I just finished Language acquisition and conceptual development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson (2001), and I want to write down what I learned while it’s still fresh in my mind.

You may recall the book report on Everett & Jackendoff and their feud over innatism. The issue there is Chomsky’s longstanding contention that language learning is far too hard for children, therefore they must have a head start: grammar and vocabulary are already hard-wired into their brains. All they have to do is figure out which of a small series of switches to flip to get the grammar (“oh! verbs go last here!”) and work out that dog means Inbuilt concept #293291.

This book is a report from the trenches of language acquisition; if anyone knows how it goes, these people do. I note, by the way, that this is one of the few fields dominated by women: 20 of the 30 authors of these papers are female. Yay for linguistics!

There is no knockout punch— unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how children learn languages. And this book, at least, doesn’t have too much to say about how children learn syntax, much less whether they do so using Minimalism, Arc Pair Grammar, Role & Reference Grammar, etc. It’s mostly about the first three years, the first words learned, and what that tells us about children’s conceptual system.

The biggest news seems to be:

  • Children understand things far earlier than was once supposed. E.g. Piaget thought that children didn’t acquire the notion of object permanence till 3 years or so; we now know they have it at 5 months. He also thought that children didn’t understand the concept of time till about 8; but in fact they are clearly able to remember and refer to past events, and anticipate and refer to future events, at not much more than 1 year of age.
  • At the same time: universal, basic concepts are more elusive than ever. Languages really do divide up conceptual space differently, and this is evident in children’s speech from the beginning.

The object permanence result is due to better, cleverer technique: rather than relying on the baby’s actions, we only check what they’re looking at. Basically: babies can be surprised, and look longer at unexpected outcomes. So you show them a doll being placed behind a screen, then remove the screen. They’re surprised if they see no doll there, or two dolls.

Many of the authors refer to Quine’s problem. Quine envisioned a linguist eliciting words from a native. A rabbit goes by, and the native says gavagai. Does this mean “rabbit”, or “hop”, or “fluffy tail”, or “unspecified set of rabbit parts”?

Now, the linguists can’t bring themselves to say that Quine is just being a jerk. But there’s a pretty clear answer to this problem: we aren’t tabulae rasae; we’re animals with a hundred-million-year evolutionary history of perceiving objects, especially moving objects, and double especially animals. Some things are very salient for humans— we’re built to see rabbits as objects with a characteristic shape, size, and activity pattern. We’re not built to focus on rabbit tails or miscellaneous rabbit parts.

Early proposals were that children use some all-purpose generalizations: words are likely to refer to the most salient entities; words are normally not synonymous.

Going beyond this, there were assumptions that children would learn nouns before verbs, closed-class form words before content words, shape before materials, and that they would probably learn universal concepts first. This little list of assumptions turns out to be wrong: it depends on the language.

  • Many languages are far more verb-oriented than English. Kids still learn a lot of nouns, but sometimes the proportion of verbs is far higher.
  • Often very specific verbs are learned before abstract spatial words.
  • English children learn to pay the most attention to shape; Maya kids pay the most attention to material.

As for universal concepts, it’s worth looking in detail at an example provided by Levinson. The language is Tzeltal.

Pach-an-a bojch ta y-anil te karton-e.
bowl-put-cause.imp gourd at its-down cardboard-that

The intended translation is “Put the bowl behind the box.” But just about every detail in Tzeltal is different.

  • The shape and spatial information is largely encoded in the verb, not in nouns. Pach– means “place a bowl-shaped vessel upright on a surface.”
  • Corollary: the two NPs refer mostly to material. Bojch is really a word for a gourd; karton can refer to anything made of cardboard.
  • “Behind” is a relative term, which doesn’t exist in Tzeltal. Instead, an absolute frame of reference is used. “Downward” can refer to absolute height, but here it refers to horizontal location, because of a geographical particularity: Tzeltal territory is on a slope, so “downhill” also means “northward”.

Do children really master this system? Of course; they have a pretty good grasp of the slope system by age three. They also master a wide range of very specific verb forms rather than relying heavily, as English-speaking toddlers do, on “up/down”.

Another neat example: English toddlers quickly learn to distinguish “put ON” from “put IN”. Korean children divide up this semantic space quite differently, using at least seven verbs.

  • kkita means “fasten tightly”– this includes putting the top on a pen, placing Lego bricks together, putting a piece in a puzzle, placing a cassette in its box, or buttoning a button.
  • nehta means “place loosely”– e.g. put a book in a bag, or a toy in a box.
  • pwuchita is used for juxtaposing surfaces– e.g. placing a magnet on the fridge.
  • nohta is used for placing things on a horizontal surface.
  • for clothes, you have ssuta for hats, ipta for the body, sinta for the feet.

All this is fascinating because philosophers and linguists are apt to take English categories and assume they are universal concepts: UP, DOWN, IN, ON. Nope, they’re just projecting English words onto Mentalese. There is no stage where children use “universal” concepts before using language-specific ones. (Indeed, there’s evidence that children understand the language-specific concepts well before they can say the words.)

Does all this “affect how you think”? Of course. Levinson tells an amusing anecdote: he almost got his truck stuck in quicksand when his Australian Aborigine companion told him to “swerve north quick”. Levinson just couldn’t calculate where north was fast enough.

There’s also interesting tidbits like, did you know that there is a gradient between comitative and instrumental? It goes like this:

1 – give a show with a clown
2 – build a machine with an assistant
3 – captured the hill with his squad
4 – performed an act with an elephant
5 – the blind man crossed the street with his dog
6 – the officer caught the smuggler with a police dog
7 – won the appeal with a highly paid lawyer
8 – found the solution with a computer
9 – hunted deer with a rifle
10 – broke the window with a stone

In English, as you can see, we use “with” for all of these. In a multitude of languages, these meanings are divided up linearly. E.g.

  • Iraqi Arabic: 1-8 vs 9-10
  • Swahili: 1-6 vs 7-10
  • Slovak: 1-9 vs 10
  • Tamil: 1-2 vs 3-10

That’s pretty neat!

Anyway: there’s still a lot of argument on how exactly children learn, whether they start with particular cognitive abilities, whether they have particular linguistic abilities. Many authors point out that innatism doesn’t really help reduce the problem. E.g. to see if dog matches Inbuilt concept #293291, you pretty much have to have a sense of what a dog is. If you have that, what good is the inbuilt concept?

You could try to save innatism by multiplying the number of inbuilt concepts. E.g. you include the 10 steps of the comitative/instrumental gradient, and both Korean and English positioning concepts, and both English and Tzeltal directional systems. But this is only complicating the child’s problem. Rather than finding quick matches between the words they hear and a small number of universal concepts, they have to consider hundreds or thousands of alternative conceptual systems.

It’s also worth pointing out that parents are far more helpful than Quine’s native informant. People don’t just say words at random. As Michael Tomasello emphasizes, language is often presented as a commentary on a situation the child already understands, such as moving toys around with her mother. There’s a lot of repetition; the parents’ language is emphatic and simplified; the parents are not trying to confuse the child with talk of bags of rabbit parts.

BTW, this is in theory the last book I’m consulting for my syntax book.  So, I’ll soon have a first draft, at least.

 

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