
Chomsky suggests that language is an innate faculty - i.e. we are
born with a set of rules about language in our heads - a 'Universal
Universal Grammar
 Requires no direct intervention from parents or teachers.
 The universal grammar is the basis upon which all human
languages build.
 All languages are simply local variants of one universal
How can this be?
What evidence is there to suggest this is the case?
 children acquire their mother tongue with ease, even
though parents’ language contains “performance errors”
(grammatical mistakes, false starts, slips of the tongue, etc.)
children manage to learn their language all the same.
 Also hear different dialects, different grammars
 Children do not simply copy the language that they hear
around them, but deduce rules from it, which they can then
use to produce sentences that they have never heard
 In other words they do not memorize a repertoire of
phrases and sayings but learn a grammar that generates an
infinity of new sentences.
What other abilities are innate?
Walking, running, eating
 According to Chomsky then, children are born with the
Universal Grammar wired into their brains.
 A child knows intuitively that there are some words that
behave like verbs, and others like nouns, and that there is a
limited set of possibilities as to their ordering within the
 For example, the word order of a typical sentence.
 75% of the world's languages use either a SVO structure (English,
French, Vietnamese) or SOV (Japanese, Tibetan, Korean) –
 10 - 15% prefer VSO (-Welsh) or VOS (Malagasy)
 Some languages, such as Latin, appear to have free word order,
but even here, SOV is very common.
 OSV is very rare – one example
Yoda Speaks
 when they begin to listen to their parents, they will
unconsciously recognise which kind of a language it is and
will set their grammar to the correct one - this is known as
'setting the parameters'.
 he or she then matches with what is happening around
him – an innate ability
 This set of language learning tools, provided at birth, is
referred to by Chomsky as the Language Acquisition Device.
But if language is innate
1. Why do we take so long to learn it?
2. What are the universal rules that allow us to learn so many different
Jean Piaget
 Piaget's focus was on cognitive development,
rather than language acquisition per se.
 Language development is related to cognitive
development, that is, the development of the
child’s thinking determines when the child can
learn to speak and what the child can say.
 For example, before a child can say, “This car
is bigger than that one”, s/he must have
developed the ability to judge differences in
 In Piaget’s view, children learn to talk
‘naturally’ when they are ‘ready’ without any
deliberate teaching by adults.
Jean Piaget
1896 -1980
Swiss Developmental
Jean Piaget: Theory of Cognitive Development
 theory concerns the emergence and construction of schema —
schemes of how one perceives the world — in "developmental
stages", times when children are acquiring new ways of mentally
representing information.
 it asserts that we construct our cognitive abilities through selfmotivated action in the world.
 In Piaget’s view language has a
fundamentally goal-directed,
instrumental function
 The child is egocentric and uses
language to get what s/he wants
by speaking with their caregivers
 As children mature cognitively they begin to use more
complex grammatical forms that encode politeness and
forms that recognize the rights of others. i.e. They become
moral and use morally encoded language
 Piaget divided schemes that children use to understand
the world through four main periods, roughly correlated
with and becoming increasingly sophisticated with age:
1. sensorimotor stage
2. preoperational stage
3. concrete operations
4. formal operations
sensorimotor stage
 birth
to about age 2
 marks the development of essential spatial abilities
and understanding of the world
 children’s contact with the world around them
depends entirely on the movements that they make
and the sensations that they experience.
 Whenever they encounter a new object, they shake
it, throw it, or put it in their mouth, so that they
gradually come to understand its characteristics
through trial and error.
 Around the middle of this stage (about age 1),
children first understand the concept of object
permanence—that an object continues to exist even
when it moves beyond their field of vision.
preoperational stage
age 2 to around age 6 or 7.
marked by the acquisition of language
children become able to think in symbolic terms, to
form ideas from words and symbols.
Children also begin to understand spatial and
numerical concepts and the distinction between past
and future.
But they remain highly focused on the present and
on concrete physical situations and have difficulty in
dealing with abstract concepts.
Children’s thinking is also very egocentric at this
stage; a child this age often assumes that other
people see situations from his or her viewpoint.
concrete operations
age 6 or 7 to age 11 or 12.
