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Language Learning in Babies

Language learning begins before birth. A baby in the mother's womb hears noises from the outside environment and becomes sensitized to language sounds. The sensitivity of newborns to language can be demonstrated through various means, for example, using the release from habituation paradigm discussed in Chapter 5. High-speed photographic analysis also reveals that, when exposed to human speech, newborns make tiny movements synchronized with basic language sounds called phonemes.

What happens to the newborn's sensitivity to human language sounds?

Newborns respond to language sounds from any language, not just their own. However, by the age of one year, a baby's response to phonemes becomes more selective. They stop responding to phonemes that are absent from their own linguistic environment. (Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens and Lindblom, 1992).

Babies who are born deaf do not show phoneme sensitivity, but they show all the other stages of language development when they learn to use sign language. This shows that language development is "built in" to humans, and it also shows that language does not depend on speaking or hearing words. The essence of human language is expression of meaning in a symbolic code. Language development typically goes through the following sequence of stages:

Phoneme perception Babies who can hear become sensitive primarily to sounds in their own language.

Cooing Babies produce soft vocalizations around 3 months of age

Babbling The 6 month old begins to play with language sounds (for example, "Ba-ba-ba.") Deaf babies babble with their hands.

What are holophrases? What is overextension, in language learning? What are protosentences? What is telegraphic speech?

First words and holophrases Around 9 months of age, toddlers use single words (holophrases) to make requests or express feelings. For example, "Doot!" might mean "Get me juice!" The same word might be applied to many things (which is called overextension ). Any animal might be called "doggie."

Protosentences Around a year and a half of age (18 months) toddlers produce two-word sentences, such as "Mommy go" or "Daddy go." Vocabulary starts to grow rapidly at this age.

Telegraphic speech. Sentences increase in length, but small connective words like "and" or "the" are left out. Bigger words are simplified. A two year old might say, "You go bye-bye car?" instead of "Are you going bye-bye in the car?"

What is the overregularization, and what does it reveal?

Sentences are initially composed using irregular words like "went" properly, based on imitation, for example, "Mommy went bye-bye." Following this, there is a phase in which sentences are composed using irregular words improperly, based on grammatical rules, for example, "Mommy goed bye-bye." This is called overregularization. The error actually reveals progress, showing that the child is learning rules such as "add -ed for past tense." Later, the child learns the exceptions to the rules (the irregular words) all over again. For example, a child who says goed will learn to say went again.

What does an error like "funner" indicate?

In general, psychologists find errors very informative. Errors reveal the rules of language. A child might say gooder instead of better. This reveals that the child has learned the rule "add -er to indicate one thing is more than another." The same child might say funner instead of "more fun."


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