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We know that when tots start talking, they learn
fast-words tumble out of the mouths of our babes. Yet because we
live in language the way fish live in water, we may take its acquisition
for granted. There's more to it than naming things-grammar, too,
must be learned. Rules of structure deploy words in action the
way a fish's backbone gives it swimming power. Yet since language
is a living, breathing thing, rules can change.
Who drives the changes? Teachers? Lawyers? Stand-up comedians?
Dr. Elissa Newport of the University of Rochester recently traveled
to NIH to discuss her studies of young, emerging sign languages
around the world and of children learning languages in a laboratory
setting, showing that children are a prime force in developing
and expanding languages as they are in the process of being formed.
|Dr. Elissa Newport explained how children
are a prime force in developing and expanding languages
as they are in the process of being formed.
The concluding 2006 Behavioral and Social Science Research Lecture,
sponsored by OBSSR, Newport's talk was titled, "How Children Shape
Language: Language Acquisition and the Emergence of Signed and
Newport noted that since deaf children are not usually born to
deaf parents, they acquire their primary languages from a variety
of sources. Some of the best evidence about language learning therefore
comes from observing how natural sign languages are acquired.
"Like any other languages of the world," she said, "sign languages
evolve naturally, spontaneously, on the same timetable, with the
same complexity in deaf communities."
Citing the work of two of her students, Ann Senghas and Marie
Coppola, on the history of a Nicaraguan signing community, she
reported: "After the 1980 Sandanista revolution, an educational
system for the deaf was founded in Nicaragua and brought together
children who formerly had probably used homesign systems (communication
systems used just within their individual families). Once there
was a community of signers, they developed a kind of sign in common
that was grammatically very limited." Over time, to this cohort
was added a second cohort of children who learned sign from the
Video clips comparing the two showed how the second cohort signed
with increased speed and grammatical complexity. "Effectively," she
noted, "these children had become native speakers and made changes
in the grammar to be both more complex and more regular." Just
as in spoken language, there was an ongoing process of expansion.
The younger the age at which they learned, the faster they signed;
also, the later in this historical process they were exposed, the
more complicated their signing was. Just as in hearing children,
in deaf children there is a critical period for acquiring language;
they also acquire languages better than adults, and can even surpass
the people they learn from.
"Children go beyond their input," said Newport. Hearing or deaf,
they do this within a sensitive/critical period. "If we look at
the age when a learner is exposed to something and then look at
ultimate competence, the age at which they do best is when there's
a special sensitivity for learning," she reported. For sign languages
as well as spoken languages, this period is early in life.
Studies that looked at American Sign Language (ASL) and at the
acquisition of English as a second language both bore this out:
All children did better than adults. "Some adults," Newport noted, "are
talented at learning languages late in life, but we have no idea
what predicts or underlies that. All children are talented at language
Tested in various ways, language-acquisition outcomes confirmed:
the later you are exposed, the less well you do.
What if you're
exposed to ASL at the right time, but the input is not that great,
and your parents are very ungrammatical and inconsistent? These
children still do much better than parents.
"Is it magic?" she asked. "No: when you give children inconsistent
input, they are especially likely to regularize," she said.
Her experiments in the lab using made-up languages showed that
if you give adults inconsistent input, they don't get better; they
don't make rules. As for 6- and 7-year-olds in experiments with
adult controls, "Virtually every child," she said, "makes regular
rules even with inconsistent input."
Children turn made-up languages into something more like natural
languages, she noted: "They will not learn a made-up language and
leave it be.
"Some force leads us to structure," she concluded. "If we have
no access to auditory input, we develop language in other modalities
with some grammatical properties." Whether hearing or deaf, she
said, there is some interesting timing in the brain creating the
same grammatical properties.
The gift of language is unique to humans and part of it is in
our biology, she noted.
"Children are remarkable language learners," she stressed. "Perhaps
most remarkable, they don't always learn what they are exposed
to. Children are prime forces in introducing structure and in changing
language. There is something about when language is sifted through
a child's brain that makes it richer, more complex and more consistent."
Asked whether children also make up new words (neologisms) in
addition to creating structure, she noted: "Teens and adults may
be ones who make individual new words and new constructions. But
kids actually make languages what they are."
Kids, she said, make the rules.