With more experience of the world, children now become
able to imagine events that occur outside their own lives.
also begin to conceptualize and to create sequences of logical
Children also acquire a certain capacity for abstraction. Hence
they can begin to study disciplines such as mathematics, in
which they can solve problems with numbers and reverse
previously performed operations, but only ones that involve
observable phenomena.
formal operations
begins at age 11 or 12.
abilities to reason hypothetically and deductively and to
establish abstract relationships
can use formal, abstract logic.
They can also begin to think about moral issues such as
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory
 investigated how child development
was guided by the role of culture and
interpersonal communication.
Russian developmental
 Through interaction with parents
and others a child comes to learn the
habits of mind of her/his culture,
including speech patterns, written
language, and other symbolic
 Vygotsky suggests that social interaction leads to continuous step-bystep changes in children's thought and behaviour that can vary greatly
from culture to culture
 development depends on interaction with people and the tools that
the culture provides to help form their own view of the world.
 There are three ways a cultural tool can be passed from one
individual to another.
1. imitative learning, where one person tries to imitate or copy
instructed learning which involves remembering the instructions of
the teacher and then using these instructions to self-regulate.
collaborative learning, which involves
a group of peers who strive to
understand each other and work
together to learn a specific skill
 The driving force motivating language acquisition are social needs of
children as they expand their interactions with others.
 initially, linguistic and cognitive development is oriented toward
obtaining objects and attaining other goals.
 An infant learns the meaning of signs through interaction with its
main care-givers, e.g., pointing, cries, and gurgles can express what is
 How verbal sounds can be used
to conduct social interaction is
learned through this activity, and
the child begins to
utilize/build/develop this faculty:
using names for objects, etc.
Language starts as a tool external to the child used for
social interaction.
The child guides personal behaviour by using this tool in a
kind of self-talk or "thinking out loud."
As a child’s thoughts about their experiences become
expressible primarily through these signs, the signs
themselves affect the way in which a child thinks about him
or herself and the world.
That is, as signs (symbols) are internalized in the process of
language acquisition, they come to mediate thought itself.
“thinking out loud” becomes “inner speech” and is used
more as a tool for self-directed and self-regulating behavior.
Speaking has thus developed along
two lines, the line of social
communication and the line of inner
External speech is the process of
turning thought into words and is
used as a means of interaction with
Inner speech is the conversion of
speech into inward thought and is a
way of representing the world to
language and thought are therefore
inextricably interdependent
Learning Speech Sounds
learning language a universal process
Step one:
learn how to differentiate and produce sounds in one`s
learn that the stream of sounds is made up of discrete units
that they are combined in a significant linear order
learn to control muscular movements of their throat and
mouth to produced sounds with consistency
 Babbling (0-4 months) consonant and vowel like sounds
 Not language specific
 After 1 year months focus on sounds in the language of
their parents
 Cross-linguistic studies suggest that some sequences in acquiring
sound systems are universal
Tulu (India) :
Kootenai (BC)
proto-Old Japanese papa
 The cause for these common forms is
believed to be the ease of pronunciation
of the sounds involved.
children learning to speak master the
open vowel sound [a] and the voiceless
labial consonants ([p], [m] and [b] ).
 Almost no languages lack labial
consonants, and no language lacks an
open vowel like [a].
These words are the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies
 and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with
 there is no common ancestry.
explains why first words often like mama and papa
may account for common worldwide occurrence of
consonant m and p in words for mother and father
especially so in forms of address since parents are the
earliest significant people in a baby`s life
Therefore linguistically and cognitively appropriate to
name them with sounds that a baby can most easily
During first 4 months show a rapid increase in number of
sounds that they produce
 After 4 months a drop in rate of new sounds added
 After one year, focus on sounds significant in the language
of their parents
 controlling their production, make appropriate phonemic
contrasts and follow allophonic patterning
 5 months
 Learn tones specific to their language, e.g raising tone
for questions
 Also begin to learn patterns of pitch and rhythm typical
of their language
Pre-Linguistic Behaviour
 Fetuses may not be able to hear individual words, but can hear
intonation, durations, rhythm, stress
 Many experiments confirmed
that at 4 days infants can
discriminate their native language
from a foreign language!
