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Vol. LVIII, No. 17
August 25, 2006

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Kids Rule
Studies Show Children Are Prime Force In Language Change

On the front page...

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?

Try kids.

Dr. Elissa Newport explained how children are a prime force in developing and expanding languages as they are in the process of being formed.  
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.

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 Spoken Language."

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 first cohort.

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 learning."

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.

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