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  • So let’s talk about babies. Very cute, right? It’s hard to look at a baby smiling at you

  • and not feel good. But even the most devoted parents don’t generally think of their baby

  • as a cognitive powerhouse. But babies figure out how language works like little

  • geniuses. Theyre just born that way. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space.

  • Language is special. People can do a lot of amazing things - ride a unicycle, learn long

  • division, walk on the moon. But maybe the most

  • amazing thing that human beings do is language. Don’t believe me? Just wait.

  • So the most important idea for today’s episode is the theory that the ability to learn and

  • use language is biologically hardwired into the human brain.

  • Babies are made to pick up the language that they hear around them, just sponging up those glorious sounds and structures

  • and turning them into their mother tongues. The theory that language is something innate,

  • something youre born with, is known in linguistics as nativism or generativism,

  • and it’s got a lot of really good evidence behind it.

  • Before we start getting into what this means, though, let’s be perfectly clear about what

  • it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that were born with any particular languageno baby springs

  • into the world with the ability to speak perfect English or German or Japanese. We don’t

  • come equipped with the rules or sounds or vocabulary of any language - that’s all stuff we have to learn.

  • What babies don’t need to figure out is how language can workwhat kinds of words

  • we can build, what types of sentences we can make, what sorts of interpretations were

  • allowed. These fundamental principles of language define what’s possible and what’s not,

  • and theyre the same for everybody. Anything that doesn’t stick to the rules will never

  • come up in any human language, ever. Given how many

  • different languages there are, it might seem unlikely that there's one set of principles that can rule

  • them all. But the idea comes to us from none less than the father of modern linguistics,

  • Noam Chomsky. He called it: Universal Grammar, or UG.

  • There are a lot of arguments to back up the nativist position, but for today, were just

  • going to focus on two of them. So the first is that babies go through the same stages in

  • development no matter what language theyre learning. The second is that infants master

  • language way faster than they should if theyre just little blank slate know-nothing babies.

  • To be that fast, there’s got to be something there to help them along.

  • Let’s start off with babbling, those adorable random syllables that little babies make. Except

  • theyre not really random. No matter what language theyre learning, this early babbling

  • uses the same set of sounds. One study examined the early babbling of babies from 15 different

  • languages, including English, Thai, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, and Mayanlanguages where

  • all they have in common is that theyre spoken by people. The study found that these

  • babies all prefer labial consonants, or sounds made with the lips, more than other consonants;

  • stop consonants like [p] and [b], where the air flow through the mouth is totally blocked,

  • over others; and vowels made low in the mouth like [æ] and [ɑ] over those that are made

  • higher up, like [i] and [u].

  • And all of that is independent of how often - or even whether

  • at all - these languages make use of these sounds! Babbling Hindi-learning babies make

  • the same amounts of the same sounds that Arabic-learning babies do.

  • In fact, your average 8-month-old baby can differentiate between any pair of sounds used

  • in any language in the world. Depending on your language, you might not be able to tell

  • the difference between [t̪ɑk] and [ʈɑk], or between [lɑk] and [ɹɑk],

  • but your baby can. It makes sense: a baby needs to be prepared

  • to pick up any language, so they better come equipped to hear anything that could be relevant.

  • It’s not just the way they deal with sounds that’s the same for all infants. They all

  • pick up words at the same approximate rate and stages, too, and that's regardless of how the language

  • theyre learning works. It doesn’t matter whether or not the babies hear motherese, that

  • way of speaking slow and using easy words and intonation, likeWhat a cute baby!

  • Where’s the kitty, baby?”

  • It doesn’t matter if the language has tone, like Mandarin, or doesn’t, like English,

  • or whether the verb comes at the beginning or end of the sentence.

