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Learning resources from INTO UEA

The Time Course of Language Acquisition

Watch the video, answer the questions on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. How old were the babies in the study?
    Four days
  2. Why did the study involve sucking?
    Because sucking is one of the few things that babies can do
  3. Which language did the babies prefer?
    Their own language (French babies preferred French; Russian babies preferred Russian)
  4. What features of language do the babies not know?
    Words and syntax
  5. The lecturer mentions phonemic contrasts in what languages?
    English, Czech and Hindi
  6. What arguments are given for speaking in a childlike way to babies?
    That it helps their language learning and that it calms them
  7. At what age does the sensitivity to all phonemes disappear?
    Around twelve months
  8. At what age do children start babbling?
    Around seven months
  9. How different is the acquisition of sign language from the acquisition of spoken language?
    It is not different at all
  10. Why might sign languages be thought harder to learn?
    Because the brain and the body have adapted for speech
  11. Between the ages of one and two, what are the various language stages that children master?
    Using words, showing some sensitivity to the order of words, learning words faster, producing little sentences, using the function morphemes
  12. What is the bad news?
    The ability to learn language declines with age
  13. What factors do not affect how well immigrants learn English?
    Intelligence, number of family members, motivation
  14. What is particularly hard for older learners to lose?
    An accent

Words from the Academic Word List have been hidden in this transcript. Watch the video, complete the gaps on a piece of paper, then check your answers.

