Language is Learned

You may have heard it said that all babies have the same linguistic abilities at birth. This is true. They have no linguistic abilities at birth. No child is born knowing language, and early infancy and childhood are when language is acquired. What is not true, but is claimed by some experts, is that all people are born with an innate language module hard-wired in the brain. Babies work very hard to learn the language they hear spoken all around them. If they are deprived of access to language input early in life, they find it much more difficult to acquire language later on. On the other hand, if children are given ample opportunity to experience language and to practice it, they will acquire language despite brain abnormalities and other physical handicaps.

Helen Keller's unenculturated behavior as a small child was due to an almost complete absence of socialization, due to lack of sensory input  Photo Credit: The Wikipedia
Helen Keller's unenculturated behavior as a small child was due to an almost complete absence of socialization, due to lack of sensory input Photo Credit: The Wikipedia

Helen and Teacher

Annie Sullivan teaching eight year old Helen    Photo Credit: The Wikipedia
Annie Sullivan teaching eight year old Helen Photo Credit: The Wikipedia

Language cannot be acquired if sensory input is blocked

Helen Keller was born normal and undamaged and proceeded along the usual developmental path, when at the age of nineteen months she came down with scarlet fever. When she recovered from the disease, her parents discovered that she was both deaf and blind. Shut away in a world where there was no light and no sound, Helen's mind languished. She had already spoken her first word before she was struck down by the disease, but now she began to regress. As she grew older, her parents were not sure whether her intelligence might not have been damaged as well. Deprived of normal language input, Helen behaved very much like a feral child.

Not only was Helen not developing language due to her linguistic isolation, but she was also not enculturated in many other ways. She lashed out at people, snatched food from their plates, and behaved in other ways not like a human being.

Language is a cultural tool that we acquire as we adapt to our social environment. Human beings arrive in the world not knowing how to behave. It is only through social cues received through sensory input that we gradually develop behavior that we think of as typically human.

Helen Keller's life changed dramatically when her parents hired Annie Sullivan as her teacher and companion. Sullivan was herself partially blind, and she had training in braille, sign language and techniques for teaching language to the blind and the deaf. However, she had never before had to work with someone who was both deaf and blind. Annie Sullivan was only twenty years old when she came to live with the Kellers. Helen was not yet seven.

Here is how the adult Helen described the first meeting with Sullivan in her autobiography: "I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and more than all things else, to love me." (Story of My Life, p.22).

I include this passage, with its flowery language and syntactically complex sentences, to show that Helen not only acquired language, she became highly proficient, much more so than many normal speakers who never had to overcome the obstacles in Helen Keller's path.

Language is in the Abstract Contrasts

At the time when Annie Sullivan met Helen Keller, Helen had already mastered sixty homesigns, so that it could be argued that she was not completely without language. But these signs were like the lexigrams used in current research with apes today. Each sign stood for a word or an idea, but there was no grammar, and no real possibility for expanding. What Annie Sullivan did for her Helen was to unlock the unlimited possibilities in language by teaching Helen how to spell.

Most accounts of Helen's linguistic and cultural transformation make little of this fact. Many modern day educators assume that Helen learned sign language. She didn't. She learned English.

Sullivan did not teach Helen ASL or some other language exclusively reserved for the deaf. She taught her finger-spelling. Helen learned a series of letters for each word she wanted to say. From finger spelling, Helen progressed to reading Braille. After Braille, Helen mastered the ability to use spoken English, by learning to vocalize the sounds of English based on her previous knowledge of the grammar, lexicon and phonetics of a language she could not hear. If she had not already been fluent in English before she learned to make the sounds of English, the process of learning to talk out loud would have been much harder.

Human languages rely on contrasts in order to code information. It does not matter whether the contrasts are visual, auditory or tactile. They can readily be translated from one sensory modality to another. The important thing is that a person have access to all the contrasts of the standard language used in his social environment, both for comprehension and for production.

People whose native language is ASL have to learn English as a second language. Helen Keller became a native speaker of written English first, and only afterwards of spoken English.

Annie Sullivan's method of teaching Helen allowed Helen a window onto the social world in which she lived. Given the right tools, Helen was able to learn language and literacy and to become a public speaker and writer of great power.

