The Lasting Benefits of Language Acquisition


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

Babies imitate what they hear in their environment and receive reinforcement for using language. But according to the linguist, or nativist, position developed by Noam Chomsky, the environment is not sufficient to explain the process of language development. The following findings tell us that relatively simple interventions have the potential to lead to lasting, even lifelong, benefits in language acquisition and cognitive skills.

Elderly man with white hair and glasses speaking in a microphone. Noam Chomsky while giving a speech.
According to Noam Chomsky, the environment is not enough for the development of language. (Image: Andrew Rusk/Public domain)

The Language Acquisition Device 

Noam Chomsky believes the nurturist perspective is woefully naïve. First, there’s the speed of acquisition. Children learn words and grammar at a remarkable speed. It’s certainly true that early on parents tend to give lots of reinforcement when babies learn new words. But once children get started, they’re soaking up words all the time.

Second, children apply the rules of the language they are learning very consistently, which leads them to make unique and predictable errors that they can’t possibly be imitating from something they’ve heard.

Chomsky believes that children have an innate ability to learn language, which means learning language is different from how children learn other things: math, science, history, and so on. He proposed that children are prewired with a neurological ability in the brain, known as the language acquisition device, that enables a child to analyze language and learn the basic rules of grammar.

The Essential Elements for Learning Language 

Let’s talk about what we now know are the essential elements of the process of learning language. First, context. In most cases hearing a word once isn’t sufficient for us to learn its meaning. Why? Because hearing a word used only once may lead to different interpretations of its meaning.  

Little girl playing with symbols and letters
Children need to hear a word in different contexts to understand its meaning. (Image: Palatinate Stock/Shutterstock)

Children need to hear a word used in several different contexts before they really understand what it means. This finding helps explain why children who hear more words around them tend to develop better language skills.

But it’s also how parents speak to children, in a particular way, that helps children learn the meaning of words. Psychologists often refer to this style of speech as motherese, but anyone can do it, so a more general term is child-directed language, or parentese.

Parentese is different from what is often called baby talk. Adults using baby talk are just using a mixture of simple sounds to create nonsense words, such as saying baba instead of bottle. In contrast, parentese is grammatical speech with real words, but a distinct way of saying these words. 

It uses a slower speed, a higher pitch, and an emphasis on particular words. All of these techniques help call attention to particular objects. It’s basically telling babies, “This is the important part of a sentence.”

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Can Animals Learn Language?

Black and white photo of an ape
Sign language will be the best idea if one tends to teach apes a language. (Image: Morozov John/Shutterstock)

This raises another really interesting topic about language: Can animals learn language? Apes are humans’ closest genetic relative, some researchers have attempted to teach apes sign language. Primates have less control of their tongue and lower jaw and their vocal cords can’t form the same sounds as humans, so use of sign language is the best way of teaching language.

However, apes take years to learn just 200 or 300 signs. So, some researchers have said that saying that apes can learn language because they can eventually remember about 100 signs is like saying humans can fly because they can jump and be airborne for a few seconds. Moreover, apes show a relatively poor grasp of syntax, even for the words they know. 

A final issue in these studies of language use by apes is that much of what we know about what apes are signing is interpreted by their trainers, who may be inclined to interpret ambiguous behavior in line with their high expectations and to overestimate apes’ use of language.

How Speaking and Language Acquisition Are Related

A study published in 2020 reveals that simply coaching parents about the value of speaking to babies in particular ways can make a big difference. Researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington randomly assigned parents of six-month-old babies to either a parent coaching condition or a no-coaching control condition.

The coaching condition involved three separate sessions in which parents were given guidance and feedback on specific communication strategies, such as using parentese, using language as part of their daily routines, and engaging the baby in back-and-forth conversations.

And that coaching made a real difference. Parents who received the coaching did use parentese more frequently and that use resulted in more use of language by the child and more conversational turns. At 18 months, children whose parents received the coaching knew about 100 words, compared to only about 60 words for children whose parents were in the control group. These children also produced almost twice as many real and clear words such as banana and milk.

Common Questions about the Lasting Benefits of Language Acquisition

Q: What is the language acquisition device?

The language acquisition device is a neurological ability in the brain that enables children to learn the basic rules of grammar by analyzing language. This idea was first proposed by Noam Chomsky, who believed that there is an innate ability to learn language, so it’s different from learning other things like math, science, history, and so on.

Q: What is the parentese?

Parentese or child-directed language is a style of speech in which parents speak to their children in a way that helps them understand and learn what a specific word means. In this style, which noticeably helps with language acquisition, parents use different techniques such as high pitch, emphasis, and lower speed to call babies attention to a particular thing.

Q: How can speaking to babies increase their language acquisition?

Parents who speak with their babies more frequently help them with faster language acquisition. Infants who engage in different speaking techniques such as parentese and back-and-forth conversation learn more words than babies who don’t have their parents speak to them.

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