Child language acquisition: a speculation

Ken writes: Language development is an area of inter-disciplinary interest and deserves the attention of developmental psychologists, psycho-linguists, and a host of others. As an academic philosopher, I’m one of the others. My speculations are likely to err in being insufficiently informed by detailed observations of how quickly children learn language, what words they learn first, what their environment is like and so on. So, the following needs a grain of salt. (I’ve just ordered Paul Bloom’s book “How Children Learn the Meanings of Words,’ so I will update this post in some weeks time to correct my mistakes).

I think children learn words by the same mechanisms that they learn everything else (for this supposition has the virtue of theoretical parsimony: don’t postulate more faculties or mechanisms than necessary). This is trial and error with rewarding feedback more likely to reinforce actions that work and negative feedback likely to extinguish a type of action. This ‘theory’ has limits: it cannot explain why certain basic things are rewarding and apt to reinforce and others are unpleasant, but every theory has questions that lie beyond its scope. The theory can explain how non-basic things are rewarding, they are conducive to other things that are rewarding… but that some basic things are rewarding must be taken as primitive. For example, maybe the fact that sweet tastes are rewarding is just basic. The theory of conditioning cannot explain that. But it can explain earning money is rewarding: because you can buy sweets! Maybe the basic rewardingness of sweet tastes has to be explained in biological and evolutionary terms, that is to say, in terms of the history of the species rather than the history of the organism.

You could mean many things by language acquisition. Hugh is a relatively late talker and we may get to some of the parental self-criticism for this later. One reason though, is that unlike some parents we aren’t willing to call any old vocalisation an utterance of a word. Babbling and vocalising are very important for developing the capacity for speech, but a random utterance that sounds like a word ‘mama’ or ‘bye bye’ for example, doesn’t count as an utterance of a word unless it’s contextually appropriate, e.g. when accompanied by a wave and said when people are departing. Words like ‘mama’ don’t have such distinctive characteristic contexts of appropriate utterance, so it is hard to say when they are used appropriately.

I am going to focus on the first stage of language acquisition–the transition from zero to some, rather than the explosive word learning period children supposedly go through after they have a few principles under their belts.

The first point I think is significant is that we need to remember how much communication can happen between people who don’t share a language. Dot and I once had a flatmate’s Catalan mother staying with us (while her daughter was sick). She, we, all tried to exchange pleasantries just because it makes living in a small house easier. So, although she spoke no English, she could comment on how hot it was, or what a nice day it was, just by gesturing and exclaiming and because we could see for ourselves what a nice day it was and the context did all the work for us. The context included everything she did, everything we did and our mutual environment. Similarly, we can often understand malapropism and slips of the tongue (spoonerisms and the like) because the context makes evident what the real message was supposed to be.

I think the initial stages of child language acquisition begin with communication that doesn’t involve language. The daily rhythms governing the child’s life (such as having clothes or shoes put on before going outside, or a bib put on before a meal, or clothes taken off before a bath and so on) create a context, a common mutual context, within which actions and things have a certain significance. Things can be used as props to convey messages between child and parent. For example, the child giving the parent an empty milk bottle can signify a request for milk. Drinking a full bottle of milk regularly happens after the adult holds an empty bottle of milk, so the child can produce the empty bottle and let the implicit norm of the routine do the rest. Suppose this works once or twice, the child is rewarded and that strengthens the behaviour to make offering an empty bottle more likely the next time the child feels thirsty/hungry.

There are other mechanisms. Children naturally imitate things in their environment. For example, a child might see a dog barking and mimic the sound of barking. Hugh once observed a couple of men chopping back a hedge with powered hedge trimmers and was completely engrossed. Later I was him holding a stick to the flower beds and growling. Now that we’ve moved into a house with carpet, he pushes his walker into the corners and under the table making an electric sound (in imitation of the vacuum cleaner). This sort of thing is very rich in consequences. One consequence, the parents can seize on the imitation barking and reward it with squeals of appreciation (as the case may be). The child can produce the sound in the context of other dogs, or representations of dogs (on the television or on t-shirts and so on) and be further rewarded. This creates a proto-referential connection between the sound and dogs. It stopped being imitation when the child began to initiate the sound, not as a response to dog’s barking but as a response to dogs. I’m saying ‘proto-referential’ connection, but that over-theorises it. For us speakers of a language, it has the effect of immediately calling to mind certain objects, but it doesn’t follow that it does so for the child. They already have the objects in mind.

Another consequence of imitation is the substitution of one thing for another (walker for vacuum cleaner, or stick for hedge trimmer and azalea for hawthorn). This promotes non-linguistic communication (because one can indirectly refer to something (draw a parent’s attention to something) via a proxy). This is also important because it brings the child into closer and closer coordination with adults and convergence onto a mutually recognised common context. The substitution of objects selects elements from the context and prioritises them. It makes those items relevant. It directs attention to those items. Making certain items relevant is an important step toward making the context a mutual one shared by parent and child–one where there is an awareness that the context is shared–rather than simply being a context both parties happen to be in.

Proper sharing of the context is important for shaping the child’s behaviour and responses. In Hugh’s case, voofvoof, was produced for quite a lot of different animal types. Certainly cats as well as dogs. Now, one might think, does that mean he thinks cats are dogs, or does it mean his word is a word that indifferently applies to both cats and dogs? In the first case he over-generalises the extension of the word, in the second, he has a non-standard word. I don’t think there is a real difference between these possibilities. They are the same phenomenon. But we adults don’t use our word that way so we want to break the habit, or more gently, to induce in him the same regularities of use of ‘voofvoof’ as hold for our word ‘dog’. Given that we share a context and certain things are salient in it, then we are able to shape his behaviour via our responses by rewarding utterances that fit our practice and ignoring ones that don’t. This last point is relevant because it needs to be remembered that learning English from scratch is notionally a combination of two tasks, those being becoming linguistic at all, and being a user of the English language specifically.

I hope to say more on the topic of this post in the future.

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