Language and Thinking for AP Psychology
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Language is a flexible system of spoken, written, or signed symbols that enables us to communicate our thoughts and feelings. Language transmits knowledge from one generation to the next, and expresses the history of a culture.
Building Blocks: Phonemes and Morphemes
Language is made up of basic sound units called phonemes. The phonemes themselves have no meaning. Of about 100 different phonemes worldwide, English uses about 45. Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units of speech, such as simple words, prefixes, and suffixes. Most morphemes are a combination of phonemes. For example, farm is made up of three phonemes (sounds) and one morpheme (meaning). Farmer has two morphemes. By adding "-er" to farm we change the meaning of the word to an individual who farms.
Each language has a system of rules that determine how sounds and words can be combined and used to communicate meaning, called grammar. The set of rules that regulate the order in which words can be combined into grammatically sensible sentences in a language is called syntax. When we hear a sentence or phrase that lacks proper syntax, such as, "a yellow, big balloon," we know it doesn't sound right. The set of rules that enables us to derive meaning from morphemes, words, and sentences is semantics. Sentences have both a surface structure (the particular words and phrases) and a deep structure (the underlying meaning).
Language Acquisition Stages
From birth, we can communicate. A newborn's cry alerts others to the infant's discomfort. Children's language development proceeds through a series of stages from the simple to the more complex. The coos and gurgles of the newborn turn into the babbling of the 4-month-old baby. Babbling is the production of phonemes, not limited to the phonemes to which the baby is exposed. Around 10 months of age, however, the phonemes a baby uses narrow to those of the language(s) spoken around him or her. At about their first birthday, most babies use a holophrase—one word—to convey meaning. They may point outdoors and say, "Go!" By their second birthday, they begin to put together two-word sentences, telegraphic speech characterized by the use of a verb and noun, such as "eat cookie." At between 2 and 3 years of age, the child's vocabulary expands exponentially. Sentences also increase in length and complexity. By the age of 3, children begin to follow the rules of grammar without any instruction. A 3-year-old says, "I goed to the store," indicating use of the general rule that we form the past tense by adding -ed to a word. This is an example of overgeneralization or overregularization in which children apply grammatical rules without making appropriate exceptions. As their language develops further, children are able to express more abstract ideas that go beyond the physical world around them and to talk about their feelings.
Theories of Language Acquisition
Young children quickly acquire the language of others around them. Nativists argue that we are born with a biological predisposition for language, while behaviorists insist that we develop language by imitating the sounds we hear to create words. There is no debate about the sequential stages of language development described in the above section. Representing the nature side, nativist Noam Chomsky says that our brains are prewired for a universal grammar of nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, negations, and questions. He compares our language acquisition capacity to a "language acquisition device," in which grammar switches are turned on as children are exposed to their language. He cites overgeneralization as evidence that children generate all sorts of sentences they have never heard, and thus could not be imitating. He further believes that there is a critical period for language development. If children are not exposed to language before adolescence, Chomsky believes they will be unable to acquire language. On the nurture side of the language acquisition debate, behaviorist B. F. Skinner believed that children learn language by association, reinforcement, and imitation. He contended that babies merely imitate the phonemes around them and get reinforcement for these. A baby's first meaningful use of words is a result of shaping that is done by parents over the course of the first year. Today, social interactionists agree with both sides that language acquisition is a combination of nature and nurture. They believe, like Chomsky, that children are biologically prepared for language, but, like Skinner, they assert that the environment can either activate this potential or constrain it. Cognitive neuroscientists emphasize that the building of dense neuronal connections during the first few years of life is critical for the mastery of grammar.