Genie was a feral child deprived of normal language input through abuse; when she was rescued it was too late for her to acquire language in anything but a rudimentary form Photo Credit: The Wikipedia
Genie was a feral child deprived of normal language input through abuse; when she was rescued it was too late for her to acquire language in anything but a rudimentary form Photo Credit: The Wikipedia

Feral Children

Helen Keller's story demonstrates how a person with a brain and mind that are fully functional can still remain without language, unless the appropriate input is received. If language were hard-wired in the brain, as some claim it is, then it could come into play without the help of environmental input or social example.

Helen Keller's social isolation was brought about by a disease that ravaged her visual and auditory processing, but left her mind intact. She was lucky that she had loving parents who sought out every possible treatment for her, and who eventually provided her with the teacher she needed in order to break out of her isolation.

Other children who are neither deaf nor blind, and who have full use of their faculties, are not so lucky. Whether due to abandonment or abuse, some children who had the potential for language at birth, do not acquire it during the critical period before puberty. Even after they are rescued and given an opportunity to learn language, they are not able to make up for the lost time, despite intensive efforts on their behalf by teachers, foster parents and social workers.

One example is Genie, a child who was abused and prevented from speaking or hearing language spoken until she was thirteen years old. Despite years of language training, Genie was never able to master even the rudiments of grammar. A typical utterance by Genie was: ""Applesauce buy store". Though Genie understood the meaning of the words, she couldn't put them together using coherent English syntax.

Myelin sheath of typical neuron

Myelin (colored yellow here) is the coating on the axons of the typical neuron. Myelin is the so-called "white brain matter".
Myelin (colored yellow here) is the coating on the axons of the typical neuron. Myelin is the so-called "white brain matter".

Myelination and the Critical Period

Why is there a critical period for language acquisition? The answer has to do with the way the brain wires itself during infancy and early childhood. At birth, there are very few pre-wired structures in the brain that are in place to deal with new information. Instead, the brain builds connections between neurons as new information is presented. A structure begins to emerge that helps the child process information, based on what has worked in the past. Connections that are going to be kept are myelinated. Myelin is a substance used to coat the axons of a neuron. When a child reaches puberty, the proliferation of connections that have formed up to this point go through a process of pruning. Myelinated connections are kept. Those connections that haven't received sufficient reinforcement, and have not undergone myelination, are discarded.

For this reason, learning a first language after puberty is very, very difficult. For native speakers of one language, new languages can be acquired after the critical period, but usually foreigners have difficulty speaking without an accent or as fluently as native speakers. In contrast, when a second language is acquired through total immersion before puberty, the child is usually indistinguishable from a native speaker in a matter of months.

The more automated a cognitive process is, the harder it is to change after puberty. Myelination continues throughout most of the human lifespan, and we do continue to learn new things. It's just that most of the new things we learn involve a deepening of knowledge and builds on the basic systems that we built up during childhood. Learning a new language means learning a whole new way to understand and classify reality. Acquiring a radically new perspective on life is possible after puberty. However, it is much, much harder than when we are children.

French man with Normal Language Function but Severe Hydrocephalus

The image of a brain with massive damage whose owner has normal language function  Credit: The Wikipedia
The image of a brain with massive damage whose owner has normal language function Credit: The Wikipedia

Variations in brain structures that process language

But aren't there specific structures in the brain that process linguistic information? Hasn't the location of these structures been identified and catalogued? Haven't we found that people who suffer lesions to specific areas of the brain experience predictable language related impairments of function?

The answer is: yes and no. There are locations in the brain that have typically been used for specific functions, but not in all people. There are statistical correlations. But for every such location, we can find a counterexample in a person whose brain wires that function in a different location.

If you have ever taken an introductory linguistics course, you have probably heard of Broca's area and Wernicke's area. Broca's area is said to specialize in grammar. Wernicke's area is said to be responsible for the lexicon. Adults with injuries to their Broca's areas typically experience difficulty with grammar. People who receive injuries to Wernicke's area after their language has already been established typically have trouble accessing their vocabulary.

However, if the injuries to these areas occur before language has had the opportunity to establish itself, language development may not be disrupted at all. The brain simply wires its language centers someplace else.

People who have suffered childhood hydrocephaly have provided ample evidence that there is no one place in the brain that must remain intact in order for language to flourish.

