When does language begin? In the middle 1960s, under the influence of Chomsky’s vision of linguistics, the first child language researchers assumed that language begins when words (or morphemes) are combined. (The reading by Halliday has some illustrative citations concerning this narrow focus on “structure.”) So our story begins with what is colloquially known as the “two-word stage.” The transition to 2-word utterances has been called “perhaps, the single most disputed issue in the study of language development” (Bloom, 1998). A few descriptive points: Typically children start to combine words when they are between 18 and 24 months of age. Around 30 months their utterances become more complex, as they add additional words and also affixes and other grammatical morphemes. These first word-combinations show a number of characteristics. First, they are systematically simpler than adult speech. For instance, function words are generally not used. Notice that the omission of inflections, such as -s, -ing, -ed, shows that the child is being systematic rather than copying. If they were simply imitating what they heard, there is no particular reason why these grammatical elements would be omitted. Conjunctions (and), articles (the, a), and prepositions (with) are omitted too. But is this because they require extra processing, which the child is not yet capable of? Or do they as yet convey nothing to the child—can she find no use for them? Second, as utterances become more complex and inflections are added, we find the famous “over-regularization”—which again shows, of course, that children are systematic, not simply copying what they here.
Research on child language was behavioristic in the years that preceded Chomsky’s critique of Skinner, and his publication of Syntactic Structures: “though there had been precedents for setting problems in the study of child language acquisition at a more abstract, cognitive level by continental scholars--most notably, Roman Jacobson (e.g., 1941/1968)--much of the research on child language acquisition at midcentury was influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the highly concrete, behaviorist orientation of B. F. Skinner and others. Two events were of major important in the change from behaviorist to cognitive thinking in research on child language. The first was Chomsky’s classic review (1959) of Verbal Behavior, Skinner’s major book-length work on the learning and use of language; the second Handout for Psy 598-02, summer 2001
Two-Word Utterances 2
was the detailed longitudinal study of the acquisition of English by three young children conducted over a 17-month period by Roger Brown and others in the early 1960s (Brown, 1973).” Ritchie, W. C., & Bhatia, T. K. (1999). Child language acquisition: Introduction, foundations, and overview. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of child language acquisition, (pp. 3-30). San Diego: Academic Press, p. 3-4 note 2. “A child who has learned a language has developed an internal representation of a system of rules” (Chomsky, 1965, p. 25). The psychologist’s task, it follows, is to determine what the child’s rules are. “The linguist constructing a grammar for a language is in effect proposing a hypothesis concerning the internalized system” (Chomsky, 1968, p. 23). Up to the 1950s, people simply counted characteristics such as sentence complexity, proportion of grammatical utterances, etc. After Chomsky, the search was on for child grammars, assumed to be universal.
Roger Brown’s Research
In 1956 Roger Brown heard Chomsky for the first time, speaking at Yale. In 1962 he began a five-year research project on children’s language at Harvard University. The historical significance of Brown’s laboratory at Harvard can hardly be exaggerated. The names of students and colleagues who worked with Brown pop up all the time, to this day, in psycholinguistic research: the list includes...
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