How Children Learn Language
Children are Hard-Wired with Universal Grammar
Another important contribution of Chomsky to the science of language is the focus on language acquisition by children. Now, children can’t memorize sentences because knowledge of language isn’t just one long list of memorized sentences, but somehow they must distill out or abstract out the rules that go into assembling sentences based on what they hear coming out of their parent’s mouths when they were little. And the talent of using rules to produce combinations is in evidence from the moment that kids begin to speak.
Children create sentences unheard from adults
At the two-word stage, which you typically see in children who are 18 months or a bit older, kids are producing the smallest sentences that deserve to be counted as sentences, namely two words long. But already it’s clear that they are putting them together using rules in their own mind. To take an example, a child might say, “more outside,” meaning, take them outside or let them stay outside. Now, adults don’t say, “more outside.” So it’s not a phrase that the child simply memorized by rote, but it shows that already children are using these rules to put together new combinations.
Another example: A child having jam washed from his fingers said to his mother, "all gone sticky." Again, not a phrase that you could ever have copied from a parent, but one that shows the child producing new combinations.
Past tense rule
An easy way of showing that children assimilate rules of grammar unconsciously from the moment they begin to speak, is the use of the past tense rule.
For example, children go through a long stage in which they make errors like, “We holded the baby rabbits” or “He teared the paper and then he sticked it.” Cases in which they overgeneralize the regular rule of forming the past tense, add ‘ed’ to irregular verbs like “hold,” “stick” or “tear.” And it’s easy to show… it’s easy to get children to flaunt this ability to apply rules productively in a laboratory demonstration called the Wug Test. You bring a kid into a lab. You show them a picture of a little bird and you say, “This is a wug.” And you show them another picture and you say, “Well, now there are two of them.” There are two and children will fill in the gap by saying “wugs.” Again, a form they could not have memorized because it’s invented for the experiment, but it shows that they have productive mastery of the regular plural rule in English.
And famously, Chomsky claimed that children solved the problem of language acquisition by having the general design of language already wired into them in the form of a universal grammar, a spec sheet for what the rules of any language have to look like.
In this selection from his Floating University lecture, Professor Steven Pinker deduces the nature of language acquisition by examining the generative use of grammar in children.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
Upload your mind? Here's a reality check on the Singularity.
- Though computer engineers claim to know what human consciousness is, many neuroscientists say that we're nowhere close to understanding what it is, or its source.
- Scientists are currently trying to upload human minds to silicon chips, or re-create consciousness with algorithms, but this may be hubristic because we still know so little about what it means to be human.
- Is transhumanism a journey forward or an escape from reality?
The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.
- Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
- When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
- Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.
- Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
- The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
- Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.