Hydrocephaly (or hydrocephalus) involves an accumulation of water in the brain. Even after the water is shunted out, massive holes in the brains of hydrocephaly survivors can be found where the water used to be. Many such people experience reduction of function, especially in the visual cortex, where information from the eyes is processed. Such people experience what is know as "brain blindness." Their eyes are healthy, and yet they can't see. The information from the eyes is not reaching the brain.

The areas of sensory input are those parts of the brain that are most nearly hard-wired. But many survivors of hydrocephaly have perfectly normal language function, because there is no structure in the brain which is dedicated before birth to language processing.

In 2007, a man was discovered in France, who through hydrocephaly, had lost the majority of his brain, including Broca's area and Wernicke's area. However, he had perfectly normal language function. He was married with two children and held a civil service job.

There are two conclusions that we can draw from this evidence:

(1) It does not matter how much of a brain you have. What matters immensely is how you use the brain you have been given.

(2) There is no language acquisition device hard-wired in the brain.

Variations in Grammatical Ability Among Normal Speakers

The examples thus far have come from individuals who had some defect, either in their language use or in their organs. But isn't it true that all healthy, normal people have the same language abilities? Isn't there such a thing as universal grammar? Don't all normal speakers process their native language in exactly the same way?

Absolutely not. No two languages have the same grammar. No two speakers are alike. There isn't one and only one correct way to arrive at a correct solution to any problem in the real world -- not even grammar.

Perfectly healthy immigrant children who are fluent speakers of their home language are frequently diagnosed as language delayed by professional educators trained in language pathology. Why does this happen? Because there is no way to tell the difference between someone who is language impaired and someone who just doesn't happen to speak your language. There are no tell-tale signs. You have to know the history of the child.

If there were such a thing as Universal Grammar, such mistakes could never be made.

Native Speakers of the Same Language Are not all Equally Talented at Grammar

Even normal native speakers of the same language do not all have the same innate ability in the grammar of their first language. Any parent or teacher could tell you this from their own observations. Sometimes in the same family, just as some children are better at music and math than others, some do better in grammar, and some do worse. There is such a thing as talent, and it manifests in every subject where skill is required. Language ability is no different from any other skill.

While these observations are commonplace, some linguists have staunchly maintained that all native speakers of the same language have the same "linguistic competence" and that any variations are due to "performance errors."

What is the difference between competence and performance? It could mean that you really know how to do something, but you had a bad day. You made a mistake, but on most days you would get it right. However, that's not how the terms "competence" and "performance" have come to be used in linguistics. Even when it is shown that the same people make the same grammatical mistakes over and over again consistently while others do not, many linguists still maintain that all people have the same grammatical competence, just by virtue of being human. It is presumed that we all have the same language acquisition device hard-wired in our brains, and any variation in performance is due to extraneous factors, such as our short term memory.

Using a computer metaphor, this view of uniform competence despite variation in performance is like saying that all people use the same algorithm to process language, but some people have a shorter stack in their CPU. Or, using a baking metaphor, it would mean that all people use the same recipe to bake their language cake, only some people have defective measuring cups or a problem with the thermostat on their oven. So even though we all use the same recipe, the cakes we bake come out different.

Recent research has shown that this view is mistaken. The reason people perform differently on grammatical tasks is because they have different levels of grammatical competence. We don't all use the same algorithm to analyze sentences. We are not all using the same recipe to bake our linguistic cake.

In Understanding Complex Sentences (Palgrave 2003), author Ngoni Chipere describes some experiments that were conducted to determine the cause of native speaker variation in grammatical performance. The experiments revealed that perfomance errors were directly related to how speakers parse linguistic input, rather than being just a matter of differences in working memory.

Some people are rote-learners while others are rule-based learners. Language is amenable to both approaches, and of course, there are many intermediate ways that fall somewhere between the two extremes.

When we learn the multiplication tables, we can learn that 3x3 = 3 + 3 + 3, and then use our knowledge of addition to derive the result: 9. Alternatively, we could just memorize the fact that 3x3=9. Both methods work. Both lead to a correct result. Some people re-derive the results of the mutiplication table anew each time. Some just rely on their memories, without knowing why the result is correct. Some people do a little of both. As long as we get the right answer, nobody can tell how we got there. The methods are functionally equivalent. However, if the math problems we are asked to solve are a little more complex than the multiplication table, then people who actually understand how arithmetic works have an advantage. The same observation is true of grammar.