Children can understand language before they can speak
 Passive language – can respond to commands – even in complex
 Similar to learning a second language
 By end of first year children can produce first words
First words
Important people
Objects that move
Objects that can be acted upon
Familiar actions
Nouns before verbs
One-Word Utterances
 Each word expresses broad semantic and contextual
meanings (holophrastic)
Holophrase - A single word that seems to represent an
entire sentence “drink”
 Can only be understood in context of child`s experience
 Goals expressed through children`s speech emanate from
the interaction with objects and persons in his environment
have desires for others to attend to their needs and
wants (imperative function) “apple” = “give me the
relate emotional states (expressive function) ) “apple”
= “I’m hungry”
name objects or people with whom they interact
(referential function) “apple” = “there’s an apple”
 One word can thus have several simultaneous
 The child has learned that speaking is a human
strategy for achieving personal and social goals
 s/he can express desires that caregivers can fulfill
Two Word Grammars
Two word constructions appear about 18 months (see dogie)
Marks the beginning of true grammatical constructions (syntax)
Depends on cognitive growth.
Emergence of two-word grammars and their continual expansion and
refinement indicate a change in the character of a child`s thinking
 Learning to differentiate words within classes
 recognizing that sequential ordering of words has meaning
 children at this age are learning to think syntactically
 Children grasp the critical meaning of word order and also
understand meanings contained in words themselves
 They use this awareness in forming new words and constructions
and in comprehending the speech of others.
classes of two word combinations
Pivot class
a few words used with high frequency in combination with items
from the open class
ritualized greetings or comments (bye-bye, all-gone)
demonstratives (this that) “this doggie”, “that doggie”
locatives (here there), “here doggie” “there cat”
possessives (my) and adjectives “my car”, “red car”
Open class
nouns and verbs with which a child communicates his or her
referential, imperative, or expressive intentions
 Two-word constructions consist of combining either two items from
the open class or a pivot plus and open word
Two pivot words do not occur together as a complete utterance
This fact gives evidence of a child’s developing grammar, involving
notions of syntactic restrictions
Functions of Two-word utterances
• Locate name: there book, see dogie
• Demand desire: more milk, give candy
• Negate: no wet, not hungry
• Describe event/action: bambi go, mail come, hit ball
• Indicate possession: my shoe, mama dress
• Modify qualify: pretty dress, big boat
• Question: where ball
Although perhaps containing only one or two words children can
express complex propositions and intentions
giving and receiving involves several underlying meaning components
and their interrelations:
•an action
•an agent performing the act
•an object being transformed
•a recipient
Action: give (giving something to her mother)
Object: water (asking her mother for some water)
Recipient: To me (asking for something)
Recipient plus object: to me candies (asking for candies)
Action plus object: give ball (asking for a ball)
Action plus actor: Give mommy (asking for something from mother)
Recipient plus action: Mommy give (giving something to mother)
Complex Grammars
 As
children develop cognitively they expand their linguistic abilities
Child begins to express additional grammatical relations through
expansion in the number of words in a sentence and through
employment of morphological processes affecting the structure of
individual words
two word sentences grow to three word sentences and beyond
because child observes the relative positions of words
By learning that if a word is first in a phrase and that a phrase is first
in a sentence, a child learns that the sentence is hierarchically
organized – sentence has a structure
Word order is important
There are rules according to which words may be placed in what
Morphological development
Morphological processes are employed to express grammatical
concepts such as person, gender number, case , tense, etc.
Usually expressed using affixes
In 1 and 2 word constructions affixes denoting these concepts are
Using these affixes allows the child to speak about things in the past
or future, or things out of sight
In other words they allow the child to expression relations free of the
immediate context
This also allows the child to discuss his or her experiences thus
expanding social possibilities
Reflects both a maturing cognitive and social development
An important process in children’s acquisition of
morphological features is their extension of rules learned in
one context to others through analogy and generalization
They add affixes to newly encountered words by
recognizing sounds and applying appropriate morphological
Present progressive - ing
Plural of nouns –s
Past of verbs – ed
Possessive of nouns – s
Third person on verbs –s
The Wug Test
Classic experiment by Jean Berko Gleason
in 1958 as a way to investigate the
acquisition of the plural and other
inflectional morphemes in English-speaking
Very young children are unable to answer
correctly, sometimes responding with "Two
Preschoolers aged 4 to 5 answer “wugs”
since they've never seen a wug before, and
never had anyone model or reinforce the
plural of wug they must be using a rule
It was the first experimental proof that
young children have extracted generalizable
rules from the language around them.
