Kids really do have smart mouths

December 01, 1993|By Kenton Robinson | Kenton Robinson,Hartford Courant

"Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah," says Ellen Broselow. "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah."

It is not the sort of thing you expect to hear from the mouth of a learned professor.

But then Ms. Broselow, chairwoman of the Department of Linguistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, isn't saying it to taunt anyone; she's using the phrase to illustrate her answers to some serious questions.

Where do kids learn these things? Are they born with them in their mouths? And have they really been saying them, as it seems, since the dawn of time?

Many linguists believe the answers to these questions reveal a lot about how we learn language, because, they say, there is growing evidence that children learn language not from adults but from other children.

Children have long been recognized to be the most inventive users of language.

But it wasn't until 1959, when the British husband-and-wife team of Iona and Peter Opie published "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren," that scholars began to appreciate the enormous role children may play in our acquisition of language.

To understand the origins of the rhymes, jokes, customs and superstitions of this "greatest of savage tribes," the Opies gathered information over eight years from 5,000 children.

They discovered that children inhabit a world of oral traditions going back hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years. Children in the 1950s, for example, were still reciting a rhyme that children recited when Chaucer was a boy, 600 years before.

The Opies also found that many of these traditions are the same in different cultures around the world, and that they have been passed down from one generation of children to another with little or no adult intervention. In fact, the adult world is generally ignorant of this primitive culture in its midst.

In 1975, a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Mark Liberman used the "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah" chant in his doctoral dissertation to illustrate how people construct sentences by putting different words to the same "melody."

Mr. Liberman's example was a good one because the melody is so clear. He plotted it on the musical scale as G - E - A (slightly flat) - G - E.

"What kids typically do is put other words to the tune, like 'John is a sis-sy.' " Ms. Broselow says, singsonging it. "Or 'John lo-oves Mar-y.' It's very much like what we do in normal speech. We have tunes that we use. Like if you say, 'Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm?' then you know that's going to be a question. And if you say, 'Hmm hmm hmm hmm,' you know that's a statement."

But Mr. Liberman showed that while there are variations on the basic theme -- often depending on what part of the world you're in -- the theme is remarkably resilient and always recognizable. Ms. Broselow says a quick survey of her classes found that students from Denmark, Colombia, Korea and India all knew it.

This doesn't surprise Ms. Broselow, "because that's basically what children are programmed to do. They're programmed to learn, and particularly to learn from their peers. That's how they learn language. If you look at kids' accents, they'll talk like the kids they grow up with, not like their parents," says the Long Island resident. "I'm from Philadelphia, but I'm horrified to hear jTC that my son says 'chawklit.' "

So powerful is the role of peers in learning languages, says Elissa Newport, a professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Rochester, that the children of immigrants sometimes learn the language of their schoolmates and lose the language of their parents.

Ms. Broselow points out that it "makes sense in terms of human evolution. You have to fit in with the group that you grow up with. That's going to be your peer group."

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