While language is not exactly the same as arithmetic, there are similar strategies that can be adopted by speakers who have a preference for rote-based or rule-based learning.

Consider this familiar sentence:

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

Much has been made of our innate grammatical ability to handle recursivity. (Recursivity is just a fancy word for repeating the same step over and over again when it's listed only once in the instructions. An example of recursivity in every day life are the shampoo directions: "Lather. Rinse. Repeat." A non- recursive way of writing those instructions would be: "Lather. Rinse Lather. Rinse.)

According to some linguists, all speakers are rule-based learners who analyze language using a finite number of recursive rules. They can correctly analyze the meaning of complex sentences, such as the one above from "The House that Jack Built", because they have rules for how to handle indeterminately long sequences of "that" clauses. However, it turns out that not all speakers do it this way. Rule-based speakers do, but rote-learners create themselves "fill-in-the-blank" templates from familiar sentences they have already heard. These templates would look something like this:

This is the ______(noun) that ______ (verb) in the ______ (noun) that ______(noun) ________ (verb.)

This template-based analysis of sentences works just as well as the rule-based recursive version for most intents and purposes. The only time we notice that such rote-learners are at a disadvantage is when they are asked to deal with unusually complex sentences, such as:

"This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built."

During the critical period of language acquisition children are seldom presented with this level of complexity in sentences, (except in nursery rhymes, where comprehension doesn't matter). That's why rote-learners are not seen as having any problem with language. The problem shows up later on in life, when people are expected to read sentences such as:

"Consequently, the answer to be given to the national court must be that the fact that the competent minister of a member state has the power to dispense with the nationality requirement in respect of an individual in view of the length of time such individual has resided in the member state and has been involved in the fishing industry of that member state cannot justify, in regard to Community law, the rule under which registration of a fishing vessel is subject to a nationality requirement and a requirment as to residence and domicile." (The Weekly Law Reports, 1992 in the British National Corpus, as quoted in Understanding Complex Sentences.)

Any normal person's eyes would glaze over at the sight of such a sentence. However, some people can understand the information that the sentence conveys. Others cannot, no matter how much time you give them and despite being native speakers of English.

While level of education is a factor among adults, research indicates that such differences in syntactic competence emerge as early as preschool. In populations controlled for ethnicity, educational level, and IQ, there are distinct differences in the ability to parse complex sentences correctly.

However, explicit instruction in grammar can improve performance. Foreigners who have had explicit instruction in English syntax tend to out-perform native speakers who have not. Native speakers who test poorly on syntactic parsing tasks can improve their score if they are taught to parse in a more rule-based manner.

Not everybody has the same algorithm for understanding complex sentences.There is no genetically designed anatomical structure in the brain to make sure we do. The algorithm that each person develops is not fixed, and it can be changed with instruction. We can replace an algorithm that doesn't give us the result we want. If we don't like how our linguistic cake is turning out, we can change the recipe.

Conclusions: Language is Learned

Language is not a hardwired capacity that humans are born with. There is no language acquisition device and there is no universal grammar. Every human being, in the process of learning language, has to find his own path to language use. Every brain is different. Each person wires his own idiosyncratic version of a language processor into the connections in his brain. There are potentially as many different ways to process language correctly as there are different people. No one way is the correct way, although some paths are more efficient than others for specific purposes. How do we know this:

(1) There is no anatomically well-defined language center in the brain that ensures language ability and without which language cannot function:

(a) People with perfectly intact brains do not acquire language if language input and output are blocked.

(b) People with severely damaged brains can still have normal language function.

(2) Even among people with perfectly normal brains and normal language function, there is great variation in grammatical ability and the ways in which linguistic information is processed.

(a) People matched for age, educational level and general intelligence show high variability in their ability to correctly process grammatically complex sentences.

(b) On tests of grammatical ability, foreigners who have had explicit instruction in the grammar of a language out-perform native speakers who have had no such instruction.

The bad news is that simply being a healthy human being who is a native speaker of a language does not guarantee absolute knowledge of every aspect of the grammar of that language. The good news is that with proper instruction in the primary grades, even children whose talent for grammar is less developed than that of others can catch up. Everybody can improve language ability with practice, since language use, just like arithmetic or good manners, is a skill that we learn.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz

Grammar Lessons

Do you think elementary school children should be given instruction in the grammar of their native language?

