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How Children Learn Language

How Children Learn Language

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08/21/2013

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 1
CHAPTER 1
How children learn languageTaken For academic purposes from:
Steinberg, Danny, D. 1993. An introduction to Psycholinguistics.Longman
Discussion questions
Based upon your knowledge of the matter, provide an answer to the questions below.Then, read the paper to confirm or challenge your assumptions.Which is primary: speech production or speech understanding? Why?How is it possible for children to begin by speaking whole sentences withoutGo in through the one- and two-word production stages?Why do children produce `telegraphic' speech?Why are some morphemes, such as the Possessive and the Past, learned fasterthan others, such as the Third Person Singular and the Auxiliary be?A child says, “I no want some candy.” What must the child still learn in orderto make a proper negative sentence?How might a child learn the meaning of `idea' as in `That's a good idea!'?Do you know some words in Baby Talk of a language other thanEnglish? Generally, what is the form of the sound structure of these words?Does it agree with what has been said in the chapter?Would you recommend the use of Parentese or Baby Talk in speaking to achild?What evidence is there that children learn rules when they learn language? InYour discussion present data concerning one morpheme, such as Plural orPast, andalso one sentence structure rule, such as negation.Can rules be learned by imitation?How might a child get rid of errors without being corrected by others?.What role does memory play in first language acquisition?Why could not imitation give account for the appearing of words such as “mouses, sheeps, foots wented, etc.” in a child’s language?What piece of advice would you give a mother who tends to correct her child’sspeech all the time? What explanation would you provide for the piece of advice you just gave her?
 
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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.
 
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The one-word utterance
When do children start to say their first words? It may surprise you to learn thatresearch on this question is not at all conclusive. Actually this not an easy question toanswer, not only because there is a very wide range of individual differences but alsobecause the precise determination of just when a word has been learned is not easy tomake. First words have been reported as appearing in normal children from as youngas 4 months to as old as 18 months, or even older. On the average, it would seem thatchildren utter their first word around the age of 10 months. Some of this variability hasto do with physical development, such as the musculature of the mouth and throat,which is necessary for the proper articulation of sounds. Undoubtedly, too, certainbrain development is also involved since the creation of speech sounds must comeunder the control of speech areas in the cerebral cortex.The advice columnist Ann Landers once stated, in response to a query, thatchildren would not be able to speak until well after 6 months of age. She had cited theopinion given to her by a leading pediatrician. A flood of letters immediately poured infrom parents who disagreed with her (really with the pediatrician!) on the basis of experience with their own children. A great many parents claimed that their childrenuttered words as young as 4 and 5 months of age. At 4
1
 /a months one boy was saying`Mama', `Daddy' and `no' while at 5'/a months one girl was saying `bottle', `Daddy',`bath' and `bye bye'. Even granting the tendency of parents to exaggerate theirchildren's accomplishments, such observations have a ring of truth about them giventhe large number of responses which Ann Landers received. (I myself remember onelittle girl who lived next door and was fluently producing sentences when only 8months of age!)Despite such great differences in the onset of speech, by the time children arearound 3 years of age, differences have largely disappeared. The slower ones catch upand the early speakers no longer seem to have an advantage. Incidentally, it might benoted, too, in this regard that there is no known relationship between intelligence andthe onset of speech for normal children. As a matter of fact, many very famous people,including Albert Einstein, are reputed to have been slow to talk. One should not inferfrom this, however, that these people were also slow to
understand 
speech. Thecontrary is more likely to have been the case. (Discussion of the relationship betweenspeech production and understanding is presented later in this chapter.)To determine just when a word has been learned is generally not an easy matter.Simply the saying of sounds that correspond to a word in the language is not enough.A parrot can do a good job of mimicking but we do not attribute language knowledgeto it. Along with the researcher and the eager parent, what we look for is the
meaningful 
use of sounds. If the child says `banana' or some approximation of thosesounds, and does so only when seeing or touching that object (and not other objectssuch as people or cars), then we might consider that the child knows that word. (Oftenonly a parent can identify the sounds the child makes because of the peculiarity of thechild's speech.) In order to do a thorough scientific study to determine when childrenlearn their first word, the dedicated researcher would have to be on call every day foralmost two years in order to check out parents' claims. And even this may not beenough since some parents may miss the signs of when the first word has beenlearned! Little wonder then that solid data on this issue are hard to come by.
The many uses of a single word 
A single word, even the same one, can be used for many different purposes. A wordcan be used to name an object, e. g. `mama' for `mother', `nana' for `banana'. Thesesame words can also be used to request something, e.g. `mama' for `I want mymother' and `nana' for `I want a banana'. A word can also be used to emphasizeactions such as in greeting, e.g. `hi' with a wave of the hand, or in leave-taking, e.g.`bye-bye' with a different wave of the hand. Single words can even be used to expresscomplex situations. One researcher, for example, noted a child saying `peach' +

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