How Children Learn A Language: Part 2 – Knowing What to Say and How To Say It

sylwesterWe’re born capable of speaking any language in the world, but we’re not born proficient in any of them. Last month’s column focused on how children master the complex task of learning how to speak. It’s one thing to know how to talk, but it’s quite another thing to know what to say and how to say it – so this column will focus on that issue.

The renowned linguist, S. I. Hiyakawa once suggested that if you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish. Language similarly is so integral to our existence that it’s difficult to back off sufficiently to comprehend what it actually is.

For example, is language essential to thought? Do we think in language, and then also use it to share our thoughts with others? That may seem to be the case, in that we often converse with ourselves as we think, decide, act, and then reflect on what we’ve done.

On the other hand, we’re the only social species with articulate language. Animals thus obviously don’t think verbally, but they do make behavioral decisions among alternatives. This suggests that thought doesn’t necessarily require language-and that our inner conversation isn’t as continuous as we may believe it to be.

As a public phenomenon, language can successfully communicate anything that can be reduced to sequences of sounds and letters, but it’s not as successful at communicating private and smoothly blended things. For example, we often experience such sensations as smell, taste, and warmth in a direct manner that transcends an internal or external verbal explanation. Similarly, it’s difficult to clearly verbalize about joint movement and itches, or about such emotional states as love and sadness, or about intuitions-and a whole lot more.

Steven Pinker has written several excellent books that explore the role that language plays in cognition and life. An earlier column discussed his Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999), an intriguing book that focused on the fewer than 200 irregular verbs that are so central to the English language. Pinker’s latest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature (2007) is a wide-ranging, informative, fascinating, and often humorous exploration into what we know about human nature and thought from the language we use to represent them.

Last month’s column described how mirror neurons provide us with a mental template of the active motor neurons of someone who is speaking. The person’s comments create an analogous template of the content of the speaker’s thoughts. So if a person says cat, it activates the mirror neurons our brain uses to say cat, but also the neurons that process our memories and images of cat as a concept.

Most concepts can be transmitted through a rich variety of words and grammatical constructions that allow speakers to communicate subtleties in thought and emotion. Children thus learn how to tie shoelaces by observing someone do it, and they learn a lot about shoes (and many other things) by listening to people talk about them. Our sensory system allows us to directly experience our environment, and language allows us to experience the thoughts of others. We thus have a brain finely tuned to the complex social world that we inhabit.

A brain’s principal task is to recognize and respond to change and challenge, and this typically results in volitional movement. Rooted plants thus don’t need a brain. Our brain’s sensory system informs us about what’s going on here and there. Its decision-making system determines if here or there is a better place to be. And its motor system gets us to there if that’s the better alternative.

Here/there characterize space. Planning/regulating/predicting movement characterize time (past/present/future). Our brain’s processing systems connect space and time. Expending energy in space over time results in movement, our brain’s definitive property. Space, time, energy, and movement are also very much of what language is all about.

Space is about objects and places, and our brain represents them as nouns and pronouns. Basic noun categories exhibit variation in real life, and synonyms and adjectives describe the variations.

Time and movement are about actions and states, and our brain represents them as verbs. Basic verb categories also exhibit variation in real life, and synonyms and adverbs describe the variations.

Related objects, places, actions, and states exist in some form of space/time context, and prepositions provide that context. Spatial prepositions include under, over, and within. Temporal prepositions include before, during, and after.

Language includes other elements that children must learn. Conjunctions connect words and phrases. Quantity is represented by imprecise (few, many) and precise (numbers) terms. How language works mirrors how the world works.

Children have to thoughtfully learn how the world works. For example, will a dropped object bounce, break, or splat? When children interact with their environment, they explore basic causalities and correlations without any initial linguistic awareness of the concepts. Adults expand children’s understanding of such direct experiences by providing verbal labels that allow a child to talk about an experience-something that typically enhances the experience.

Metaphor plays a central role in this. When children confront something new or enigmatic, adults tend to compare it to something the child already understands. This not only enhances understanding, but it also connects the two concepts within the child’s mind. Later, their mature brain will be able to rapidly determine the appropriate relationship between many such sets of concepts.

This ability to think and respond rapidly is beautifully demonstrated in the flow of conversation. Conversation is typically not a planned sharing of thoughts, but rather each comment primes the next comment. We often begin with a vague agenda that may shift. We play off each other’s thoughts without even consciously thinking about what we’ll say next. When we realize that we didn’t speak clearly or spoke in error, we simply clarify things in subsequent comments.

Writing is similar, except that an author has to get everything correct before publication. When I begin to write an article, I have a general sense but no set outline of what I hope to write. I explore the concept on my keyboard, and the article gradually begins to emerge. As in conversation, the focus may shift from the original idea. At one point, though, everything becomes clearer, and then considerable rewriting sharpens the text. This often also occurs in a conversation or meeting, when a consensus suddenly occurs, and the issue is then quickly resolved.

What’s odd is that when things are most confusing, I’ll often suddenly wake up from sleep with the mental clarity that had eluded me while writing during the day. I have no explanation for this, except that my thoughts about current tasks seem to continue at a subconscious level, whether awake or asleep. We’ve all experienced this when we can’t recall a familiar name. We go on with other thoughts, and then hours later the name suddenly pops up in our mind.

This suggests that while thought and language are perhaps two sides of a single coin, thought can occur without language-and alas, a lot of language occurs without thought.

Pinker’s 439 page book is a lot of good writing about a lot of good thinking.

He concludes his book with this thought provoking comment, -The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in selective analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.

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