  • Yes.
  • No.
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Comments 42 comments

hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 8 years ago from Oregon, USA

The desire to communicate is innate.  Certain areas of the brain, as you pointed out, seem to be associated strongly with language.  The brain is also adaptable, especially a young brain.  So if someone young blows out their Wernicke's area their brain just reroutes and they learn language anyway.  Which goes to prove the opposite.  The urge to learn language is so innate that the brain repurposes other neural areas to serve linguistic purposes if the original normal ones get broken.  What form the language ultimately takes depends on stimulus, of course. As you say, the language must be learned. But the fact that the hardware comes already set up and the ease with which children acquire language when properly stimulated argues for something other than just simple cognition.  

I think all children should be educated in the prevailing and dominant language of the place where they live.  


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Hot dorkage,

Thanks for your comment.

The seeming ease with which socially motivated children learn language is belied by the example of autistics, who may have a high IQ and undamaged "language center", but still take much longer to learn, despite the same exposure. If language acquisition did not have a strong social component, children with poor social abilities but intact brains would learn it at the same rate as socialized children.

I agree with you that children in the school system should be educated in the dominant language. (The poll question was not about English-only versus so-called bilingual education in the American public school system.) The question is more like this: "Should monolingual English speaking children in English speaking schools be taught the grammar of English explicitly, despite the assumption that all native speakers of a language already know their grammar perfectly." For "English" now substitute any other language.

This question is partially influenced by the observation of the Hungarian Grammarian in MY FAIR LADY: "I could tell that she was foreign, for while others are instructed in the grammar of their native language, English people aren't."


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 8 years ago from United States

Very nice hub Aya! Don't overlook that while every brain is different, that's not the way our schools teach our children. Far too many children being left in the dust thinking something is wrong with them, when it's the way they were taught.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Jerilee! Good point about the schools.

The educational system seems to change its mind about every decade about which is the right way to teach: rote-learning or rule-based. They don't ever seem to take into account that there could be a different "right" way for each student.


mistyhorizon2003 profile image

mistyhorizon2003 8 years ago from Guernsey (Channel Islands)

Great Hub Aya, My Sister suffered a stroke aged 27, and although her brain was damaged, apart from her short term memory, the brain seems to have compensated and found other paths. Her language is not impaired in any way.

On a slightly diiferent angle, my grammar has always been excellent, but try as I might I cannot get my 41 yar old Husband to sort his out, and so he constantly uses "double negatives" such as "I don't want none", or uses the word "none" instead of "any" in all kinds of sentences, and this infuriates me no end. I don't know if this is because he is slightly dyslexic, or because he is simply too set in his ways and didn't take in the correct grammar at school.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks for the input, Mistyhorizon. I'm glad your sister has recovered well from her stroke and that her language was not impaired. The brain is capable of self-healing at every age, and each case is different.

Your husband's use of double negatives could be a dialectal variant. In some languages, such as Spanish and Russian, double negatives are the norm. I think there may be some dialects of English where this is true also.

Speaking a non-standard dialect can sometimes cause children difficulty at school. This is similar to the problems experienced by immigrant children. However, the syntactic variation that Ngoni Chipere's work focused on was in people speaking the same dialect.


sword 8 years ago

i think this hubpage is very intresting


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thank you, Sword. I'm glad you liked it.

By the way, "interesting" is spelled with two e's. ;-> Hope it was just a typo!


akra 8 years ago

Early on, it was said that "What is not true, but is claimed by some experts, is that all people are born with an innate language module hard-wired in the brain."

But there still must be some provison in the brain for language. Otherwise, how does one explain that language gets stored in Wernicke's area in every healthy brain? It certainly defies belief to write it off as coincidence. If all language learning were merely based on experience, then it would very likely be stored in a variety of places in people's brains.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Dear Akra, that is a good question. I'll admit rigjht out that I don't know to what extent this is true of every healthy brain, although it does seem to hold statistically for enough healthy people so that the generalization is useful.  Keep in mind, however, that some people are right handed and some are left-handed, and that the brain tends to lateralize one way or the other. People who are right handed tend to wire their language on the left side of the brain, while people who are left-naded do the oppposite. And then there are people whose lateralization isn't as distinct. They are less predicatble. 

