Cracking the language code Speech: The learning process is the subject of a raging debate among linguists, neuroscientists and child psychologists, with new research on the brain challenging the dominant theory of language that has prevailed for 30 years.

Sun Journal

June 01, 1996|By Robert S. Boyd | Robert S. Boyd,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- With a series of random sighs, grunts, clicks and pops, a newborn sets to work on one of life's hardest tasks -- learning a language. A few weeks later come happy hums, trills and coos. After about six months, syllables like ba-ba, ma-ma and da-da make their debut.

But scientists still don't fully understand the mysterious -- almost magical -- process by which infants pick up the unique sounds of English (or Russian or Chinese), and toddlers acquire 10 to 20 new words every day.

It's the subject of a raging debate among linguists, neuroscientists and child psychologists, with new research on the brain challenging the dominant theory of language that has prevailed for 30 years.

Speech starts slowly -- a newborn's tongue and throat are designed for nursing, not chatting. But language skills gain speed after one year and virtually explode during the child's third year.

Before he can tie his shoes, the average preschooler knows 14,000 words and utters thousands of well-formed sentences he never heard before. Even his mistakes are logical: "I saw two mans." "We goed to school."

Until the mid-1960s, most people believed that tots soaked up language, like parrots, by imitating their parents and older children. If they misspoke, they were corrected.

Then an MIT linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, wrote a series of influential books arguing that mimicry and instruction can't explain the complex grammatical structures that pour from the lips of very young children.

Instead of imitation, Chomsky and his followers contend, the ability to speak and understand language is built into the human brain. It's an instinct, they say, inherited in our genes, like chewing or walking. "We're designed to walk -- we're not taught to walk," says Chomsky. "The same is true for language."

Children around the world grow up speaking some 5,000 languages, but underlying them all, Chomsky and his colleague Steven Pinker assert, is a "universal grammar," a set of principles shared by every tongue. Each language applies the principles differently, but they all have things like nouns, verbs, moods and tenses.

Pinker says this universal grammar is "hard-wired" into the human brain like an operating system in a computer that can handle many different software programs: "The brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words. Language acquisition cannot be explained as a kind of imitation."

"People know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs," Pinker says. "Spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed."

Chomksy's view of language, a virtual cult in academic circles, is under attack from experts in child development and from the new science of neurobiology.

Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington, denies that young children "discover" language automatically and effortlessly. Instead, she says they struggle all day, every day for many years to communicate with others.

"By the time they begin using recognizable words, children have been barraged with language by parents and other caretakers, including television, for thousands of hours," Baron says. "If anyone spent that much time and effort learning a second language, he would speak it well."

According to Baron, "learning emerges out of the language duet between adult and child that begins in the early months of life. The very act of talking to infants as if they understand us is the single most important thing we do to help children" learn to speak, she writes in her recent book, "Growing Up With Language."

Experts on all sides of this debate agree that children go through several distinct, sometimes overlapping, phases of language development.

First come the rudimentary vocalizations of the early weeks, as the newborn tries out her complicated speech apparatus. At this stage, her larynx is located high in her throat, just behind her mouth, to help her breathe while sucking milk. This makes it impossible to pronounce many of the consonants adults use.

The first true language-like sounds appear between 2 and 4 months of age. Babies often start with k's and g's, because they are easy to produce at the rear of the mouth while lying on their back. Parents typically interpret these as "coos" and "goos."

Between 4 and 8 months, babies start babbling meaningless syllables as they struggle to gain control of their tongue and lips. Most common are p's, b's, t's, d's, m's or n's followed by a vowel, and often repeated.

An infant's first word, such as "dada," may be accidental rather than intentional, Baron says.

"Duh," for example, might mean "Daddy," "doggy," "duck" or nothing at all. "Muh" could mean "Mommy" or -- in the case of a child with older siblings -- "mine!"

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