  • In fact, all babies, in whatever language, will start getting their first words around

  • 10-12 months old. By 18 months, theyve got about 50 words. And then they undergo

  • a crazy vocabulary spurt, picking up hundreds of words over the next few months, so that

  • by around 2, theyll have about 500. And then they start going even faster! Your average

  • 2 and a half year old is glomming up new words at the rate of about 10 a day. That’s faster than

  • your average 3-credit undergraduate language course.

  • So the ways that kids make sounds, the way they pick up words, it’s all the same worldwide,

  • in Chicago or Tokyo or Cairo or Bangkok. And since the languages theyre learning are

  • all so different, this tells us something fundamental about the human brain. How babies

  • learn language is biologicalour brains are configured for language.

  • If youre still not convinced, how about this: there’s been a lot of research done

  • on other language acquisition theories, and the results there are just as clear.

  • Maybe you think that we can pick up language quicker than other behavioral skills, that

  • there’s nothing special about it except how fast we do it. Okay. First, of course

  • kids make mistakes - calling a deerhorsiethe first time they see one, saying “I eated

  • instead of “I ate” - but there’s all sorts of mistakes that kids don’t make that it

  • seems like they should. For example, when asking a question, “Teddy is happycan

  • turn intoIs Teddy happy?”, butTeddy dressed up as Alicecan never turn intoDressed

  • Teddy up as Alice?”. Kids never make mistakes like that.

  • Second, if language was just something you picked up without having a blueprint in your

  • brain, it should be possible to approximate some part of it with computer modeling. That’s

  • exactly what one linguist tried to do in 2011. She designed twenty different computer models

  • of how the English stress system could be acquiredso what syllables should be pronounced

  • more strongly than others, and what factors matter for deciding that. And the researcher

  • didn’t only run the experiment only onceshe did it a thousand times for each model, with

  • different versions paying attention to different factors. So how many of these models nailed

  • English? Three. Three out of twenty thousand total trials.

  • And yet, basically every English speaking child gets this right. That strongly

  • suggests there’s something very special going on with language.

  • But it’s not just that all babies do the same things that makes us think that language

  • is innate, that it’s something were born with. It’s that kids get so good at language

  • so quickly. Let’s consider what your average 2 and a half year old knows about language.

  • They know what sound combinations are possible for their language, so they know what a possible

  • word sounds like. They know the word order for their language, so a Turkish kid will

  • know that the verb comes after the object, but a French kid will know it’s the other

  • way around. They know how to make questions, and what sorts of questions it's grammatically

  • okay to ask. They know how to use modifiers like adjectives or adverbs. Now, think about

  • what your average toddler knows about, like, everything else. They know a whole lot about how language

  • works, at an age where they can’t add 2 + 2. Or tie their shoes. Or reliably use a bathroom.

  • So why are kids so good? Why can they learn so fast, make so few mistakes, and succeed

  • where sophisticated computer models fail? How do they know all of this despite not having

  • it explicitly taught to them? It’s because they already know how language can work. Deep

  • in their brains, in their genes, they have the abstract rule sets that tell them what’s possible

  • and what’s not. All babies start the same way, with the same linguistic abilities. Then,

  • they apply the data they hear to the Universal Grammar in their heads, and they make little

  • linguistic miracles happen. Every single day.

  • So weve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. Well be coming back to talk

  • more about child language in the future, but if you were paying attention this time, you

  • learned that nativist or generativist ideas mean that we think language is innate, but

  • not that any particular language is; that babies go through

  • the same stages of development regardless of what language theyre learning; and that

  • kids know a whole lot about how language works at a really early age.

  • The Ling Space is written and produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèlelise

  • Prévost, our production assistant is Georges Coulombe, and our music and sound design is by

  • Shane Turner. Our educational consultants are Level-Up Learning Solutions, and our graphics

  • team is atelierMuse. Were down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion over

  • to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Twitter and

  • Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.

  • And well see you next Wednesday. Mata raishuu!

So let’s talk about babies. Very cute, right? It’s hard to look at a baby smiling at you

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Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar

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    Sh, Gang (Aaron) posted on 2016/01/22
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