 Past tense.
This is man who knows how to spow.
He is _______.
He did the same thing yesterday.
What did he do yesterday? He _____
 children were able to correctly apply
known affixes to new linguistic material
although this ability varied with age
 another reflection of children’s drive to
generalize rules is their tendency to over
generalize affixes to nouns and verbs with
irregular allomorphs
• “Daddy comed home.”
• “I holded the baby rabbit”
Growth in Vocabulary
Results from
 growing cognitive abilities for comprehension, memory
and discrimination
 widening social environment that presents children with
new objects and activities
 broadening or narrowing the sense of individual words
• e.g. At first the word apple may apply to all fruit but
with experience to a particular kind of fruit
 Generating new words from pre-existing words to fill in
gaps in their lexicon
• e.g. denominal verbs – verbs derived from nouns
• cracker - crackering my soup
 creating new words based on the rules of their language
Comprehended words
12 months
age 2 years
age 6 years
first words
200 words
15,000 words
produced words
Syntactic Development
Grammatical development involves the ability to understand and
express concepts about people an objects and relations to states and
Children’s grammars expand by introducing new propositions
(statements about the world)
Sentence length increases with additional words specifying aspects of
an event – e.g. adding modifiers or predicates and expressing more
complex relations such as negation
When negation is acquired in English first done by simply adding
words such as no or not usually at beginning of a sentence
•No wipe finger
•Not a teddy bear
Later negation within the internal structure of the sentence
•I no want envelope
•There no squirrels
Later still more complex incorporation negation
•I not see you anymore
•You didn’t caught me
what, who, where, why and when
distinctions between declarative statements and questions indicated
by rising intonation and
who that, where mama boot
requires cognitive maturation
other advances
e.g. deletion of redundancies
•Here is a brown brush and here is a comb
•Here’s a brown brush and a comb
A Creative process
Children do not mimic adults in acquiring language but develop their
own grammars
Discard some rules and altering applications of others until they
finally arrive at appropriate constructions
Language learning is a creative process of observation and
production, consistent with maturing cognitive capacities
In addition to acquiring the sounds words and grammatical rules of
their language children also need to learn appropriate discourse
building relations among participants, goals of speakers, and cultural
models or schema of communicative interactions
Comparative Evidence
Although children learn through growth of universal
cognitive processes, each language presents its own specific
structure to be deciphered and reproduced
e.g. Differences between agglutinating and polysynthetic
Studies of different languages confirm hypotheses about
universal tendencies but also reveal significant differences in
rates of acquisition of various surface phenomena
Universal sequences
•Locative concepts (location) - in/on/under/beside/between/back/
Instructional Strategies
Adults use various means to help children learn language
Frame the situations that are culturally appropriate for learning
Direct child`s attention to learning language as a focus of interaction
Teach the children the appropriate forms of communicative
behaviour (e.g. Taking turns)
Can be implicit or explicit (say thank you)
Baby Talk, Motherese, Infant-Directed Speech or
Child-directed speech
Simplified words
Simplified grammatical structure
Repetition of words
Speak slowly
Speak loudly
Higher pitch
Exaggerated intonation
Instructional Strategies
Expansion – repeat children`s utterances with an expansion of the
Child – baby high chair Mother – baby is in the high chair
Modelling – commenting on the semantic content of the child`s
Child – his name is Tony, Mother – That`s right
 Expansion and modelling are based on Western assumption that
children are not competent speakers and need to be carefully
instructed and socialized and that this is the job of the caregiver
 also includes a cultural model of gender since it is usually the mother
who is the primary caregiver
 Other societies have different assumptions and strategies

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