How Do Children Learn To Talk?
The miracle of language learning seems to parallel some of the accounts of children's development we have already seen. Those who call attention to genetic predispositions to learn will find much to support their thinking in children's language learning. Learning language relies on some things that are innate. Babies appear to come into the world "pre-wired" with a set of capacities that makes it almost certain that they will learn language. For example, newborn babies just a few days old:
- will turn their heads and look toward the source of a sound;
- prefer patterned and varied sounds, like human voices, to random noises like buzzes and clicks;
- synchronize the movements of their bodies so that they "track along with" the rhythms of the speech they hear;
- can perceive extremely subtle distinctions in speech, such as the difference between the beginning consonant sounds in "bat" and "pat"-a difference that boils down to a 40/1000ths of a second delay in the vibration of the vocal chords;
- prefer high-pitched voices to low-pitched voices (but their fathers and even their ten-year old big brothers adopt high-pitched voices when they talk to babies!).
All of these "adjustments" in the babies' senses make it almost inevitable that they will be able to enter the dance of language with a human caregiver, maybe even a female one!
Linguist Noam Chomsky (1975) has argued that in addition to being pre-tuned to the right stimuli, babies are also "pre-wired" with the ability to examine the language they hear around them, tease out its patterns, and use those patterns to shape their own utterances. For example, two-year-olds are famous for saying "I got two foots." And Iuliu, at age six, said "Don't worry, Mom. I'm hold-onning," after his mother told him to "hold on" during a windy sailboat ride. You can see that the two-year-old is aware that we say "more than one" by adding a /s/ (or /z/ or /Iz/) to a noun. And you can see that Iuliu knows that verbs add -ing to show that action is going on in the present. Both have figured out rules of grammar from listening to adult speech and teasing out the patterns. You can't say they are merely imitating what they hear adults say, because children often say sentences that adults wouldn't say.
But children who are learning language need the help of adults, too. We have horrifying accounts of children raised in social isolation who barely learn to talk (Aitchison, 1998). We also have detailed accounts of children learning to talk in different kinds of families, and what the parents contributed dearly made a difference. What do children need from adults in order to learn language?
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