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Chp 8 Language


Psyc-Lecture Notes

on 24 November 2013

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Transcript of Chp 8 Language

The basic difference between animals and humans comes from our highly developed mental skills: language and thinking.
What is language?
Symbols that convey meaning, and infinite combination of those symbols by following certain rules.

Symbolic: Sounds and letters to represent objects, actions, events, and ideas. By using symbols we can talk about something that is in another place and in another time.

Semantic: Symbols are arbitrary, but all symbols are for conveying meaning.

Generative and structured: By knowing symbols and how to combine them, we can say anything we choose to say. We can also understand a sentence even if we've never heard it before.

How do we do it?
Sounds become meaningful units and words; words are combined into phrases and phrases into sentences. This is the structure of all languages. Human languages have a hierarchy in their structure.


At the base of this hierarchy are phonemes. Phonemes are the basic sounds of a language, the smallest speech units that can be distinguished perceptually by its speakers. Phonemes are different from the letters in an alphabet.

English has around 40 phonemes corresponding to 26 letters of the alphabet. A letter can represent more than one phoneme if it has more than one pronunciation. For example, letter “a” represents different phonemes in “car”, “can”, and “call”.

The smallest units that have meaning, including suffixes and prefixes. Sometimes a word is a morpheme (such as “cat”, “cry”, and “friend”). Sometimes, words consist of morphemes (such as “cat-s”, “cry-ing”, and “friend-ly”).


We put words into phrases and sentences according to a system of rules, which is called as syntax. For example, we all know that in English sentences are built according to subject, verb, and object order. Or, articles come before the noun it modifies.
Language Development in Early Ages
Even before they are born, babies learn the sounds of their native language. At the same time, they can distinguish the sounds of other languages. However, as they hear only one language, they start to lose that ability by the end of first year.

Speech production follows a distinct path. Babies first start to generate sounds by crying, cooing, laughing. After 6 months, they start to produce a wide variety of sounds. They begin babbling.

Babbling gradually becomes more complex and starts to resemble the infant’s native language. Babbling is not just for developing and practicing production of speech but also an important indication of cognitive development in language acquisition.
First words tend to appear around age one. In many different languages, babies produce similar first words such as “mama”, “baba” or “papa”. After the first words, their vocabulary starts to grow slowly. They start to comprehend more words than they can produce.

After the second year, their vocabularies grow very fast. They also make common mistakes such as calling anything round as “ball” They start to combine words and produce telegraphic speech that mainly consists of content words, such as “Throw ball. All gone.”

By the end of third year, they are able to express complex ideas such as the plural or the past tense. At the same time, they make interesting errors in word formation and syntax. For instance, they will say “runned” or “holded”

During school-age years, they refine their language skills and learn new vocabulary rapidly. They also start to understand ambiguities, metaphors, irony and sarcasm.
Learning More than One Language
In case of learning two languages, bilingualism, children learn sounds, vocabulary, and grammatical rules of both languages. Bilingual children go through similar stages in their language development.

There are optimal periods for learning a second language after learning the native language.

Prior to age 7, second language development is easier and the children can learn and speak it as good as native speakers are.

After that age, children still continues to learn a second language well up to age of 15.

For older children and adults, being proficient in the second language becomes harder. They are very likely to have an accent and problems in mastery of syntax.
Is language unique to humans?
Chimps were able to learn many words and combine them in sign language. They were able to say simple sentences. However, these skills were very simple and may not have reflected chimp’s mastering rules of language.

Chimps were also able to communicate with their caretakers by using geometric symbols that represent words. By this way chimps learned hundreds of word and they were able to use them in thousands of combinations that follow rules of language. They even comprehended considerable amount of spoken English correctly.

We can say that in a very basic and primitive way some animals might have the ability to use language. However, there is no comparison between human linguistic abilities and those of other animals.
Why are humans so well designed for learning language?
Behaviourist theories: They believed that children learn language the same way they learn everything else: through reinforcement, conditioning and also imitation.

Nativist theories: Nativist believed since children can develop such a complex skill in a very short time, and language development stages are same in most children across different cultures, humans have an inborn propensity to develop language.

Interactionist theories: A biological predisposition and a supportive environment both contribute language development.

Evolutionary theories: All human societies, even primitive ones, depend on complex language systems. Language is a species-specific trait resulting from natural selection, and it provided an enormous value in our adaptation and survival.
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