Functional MRI studies of lexical retrieval tasks in high functioning autistics have shown that they store their lexicon in a different location from normal subjects, even when they are fairly closely matched for performance in the task being tested. That means that the autisitic population whose language is normal still maps its lexicon differently.

Since Autistic Spectrum Disorders are highly variable, and not everyone on the spectrum performs abnormally in language tasks, there is probably more variation in the location of the language centers than  previous studies have indicated.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

I just found your very informative hub and its sort of synchronistic as I recently wrote a hub about my experiences in being hearing impaired, and included a link to an article about Helen Keller with the exact picture you have of her here. In addition, my apparently healthy 18 year old nephew passed away from undiagnosed hydrocephalous, and you have a link here on this condition. It good to read more about language as I was fortunately already bilingual by the time I started losing hearing, so I speak normally because of this. Well done hub!


starcatchinfo profile image

starcatchinfo 8 years ago

THKS FOR A VERY INTERESTING HUB


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

VioletSun, thanks for the input. There does seem to be a lot that links our hubs. I'm sorry to hear about your nephew. It must have been a real shock.

starcatchinfo, I'm glad you liked the hub. Thanks for your comment.


Drosophila 8 years ago

Dear Aya,

very nice Hub! I am always moved when I read about Helen Keller. One comment: I am with you that there is no hard-wired grammar in the brain. But I would not be so sure whether certain learning mechanisms would not be specialized for language since we also have some physical adaptations (i.e. vocal tract, hearing range) specifically for language...


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Drosophila, thanks for the comment.

We definitely have an innate ability to learn systematically, which comes in handy for language, but is also go good for other things. I wouldn't say that the vocal tract and our hearing range are physical adaptations specifically for language. Our hearing range is lousy compared to that of most animals, including chimpanzees. Language falls within our hearing range, because if it didn't, we couldn't use it. Language uses the vocal apparatus we have, because we can't have been expected to come up with a system that required us to signal using vocalizations we are incapable of. In other words, language is adapted to fit us, not the other way around.

It's like looking at a horse's back and noticing that the slope is exactly right for a saddle. We can see that and exclaim that horses were intended to be ridden, hence the back that fits a saddle. But in fact, we designed the saddle to fit the horse's back.


jmischler 8 years ago

Aya,

Thank you for the article on language acquisition from a functional linguistic perspective. I agree that the evidence does not support a language acquistion device (LAD); however, I thought that the generativists dropped the LAD from their theory (though they still maintain that language is innate). Am I incorrect about this?

Jim Mischler


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Jim, thanks for your comment. Yes, I think you are right. One doesn't hear much about the LAD in recent "generative literature", although I'm not sure that the term generative is the latest by which they call themselves, either. Perhaps they are minimalists now.

I intentionally did not label the views that I countered. The fact is that it takes a long time for the latest linguistic dogma to filter down to the general public, so that while MIT may no longer believe in LAD, many an instructor teaching introductory linguistics may still be suggesting that there is such a thing.

Besides all that, my examples countered any idea of innate language ability based on pure biological endowments. While the formalist camp may have changed the nuances of what they claim, they still claim humans have it (whatever IT is) by virtue of being genetically human. My argument is that it's cultural and based on experience.


Madison Parker profile image

Madison Parker 7 years ago from California

Aya,

So wonderful to meet you! I was a linguistics Major in college for awhile! I couldn't figure out what I would do with it after college, but have since then been even more interested in the languages of the world and where they came from.

In Southern France, they are still pissed off that in the 1500's, the Edict of Nance forced them to give up their Occitan language, (later called Provincale) and everyone had to speak French. I came upon this realization when I was writing a novel and found that, people in the 1500's would not have spoken French at all, nor Latin nor Spanish in the south of France.

I find it all fascinating. I've suffered migraines all of my life and, when I have a migraine that hits my speech center, (left brain because I'm right handed, ) I'm so much more upset and confused, and so was my college boyfriend, now husband of 35 years, because my words came out all scrambled and I couldn't think of the word to go with an object...VERY SCARY!!!

It's important to understand the way language works because if you know what is happening physically, you can handle what is happening to you, with a stroke or migraine, and it is less frightening and more about, "what do I do now to fix this?"

This hub was amazing and way over most of our heads, at least mine, but we all have to stretch now and then, and thank you for joining us! You are an fabulous teacher.

Madison


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Madison, thanks for writing this comment and sharing your experiences.


