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How Children Learn Their Mother Tongue: They Don’t

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A new solution is offered to the Infant Language Acquisition Problem, rejecting both of Chomsky’s alternatives. It proposes that the infant does not acquire his mother tongue by mastering its grammar, whether by inference from personal experience or via an innate Language Acquisition Device such as the UG, but that the language he hears is all saved in his extremely plastic and capacious brain, where it is stored in such a way as to organize it while populating it. The brain is thus transformed into a mind by language. Support for this theory is drawn from such topics as feral children and linguistic experiments with bonobos.

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  1. R. L. Trask, Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics (Routledge, 1999), s.v. language acquisition: “The acquisition of a first language is arguably the most wonderful feat that we perform in our whole life, and we do it at an age when we can hardly do anything else. An explanation for this feat is now considered to be one of the central tasks of linguistics”.

  2. Pinker conjectures in The Language Instinct (Harper Perennial, 1995, p. 293), that once a first language has been acquired, the brain cells formerly constituting the UG are recycled to be used elsewhere.

  3. Pinker, Language Instinct, p. 273, says that children learning German, for example, are not bothered by the “illogical” assignment of gender to many words, but “acquire gender marking quickly, make few errors, and never use the association with maleness and femaleness as a false criterion”. If children are not confused by such “illogicalities”, might that not be because they are not trying to be “logical” at all, but just remembering and reproducing particular instances of correct usage?

  4. Reaney (2004), reports research that offers some support: “Being bilingual produces changes in the anatomy of the brain, scientists said on Wednesday in finding that could explain why children are so much better than adults at mastering a second language. They found that people who speak two languages have more gray matter in the language region of the brain”. The earlier they learned the language, the larger the gray area. The research report on which this story is based is Mechelli (2004).

    Also relevant is Long (1990), whose abstract reads “This article reviews the second language research on age-related differences, as well as first language work needed to disambiguate some of the findings. Five conclusions are drawn, (a) Both the initial rate of acquisition and the ultimate level of attainment depend in part on the age at which learning begins. (b) There are sensitive periods governing language development, first or second, during which the acquisition of different linguistic abilities is successful and after which it is irregular and incomplete. (c) The age-related loss in ability is cumulative (not a catastrophic one-time event), affecting first one linguistic domain and then another, and is not limited to phonology, (d) The deterioration in some individuals begins as early as age 6—not at puberty as is often claimed. (e) Affective, input, and current cognitive explanations for the reduced ability are inadequate. The capacity for language development is maturationally constrained, and its decline probably reflects a progressive loss of neural plasticity, itself possibly associated with increasing myelination”.

  5. A convenient source of information on the subject is Pinker, Language Instinct, p. 151, where he tells us that “we can estimate that an average six-year-old commands about 13,000 words ... A bit of arithmetic shows that preliterate children, who are limited to ambient speech, must be lexical vacuum cleaners, inhaling a new word every two waking hours, day in, day out. ... The brain seems to be reserving an especially capacious storage space and an especially rapid transcribing mechanism for the mental dictionary. Indeed, naturalistic studies ... have shown that if you casually slip a new color word like olive into a conversation with a three-year-old, the child will probably remember something about it five weeks later”.

  6. Roger Brown, A First Language (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), page 58.

  7. E. M. Gold’s proof, as presented in his “Language identification in the limit, ”Information and Control 16 (1967), 447–474, is discussed at length by Pinker, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature, principally at pages 10–12.

  8. The story is related in Deakin (1997, pp. 124–126). Deakin agrees that it was Kanzi’s youth that made him far more receptive to the language lessons than Matata was, saying (p. 125) “Kanzi learned better simply because he was so immature at the time”. But his conjecture as to why immaturity might be an advantage in learning a language is very different from that offered here, and is to my mind little short of bizarre. He proposes (p. 109) that languages are easy for children to learn because languages actually evolve to make just that success possible. His key statement is ”Languages are under powerful selection pressure to fit children’s likely guesses, because children are the vehicle by which a language gets reproduced”. This is indeed outside-the-box thinking, and so imaginative that one’s first reaction is to wish it were true, but it raises some fascinating questions. Among many others: if languages are creatures competing for survival, and evolving so as to maximize their chances of doing so, what constitutes linguistic survival: having children, as when Latin gave birth to French? Or would Latin as Cicero spoke it have to remain a living language to be said to have survived?

  9. Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical prodigy, was a genius manqué because he received no mathematical training during his formative years—he was, mathematically, a feral child. See the Foreword by C. P. Snow to G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology (Cambridge U. P., 1940).

  10. Brown, A First Language, pp. 70-73, describes without surprise two such multilingual homes among the seven or eight examples he found of studies of infant language acquisition that are based on prolonged observation of particular children.


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Correspondence to Mark Halpern.

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In memory of Lucian Endicott.

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Halpern, M. How Children Learn Their Mother Tongue: They Don’t. J Psycholinguist Res 45, 1173–1181 (2016).

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