  1. What do we know about the time course of language? Well, early on children start off and they prefer the
    melody
    of their own language. These studies were done in France with four-day-old babies. And what they did was they used a sucking
    method
    . Remember, there’s a limited number of things babies can do. One of the things they can do is suck, and these babies would suck on a pacifier to hear French. And they would prefer to hear French than to hear Russian. And these
    investigators
    claimed this is because they had been
    exposed
    to French in the first four days of their lives. Reviewers, mostly from France, objected and said, "No. Maybe French just sounds better. Everybody’s going to like French." So, they re-did the study in Russia. Russian kids sucked harder to hear Russian than they did to French.
  2. And what they’re listening to isn’t the words. They don’t know words yet. They don’t know of
    syntax
    yet. It’s the
    rhythm
    of the language. For you, French and Russian sound different. Even if you’re like me and you don’t know a word of either language, they still sound different. They sound different to babies too. And a baby being raised in France or a baby being raised in Russia knows enough to tell what’s his language and what isn’t.
  3. Early on, children are
    sensitive
    to every phoneme there is. So, English-speaking children, for
    instance
    , can — English-speaking babies – babies who are born in the United States – can distinguish between English phonemes like "lip" and "rip" but they could also distinguish between phonemic
    contrasts
    that are not exemplified in English, such as phonemic
    contrasts
    in Czech or Hindi. Yes.
  4. [Student question] They would gaggle and coo back at the baby. [Student question]
  5. There’s a lot going on in your question. [laughter] Some raising — Well, there’s a lot going on in your question. The answer to the question — The question was, "your baby’s going to coo and ‘ga ga, goo goo,’ does it matter if you coo and ‘ga ga, goo goo’ back?" No, it doesn’t make a difference. Your hatred towards them was
    unmotivated
    . You can be relieved of that debt, or now you know you feel bad now, I guess. [laughter] If you speak to your children in perfect English, it’s very strange. Nobody speaks to their babies in, "Hello, Son. It’s time — Oh. You want to change your diaper right now so stay still." That’s bad parenting. It sounds kind of silly. More — What most people do is, "Oh. you’re such a cute little baby." And it probably — One — There’s —
    Evolutionary
    psychologists
    debate
    the
    function
    of why we talk funny to babies. And some people have argued that it does help their language learning. And some people have argued instead that what it does is it calms them. They like to hear the music of a smooth voice and so on. But whether or not you do so doesn’t seem to make a big difference.
  6. It is very difficult to find any
    effect
    of how parents talk to their kids on how their kids learn language, particularly when it comes to babies. So, early on babies can — are sensitive to all phonemes and then that goes away. Around twelve months of age it goes away. This is one thing you were much better at when you were a baby than you are now. When you were a baby you were a multilingual
    fool
    . You could understand the sound differences of every language on earth. Now, if you’re like me, you could barely understand English. [laughter] You
    narrow
    down until you’re sensitive just to the language you hear. And this
    narrowing
    down is largely in place by about twelve months of age.
  7. Around seven months is babbling. And I want to stop at this point to go back to the
    issue
    — I promised you I would turn a bit to sign language and I want to describe now a very elegant — I want to show a little film now of a very elegant
    series
    of experiments looking at the question of whether babies who are
    exposed
    to a sign language, babble.[film plays]
  8. One of the real surprising findings in my field over the last ten/twenty years has been that the
    acquisition
    of sign languages has turned out to be almost exactly the same; in fact, as far as we know, exactly the same as the
    acquisition
    of spoken languages. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been just as reasonable to expect that there’d be an advantage for speech over sign. That sign languages may be full-blown languages but they just take — they’re just harder to learn because the brain and the body have
    adapted
    for speech. It turns out that this just isn’t the case. It turns out that sign and — the developmental milestones of sign languages and the developmental milestones of spoken languages are
    precisely
    the same. They start babbling at the same point. They start using first words, first sentences, first complicated
    constructions
    . There seems to be no interesting difference between how the brain comes to
    acquire
    and use the spoken language versus a sign language.
  9. Around twelve months of age, children start using their first words. These are words for objects and actions like "dog" and "up" and "milk." They start showing some
    sensitivity
    to the order of words. So they know that "dog bites cat" is different from "cat bites dog." Around eighteen months of age, they start learning words faster. They start producing little, miniature sentences like "Want cookie" or "Milk spill" and the
    function
    morphemes, the little words, "in," "of," "a," "the," and so on start to gradually appear.
  10. Then the — Then there’s the bad news. Around seven years of age going up through puberty, the ability to learn language starts to go away. The best work on this has been done by Elissa Newport and Sam Supalla who have studied people who have been in the United States for many, many years – 30, 40 years – and seeing how well they have come to speak English. And it turns out the big
    determinant
    of how well you speak English as an
    immigrant
    isn’t how smart you are. It’s not how many family members you have when you’re here. It’s not your
    motivation
    . It’s how old you were when you started.
  11. It turns out that if you start learning a language – a second language is where most of the work’s been done – within the first few years of life you’re fine. You’ll speak like a native. But then it starts getting worse and worse. And once you hit puberty, suddenly there’s huge
    variation
    in the abilities you have to learn language. It is very rare, for
    instance
    , for somebody who has learned English past puberty to speak without an accent. An accent is very hard to shake and it’s not just an accent. It’s also other
    aspects
    of phonology, syntax, and morphology. It’s like the part of the brain that’s responsible for language learning is only around early in
    development
    and if you don’t get your language by then it’ll just run out.
  12. I want to begin next class with this question, the question of animals. And that will shut down the language learning part. But one thing I’ll put up here is your second reading
    response
    . So, I’ll also put this up on Wednesday, and by Wednesday you might have a bit of a better — be in a better position to answer this question. But I’ll continue with language on Wednesday and then we’ll also talk about
    vision
    , attention, and memory. I’ll see you then.

