We have minds and in our minds we have language. But how did language get there?How did we learn to produce and understand speech? At birth we cannot speak, norcan we understand speech. Yet, by the age of 4 years we will have learned the basicvocabulary, syntax (grammatical rules and structures) and pronunciation of ourlanguage. This is true of children the world over, whatever the language of their peoplemay be. And, while they still have passives and other elaborate syntactic structures tolearn (along with a never-ending stock of vocabulary items), nevertheless, by that agethey will have overcome the most difficult obstacles in language learning. Indeed, thelanguage proficiency of the 4- or 5-year-old is often the envy of the adult secondlanguage learner who has been struggling for years to master the language. It is oneof the fundamental tasks of the field of psycholinguistics to explain how all of this hasoccurred.For reasons that will become more apparent later, language learning must beseparated into two distinct, but related, psychological processes: that of speechproduction and that of speech understanding. I shall deal with each in turn and thenconsider how they are related.
The development of speech productionVocalization
While babies a few months old do not speak, they do make sounds through theirmouths. In fact, they make quite a variety of sounds. They cry, they coo like pigeons,they gurgle, suck, blow, spit and make a host of other virtually indescribable noises.However, while these are not speech sounds their production gives the child exercise inarticulation and control. Importantly, too, the child gets practice in coordinatingbreathing with the making of sounds. These same sounds (crying, cooing, etc.) aremade by infants all over the world. Even deaf children make them. Deaf children,however, do not progress to babbling, the next level of vocalization that has someresemblance to speech.Babbling is a type of vocalization where the child uses speech sounds, mainlyvowels and consonant-vowel syllables, e.g. `a', `u', `ma', `gi', `pa'. The child's repetitive uttering of these sounds give them a speech-likequality, e.g. `mama', `gigi', `papa', especially when these sounds are involved withthe features of the intonation pattern of their language, as they tend to be. As theperiod of babbling progresses, the more it sounds like the speech of the language towhich the child is being exposed. Around 6 months of age, Japanese-exposed childrenstart to sound somewhat Japanese, English-exposed children start to sound somewhatEnglish, and Chinese-exposed children start to sound somewhat Chinese, and so on. By10 or 11 months children will often babble in pseudo non-word `sentences' usingdeclarative, question and exclamatory intonation patterns.That babies should first acquire the intonation patterns of their language, evenbefore producing any words, is not so surprising. After all, when any of us hears a newlanguage for the first time, what we tend to hear first is its rhythm, pitch and stresspatterns. We don't know how to cut the flow of a sentence into words, and neitherdoes the child. We become familiar with the melody, so to speak, before we get to thewords. It is this melody, this intonation pattern, that the infant! Earns first to recognizeand then to imitate.