Does evidence support the argument that children are biologically programmed to learn language?
It has been long argued whether children’s ability to learn language relies solely on biology or on their capacity to imitate adult speech because there is no sufficient evidence to support only one hypothesis and dismiss the other. The aim of this essay is to present evidence that supports the idea that children possess an innate mechanism which helps them to acquire language without much or no adult input, but in order for children to master language they need to be exposed to language in the critical period, whether it is verbal or signed. Communicating efficiently and thus using language involves two aspects: language production and language comprehension, but in order to speak (speaking being a response to either other person’s utterances or actions or to their own needs), the child must first understand what others are saying; this means that language comprehension occurs before language production. The first step in children learning language is phonological development, the stage when they gain information about the sound system of their own language (Siegler, 2006). Eimas ( 1975) has shown that children can perceive changes of phonetic boundaries between categories in languages they have never been exposed to while adults cannot do that. Also, infants can differentiate between 200 vowels and 600 consonants ( Kuhl, 2004), but this ability decreases with age and by 12 months they focus only on the sounds of their mother tongue, approximately 40 phonetic categories; this sensitivity to sounds enables them learn words and their meanings. How does this happen? Saffran, Senghas and Trueswell (2001) call the process “statistical learning”: children listen to the sounds, their frequency and rhythm and notice that some sounds occur more frequent than other and some combinations of phonemes or syllables are used more than others, so they differentiate and learn words not only because of the pauses between them, but also because they anticipate the following syllable. A similar process is used when extracting meaning from a phrase; they use probabilistic cues (extracted from the syntax) while adults rely on context. A conclusion that can be drawn from this finding is that if adults and children have different ways or mechanisms of operating with language and if adults aren’t the ones who teach children about that, this means that they must possess an innate mechanism which facilitates language acquisition. Consequently, if it were just a matter of teaching and socialization, biologically similar beings like apes (their left hemisphere has approximately the same structure as human left hemisphere) would also be able to learn language, but this has not been possible so far, even though some chimpanzees and gorillas have been trained to use sign language. Terrace, Petitto, Sanders and Bever (1979) trained a chimpanzee (Pans troglodytes) called Nim to learn American Sign Language since the age of two weeks. Nim learned 125 signs and was able to make up to four-sign combinations without being required to do so. The two-sign combinations were appropriate to the context and seemed to have some structural regularity, for example the construction verb + me/ Nim was more frequent than me/ Nim + verb (e.g. tickle me was used 316 times while me tickle 20 times), but three-sign combinations or four sign combinations even though they were appropriate to the context and were lexically similar to the two-sign utterances, they showed no elaboration (e.g. eat Nim, eat Nim eat and eat Nim eat Nim). In comparison, a child’s two-word utterances when transformed into three or four-word utterances show elaboration and provide additional information; e.g. sit chair and sit daddy chair, so while a child’s Mean Length Utterances (MLU) increase, their complexity also increases, but in Nim’s case only the length of the utterances grew and not their...
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