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7.3: Acquisition of Language

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    A phenomenon which occurs daily and in everybody’s life is the acquisition of language. Anyhow scientists are not yet able to explain the underlying processes in detail or to define the point when language acquisition commences, even if they agree that it happens long before the first word is spoken.
    Theorists like Catherine Snow and Michael Tomasello think that the acquisition of language skills begins at birth. Others claim, it already commences in the womb. Newborns are not able to speak, even if babbling activates the brain regions later involved in speech production.
    The ability to understand the meaning of words already begins before the first birthday, even if they cannot be pronounced till then. The phonological representation of words in the memory changes between the stage of repetitive syllable-babbling and the one-word stage. At first children associate words with concrete objects, followed by an extension to the class of objects. After a period of overgeneralisation the children’s system of concept approaches to the adults’ one. To prove the assumption of understanding the meaning of words that early, researches at MIT let children watch two video clips of “Sesame Street”. Simultaneously the children heard the sentences “Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird” or “Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster”. The babies consistently looked more at the video corresponding to the sentence, what is an evidence for comprehension of more complex sentences, than they are able to produce during the one-word period.
    The different stages of speech production are listed in the table below.

    Age Stage of Acquisition Example
    6th month Stage of babbling:

    - systematic combining of vowels and consonants

    7th – 10th month Stage of repetitive syllable-babbling:

    - higher part of consonants → paired with a vowel – monosyllabic

    reduplicated babbling

    da, ma, ga

    mama, dada, gaga

    11th – 12th month Stage of variegated babbling:

    - combination of different consonants and vowels

    bada, dadu
    12th month Usage of first words - John Locke(1995):

    - prephonological → consonant-vowel(-consonant)

    car, hat

    Locke’s theory about the usage of the first word is only a general tendency. Other researchers like Charlotte Bühler (1928), a German psychologist, think that the age of speaking the first word is around the tenth month, whereas Elizabeth Bates et al. (1992) proposed a period between eleven and 13 months. The one-word stage described above can last from two till ten months. Until the second year of life a vocabulary of about 50 words evolves, four times more than the child utilises. Two thirds of the language processed is still babbling. After this stage of learning the vocabulary increases rapidly. The so called vocabulary spurt causes an increment of about one word every two hours. From now on children learn to have fluent conversations with a simple grammar containing errors.

    As you can see in the following example, the length of the sentences and the grammatical output changes a lot. While raising his son, Knut keeps a tally of his son’s speech production, to see how fast the language develops:

    Speech diary of Knut’s son Andy:
    (Year; Month)
    2;3: Play checkers. Big drum. I got horn. A bunny rabbit walk.
    2;4: See marching bear go? Screw part machine. That busy bulldozer truck.
    2;5: Now put boots on. Where wrench go? Mommy talking bout lady. What that paper clip doing?
    2;6: Write a piece a paper. What that egg doing? I lost a shoe. No, I don't want to sit seat.
    2;7: Where piece a paper go? Ursula has a boot on. Going to see kitten. Put the cigarette down. Dropped a rubber band. Shadow has hat just like that. Rintintin don't fly, Mommy.
    2;8: Let me get down with the boots on. Don't be afraid a horses. How tiger be so healthy and fly like kite? Joshua throw like a penguin.
    2;9: Where Mommy keep her pocket book? Show you something funny. Just like turtle make mud pie.
    2;10: Look at that train Ursula brought. I simply don't want put in chair. You don't have paper. Do you want little bit, Cromer? I can't wear it tomorrow.
    2;11: That birdie hopping by Missouri in bag? Do want some pie on your face? Why you mixing baby chocolate? I finish drinking all up down my throat. I said why not you coming in? Look at that piece a paper and tell it. We going turn light on so you can't see.
    3;0: I going come in fourteen minutes. I going wear that to wedding. I see what happens. I have to save them now. Those are not strong mens. They are going sleep in wintertime. You dress me up like a baby elephant.
    3;1: I like to play with something else. You know how to put it back together. I gon' make it like a rocket to blast off with. I put another one on the floor. You went to Boston University? You want to give me some carrots and some beans? Press the button and catch it, sir. I want some other peanuts. Why you put the pacifier in his mouth? Doggies like to climb up.
    3;2: So it can't be cleaned? I broke my racing car. Do you know the light wents off? What happened to the bridge? When it's got a flat tire it's need a go to the station. I dream sometimes. I'm going to mail this so the letter can't come off. I want to have some espresso. The sun is not too bright. Can I have some sugar? Can I put my head in the mailbox so the mailman can know where I are and put me in the mailbox? Can I keep the screwdriver just like a carpenter keep the screwdriver? [2]

    Obviously children are able to conjugate verbs and to decline nouns using regular rules. To produce irregular forms is more difficult, because they have to be learnt and stored in Long-term memory one by one. Rather than the repetition of words, the observation of speech is important to acquire grammatical skills. Around the third birthday the complexity of language increases exponentially and reaches a rate of about 1000 syntactic types.
    Another interesting field concerning the correlation between Memory and Language is Multilingualism. Thinking about children educated bilingual, the question arises how the two languages are separated or combined in the brain. Scientists assume that especially lexical information is stored independently for each language; the semantic and syntactic levels rather could be unified. Experiments have shown that bilinguals have a more capacious span of memory when they listen to words not only in one but in both languages.

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