Iakoni profile image

Iakoni 7 years ago

One thing you forgot to mention about Genie is the fact that it is not known whether or not she suffered from cognitive deficits before her social isolation started. This would affect her linguistic capabilities. This is the case for most, if not all, feral children. We will never know what they were like before abandonment. Something to bear in mind....


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Lakoni, that's a good point. In the case of many feral children, we may never know what their full potential might have been and whether they suffered from innate mental defects. But in the case of children who behaved like feral children until the communication barrier was breached, we do know.

We do know that Helen Keller behaved very much like a feral child until Annie Sullivan was able to reach her mind.

It would be a mistake to assume that if you see an abandoned child, mental defects of the child must perforce have led to the abandonment. A much more reasonable hypothesis is that without a chance to experience language in a social context, no human can develop language.


Víctor Manteiga profile image

Víctor Manteiga 6 years ago from Spain

Dear Aya,

your hub feels like born from the bottom of my heart. The fact that the linguist who first came up with this idea of language being completely dependent on our genetic material never learnt a foreign language is, I believe, revealing. I often find that monolingual linguists -who, by the way, are most frequently native speakers of English- miss to see the whole picture whenever they theorize about language.

Thanks for this beautiful article!

Víctor


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Victor, thanks! Monolingual English-speaking linguists have dominated the field for some time, and their view has been skewed by their limited experience of language in all its variety. Until we examine many different languages from different language families and with different typologies, we cannot understand what things in language are more or less universal, and which definitely aren't.


Víctor Manteiga profile image

Víctor Manteiga 6 years ago from Spain

You are so right! I find myself quite poor sometimes. I am only productive in two languages, and the others I can read a bit in are not very far apart frome each other. For example, Italian, Galician and Portuguese are so similar to Spanish that I can understand much of them without formal instruction. Even though I studied German for a couple of years at university, I can't really speak it, yet I can get by (kind of) because of my general knowledge of Germanic languages.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Victor, I was lucky that my native language, Hebrew, and my second language, English, in which I have native speaker proficiency, are in completely different language families and have very different typologies. Nevertheless, even though I studied quite a few different Indo-European languages and did a fieldwork class on an Austronesian language, I was not prepared for the difficulty that I encountered when trying to learn Mandarin Chinese later on in life. The bottom line is that no matter how many different languages we know, one person can't possibly be familiar with all the languages of the world in their immense variety. That's why we should listen to the contributions of linguists who speak other languages from our own and who have been exposed to other languages from those that we have studied.


john berg 4 years ago

Brilliant exposition. I happened on your page after thinking of Keller and suggesting to my wife that she was somewhat analogous to a feral child. You have answered many of my questions. The acquisition question, like so many, would seem to be a matter of evolution.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

John Berg, thanks for your comment. I am glad this hub helped answer many of your questions and shed some light on the experiences of Helen Keller.

The acquisition of language can be said to be a matter of evolution, if by evolution you mean the cognitive development of each individual separately. It is not a matter of genetic evolution, though, as this ability does not come hard-wired. We are not born with it. Each person develops it anew, in sometimes startlingly different ways.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

Aya, this is an awesome hub and I have learned a lot. Yes, children learning a foreign language at or after puberty do struggle a lot more than the ones before puberty. My son who has a Chinese mother learned how to speak and read English fluently after I took him to the States when he was six. He never spoke but a few words of English while we were in Taiwan because of the linguistic environment where we were. Although I spoke English with him every day, he only heard Chinese and Taiwanese from the other people around him. Didn't Henry Kissinger immigrate to America when he was about 12? He never lost the thick accent that he has. I am sharing this article with my followers.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Paul. Does your son still speak Mandarin and Taiwanese? My daughter could speak Mandarin when we left Taiwan, but unfortunately has since forgotten it, for lack of exposure. I think you're right about Henry Kissinger.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

My son is still bilingual in Taiwanese and English, because he continued to speak Taiwanese to his mother after we moved to the States. He moved to Taiwan in 2000 and now is Taiwanese is just about as good as his English.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Paul, that's good to know that your son was able to maintain his Taiwanese. When there are two parents and each speaks their own language to the child, that is a good way to maintain bilingualism.

