We don't "learn" language!

Subject: We don't "learn" language!
From: "Smith, Amy" <Amy -dot- Smith -at- FMR -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 5 Dec 1995 14:00:00 -0500

One of the requirements for my master's in technical and professional
writing is a class in linguistics, which I'm taking now. It's fascinating!
One of my favorite topics is that of language acquisition.

Current thinking in the field of socio- and neurolinguistics is that we
don't "learn" language - we are born with a universal grammar prewired in
our brains. If you think about it, little kids ask about vocabulary - they
don't ask about grammar. They want to know the word for juice, but they
don't ask their parents about how to form a question. They need to learn the
vocabulary of their native language, but they already have the rules for
putting those words together.

When a child learns to talk, much of the processing that occurs is the
testing of those rules. How often have you corrected a small child, only to
have them persist in ungrammatical ways? Example: "I have two feets." "I
goed to the store." The kid isn't ignoring you - he or she is just trying
out rules that had worked previously for them. They know that adding -ed to
a verb frequently forms the past participle, so they try that rule on
everything. Eventually, they understand corollaries and exceptions in their
native language.

Clarification: When I say that we're born knowing the rules, we don't
actually have a neuron pre-wired that fires off "Add -ed to form the past
participle." What we do have is some "thing" - some learning pattern, some
capacity - that allows us to know and recognize the grammar of our native
language, and practice those patterns until we get them right.

I refer you to the work of Noam Chomsky, a linguistics professor at MIT who
really pioneered thinking in this area. But those of you who have children,
think about how they "learned" to talk. Trust me - you didn't teach them to
talk! What you did provide, however, is an environment for your children to
test and try out their "hypotheses." It is a known fact that normal, healthy
children deprived of an environment in which people listened and spoke with
them do not learn to speak.

There is a parallel for users of American Sign Language (ASL), which is as
valid a language as French or Gaelic or Samoan. Deaf children of deaf
parents go through the same process of language acquisition as do hearing
children. Deaf children "babble," albeit with hand and finger signs. They
learn words, and then sign sentences on their own, putting the word signs

It's a fascinating topic, as is linguistics in general, and I'm very glad
it's a requirement! It's helped me understand language as a whole - how it
evolves, how the rules of all languages are more alike then different. And
boy, can I diagram a sentence now!

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