  1. What do we know about the time course of language? Well, early on children start off and they prefer the melody of their own language. These studies were done in France with four-day-old babies. And what they did was they used a sucking method. Remember, there’s a limited number of things babies can do. One of the things they can do is suck, and these babies would suck on a pacifier to hear French. And they would prefer to hear French than to hear Russian. And these investigators claimed this is because they had been exposed to French in the first four days of their lives. Reviewers, mostly from France, objected and said, "No. Maybe French just sounds better. Everybody’s going to like French." So, they re-did the study in Russia. Russian kids sucked harder to hear Russian than they did to French.
  2. And what they’re listening to isn’t the words. They don’t know words yet. They don’t know of syntax yet. It’s the rhythm of the language. For you, French and Russian sound different. Even if you’re like me and you don’t know a word of either language, they still sound different. They sound different to babies too. And a baby being raised in France or a baby being raised in Russia knows enough to tell what’s his language and what isn’t.
  3. Early on, children are sensitive to every phoneme there is. So, English-speaking children, for instance, can - English-speaking babies - babies who are born in the United States - can distinguish between English phonemes like "lip" and "rip" but they could also distinguish between phonemic contrasts that are not exemplified in English, such as phonemic contrasts in Czech or Hindi. Yes.
  4. [Student question] They would gaggle and coo back at the baby. [Student question]
  5. There’s a lot going on in your question. [laughter] Some raising - Well, there’s a lot going on in your question. The answer to the question - The question was, "your baby’s going to coo and ‘ga ga, goo goo,’ does it matter if you coo and ‘ga ga, goo goo’ back?" No, it doesn’t make a difference. Your hatred towards them was unmotivated. You can be relieved of that debt, or now you know you feel bad now, I guess. [laughter] If you speak to your children in perfect English, it’s very strange. Nobody speaks to their babies in, "Hello, Son. It’s time - Oh. You want to change your diaper right now so stay still." That’s bad parenting. It sounds kind of silly. More - What most people do is, "Oh. you’re such a cute little baby." And it probably - One - There’s - Evolutionary psychologists debate the function of why we talk funny to babies. And some people have argued that it does help their language learning. And some people have argued instead that what it does is it calms them. They like to hear the music of a smooth voice and so on. But whether or not you do so doesn’t seem to make a big difference.
  6. It is very difficult to find any effect of how parents talk to their kids on how their kids learn language, particularly when it comes to babies. So, early on babies can - are sensitive to all phonemes and then that goes away. Around twelve months of age it goes away. This is one thing you were much better at when you were a baby than you are now. When you were a baby you were a multilingual fool. You could understand the sound differences of every language on earth. Now, if you’re like me, you could barely understand English. [laughter] You narrow down until you’re sensitive just to the language you hear. And this narrowing down is largely in place by about twelve months of age.
  7. Around seven months is babbling. And I want to stop at this point to go back to the issue - I promised you I would turn a bit to sign language and I want to describe now a very elegant - I want to show a little film now of a very elegant series of experiments looking at the question of whether babies who are exposed to a sign language, babble. [film plays]
  8. One of the real surprising findings in my field over the last ten/twenty years has been that the acquisition of sign languages has turned out to be almost exactly the same; in fact, as far as we know, exactly the same as the acquisition of spoken languages. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been just as reasonable to expect that there’d be an advantage for speech over sign. That sign languages may be full-blown languages but they just take - they’re just harder to learn because the brain and the body have adapted for speech. It turns out that this just isn’t the case. It turns out that sign and - the developmental milestones of sign languages and the developmental milestones of spoken languages are precisely the same. They start babbling at the same point. They start using first words, first sentences, first complicated constructions. There seems to be no interesting difference between how the brain comes to acquire and use the spoken language versus a sign language.
  9. Around twelve months of age, children start using their first words. These are words for objects and actions like "dog" and "up" and "milk." They start showing some sensitivity to the order of words. So they know that "dog bites cat" is different from "cat bites dog." Around eighteen months of age, they start learning words faster. They start producing little, miniature sentences like "Want cookie" or "Milk spill" and the function morphemes, the little words, "in," "of," "a," "the," and so on start to gradually appear.
  10. Then the - Then there’s the bad news. Around seven years of age going up through puberty, the ability to learn language starts to go away. The best work on this has been done by Elissa Newport and Sam Supalla who have studied people who have been in the United States for many, many years - 30, 40 years - and seeing how well they have come to speak English. And it turns out the big determinant of how well you speak English as an immigrant isn’t how smart you are. It’s not how many family members you have when you’re here. It’s not your motivation. It’s how old you were when you started.
  11. It turns out that if you start learning a language - a second language is where most of the work’s been done - within the first few years of life you’re fine. You’ll speak like a native. But then it starts getting worse and worse. And once you hit puberty, suddenly there’s huge variation in the abilities you have to learn language. It is very rare, for instance, for somebody who has learned English past puberty to speak without an accent. An accent is very hard to shake and it’s not just an accent. It’s also other aspects of phonology, syntax, and morphology. It’s like the part of the brain that’s responsible for language learning is only around early in development and if you don’t get your language by then it’ll just run out.
  12. I want to begin next class with this question, the question of animals. And that will shut down the language learning part. But one thing I’ll put up here is your second reading response. So, I’ll also put this up on Wednesday, and by Wednesday you might have a bit of a better - be in a better position to answer this question. But I’ll continue with language on Wednesday and then we’ll also talk about vision, attention, and memory. I’ll see you then.

Paul Bloom, Introduction to Psychology (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), https://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed 10 June 2013). Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. Terms of Use