How is your son's Mandarin?


yoginijoy profile image

yoginijoy 4 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

Dear Aya, great information. I remember taking some of those linguistics classes. Isn't it interesting how language acquisition is so important for so many reasons, and yet as a nation (USA) we don't value it. I find your insights pertinent and helpful. Voted up and interesting.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Yoginijoy, thanks!

There is a strange dynamic with language acquisition, that the more power we have in a social situation, the less inclined we are to learn the other person's language, and the more inclined we are to expect him to learn ours. I think this accounts for the average American's relative lack of interest in learning other languages.


Mary 4 years ago

I would advise one to read more about Universal Grammar (from credible sources) and study all the evidence and counter-evidence before arriving at a logical conclusion instead of making assumptions and criticisms based solely on one's own opinions and "common sense".

Language acquisition is an innate ability that has been acquired through evolution. Though languages are said to have different "grammars", the syntax of natural languages adheres to general principles (the abstract rules, or what we mean when we say "the grammar of a particular language") and specific, binary parameters (for example, the position of heads in phrases is either head-initial, like in English, or head-final, as in German and Japanese). The term "universal grammar" and "language acquisition device" are sometimes incorrectly taken more literally by non-linguists than they are meant to be. The reason why "grammar" as an abstract concept is considered "universal" is because if one studies all of its rules (and I don't mean the rules of any particular grammar, like the grammar of English, but rather such subfields of linguistics as syntax and morphology), and also has an understanding of child development, learning and cognition, one would realize that it is impossible for an infant to pick up a language by the age of two or three and become fluent in its grammar so quickly without formally "studying" it (the way people learn the grammar of second languages after the sensitive period for language acquisition, i.e. pre-puberty) unless they have an innate, genetic capacity to do so. As for the language acquisition device or LAD, of course it is not to be taken literally--there is no "device" or single system of the brain that "acquires" language. The concept of the LAD is just as abstract as the concept of the "mind"; it is simply a property of the physical brain that is difficult to talk about in physical terms. Basically, the LAD is the capacity for humans (except those with certain cognitive developmental disorders, e.g. Autism) to pick up language just by being exposed to it (one can say it's "learned", but it isn't necessary for it to be directly "taught" because children will learn to speak and comprehend language just as long as they have the opportunity to interact face-to-face with other humans who communicate verbally), taking advantage of there being a universal grammar such that all they really have to "learn" besides vocabulary (the easy part) is which paramaters are switched on and which are switched off in whatever particular language(s) they are exposed to.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Mary, clearly your are a member of the "formal school of linguistics" and subscribe to one version or another of Chomskian theory. I say one version or another, because the basic tenets of this formal theory about the immutable laws of universal syntax or morphology change all the time.

If you had bothered to state which sources you consider credible, I would perhaps have had a better idea of the exact version of the theory to which you subscribe.

I have a Ph.D. in linguistics from Rice University. While my disseration was on grammaticalization -- how grammar forms and re-forms from a historical and psychological perspective, I am not entirely unfamiliar with the position you subscribe to. I just happen to disagree.

All the evidence points to the fact that grammar is something we learn, something that changes over time historically, something that even a chimpanzee, like the one I am working with, can pick up with normal exposure.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 3 years ago from New York

I was going to bring up feral children too. It's amazing what we can learn about the function of a mechanism when a person was born or raised without traditional attributes. However I believe there was some speculation that Genie was also deficient mentally aside from her upbringing.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Melissa, you're right. We do not know for sure whether Genie did not have some mental defect before she was treated the way she was by her parents.

But we can see in the case of feral children that rearing does make an immense difference in the ability to learn language. We can also see that in the case of Helen Keller, who was practically feral until her teacher broke through to her with a way to receive language.


Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 3 years ago from Canada

Thank you for this thorough article. Helen Keller's story is one I've found fascinating since I was a teenager. Child development in general is something people should just plain know more about.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Spongyollama.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 3 years ago from Southern California, USA

Interesting info about grammar and language acquisition. I read Helen Keller's biography when I was in elementary school, and I always found her very fascinating. It seems with the more obstacles a person has to overcome that they actually strive harder to do things.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, SweetiePie. I think Helen Keller was a very intelligent woman who was also lucky to have a very good teacher. The successful outcome in her case was not guaranteed, even with hard work, but was a combination of aptitude, attitude and a little bit of luck.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 3 years ago from Southern California, USA

Very true, without Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller probably would not have been able to make the progress she did.

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