Language: Acquiring the Language Skill

The term language refers to a system of communication consisting of symbols—words or hand signs (as in the case of American Sign Language)—arranged according to a set of rules, called a grammar, to express meaning (Gertner, Fisher, & Eisengart, 2006).

At its simplest, Language is a system of communication composed of symbols (words, hand signs, etc.) that are arranged according to a set of rules (grammar) to form meaningful expressions.

Grammar, by the way, is a set of rules governing how symbols in a given language are used to form meaningful expressions.

It is scarcely possible to imagine life without language. Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants.Steven Pinker (1994)

The ability to use language is a remarkable cognitive ability Opens in new window so tightly woven into the human experience, says prominent linguist Steven Pinker (1994), that “it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it. Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants.”

In this literature, we'll examine the remarkable capacity of humans to communicate through language, and consider the basic components of language, developmental, milestones in language acquisition, and leading theories of language acquisition. We also consider the question of whether language is a uniquely human characteristic.

Components of Language

As we’ll see, language consists of four basic components:

  • phonemes,
  • morphemes,
  • syntax, and
  • semantics.

Phonemes are the basic units of sound in a spoken language. English has about 40 phonemes to sound out the 500,000 or so words found in modern unabridged English dictionaries. The word dog consists of three phonemes: “d,” “au,” and “g.”

Phonemes in English correspond both to individual letters and to letter combinations, including the “au” in dog and the sounds “th” and “sh.” The same letter can make different sounds in different words. The “o” in the word two is a different phoneme from the “o” in the word one. Changing one phoneme in a word can change the meaning of the word. Changing the ‘r” sound in reach to the “t” sound makes it teach.

Different languages have different phonemes. In some African languages, various clicking sounds are phonemes. Hebrew has a guttural “chhh” phoneme, as in the expression l’chaim (“to life”).

Phonemes are combined to form morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a language. Simple words such as car, ball, and time are morphemes Opens in new window, but so are other linguistic units that convey meaning, such as prefixes Opens in new window and suffixes Opens in new window.

The prefix “un,” for example, means “not.” The suffix “ed” following a verb means that the action expressed by the verb occurred in the past. More complex words are composed of several morphemes. The word protested consists of three morphemes: “pre,” “test,” and “ed.”

Language requires more than phonemes and morphemes. It also requires syntax, the rules of grammar that determine how words are ordered within sentences Opens in new window and phrases Opens in new window to form meaningful expressions, and semantics, the set of rules governing the meaning of words. The sentence “buy milk I” sounds odd to us because it violates a basic rule of English syntax—that the subject (“I”) must precede the verb (“buy”).

We follow rules of syntax in everyday speech even if we are not aware of them or cannot verbalize them. But even when our speech follows proper syntax, it may still lack meaning. The famed linguist Noam Chomsky, illustrated this point with the example “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

The sentence may sound correct to our ears since it follows the rules of English syntax, but it doesn’t convey any meaning. The same word may convey very different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. “Don’t trip going down the stairs” means something very different from “Have a good trip.

Concept Chart: Milestones in Language Acquisition

Age (Approximate)Vocal ActivityDescription
BirthCryingCrying expresses distress
2 monthsCooingInfant begins making cooing sounds (e.g., “aah” and “oooh”)
6 – 12 monthsBabblingPhonemes, the basic units of sound, appear
12 monthsOne-word phrasesBaby imitates sounds and can understand some words; begins to say single words
18 – 24 monthsTwo-word phrases or sentencesVocabulary grows to about 50 words; baby emits two-word phrases or sentences
24 – 36 monthsComplex speechSentences become longer and more complex and include plurals and past tense; speech shows elements of proper syntax

Language Development

Children the world over develop language in basically the same stages, which unfold at basically the same ages. Until about six months of age, infants are limited to nonlinguistic forms of communication—crying and cooing.

At around that time, the first sounds resembling human speech appear in the form of babbling Opens in new window. The child then progresses through stages of one- and two-word phrases, and between the ages of two and three begins developing more complex speech patterns (see Chart ↑ ). By around 30 months of age, children are speaking in full sentences and have a vocabulary of about 550 words (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006).

We don’t teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway. Steven Pinker (1994)

The similar course of language development across cultures and the ease with which children naturally acquire language skill suggest that language depends on an innate mechanism that may be hard-wired in the human brain. Noam Chomsky (1965) called this mechanism the language acquisition device. We acquire the ability to speak, much as we do the ability to walk and jump, because we have an inborn propensity to develop it.

As Steven Pinker (1994) has put it, “We don’t teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway.” Children learn to use the rules of grammar without any formal instruction. In English-speaking cultures, they begin placing the subject before the verb Opens in new window long before they learn what the terms subject Opens in new window and verb Opens in new window mean.

According to Chomsky and Pinker, children are able to learn grammatical structures rapidly and easily as they do because the human brain contains the basic “blueprints,” or neural circuitry, for using grammar.

Critics point out that Chomsky’s language acquisition device is not an actual physical structure in the brain but a hypothesis—an abstract concept of how language centers in the brain work—and that it does not explain the mechanisms by which language is produced.

In fairness to Chomsky, we should point out that brain mechanisms responsible for language are extremely complex, consisting of complicated circuits in many areas of the brain that link together to produce language in ways we don’t yet understand. However, the pieces of the puzzle may be starting to fall into place. Scientists are beginning to locate genes involved in the development of brain mechanisms responsible for speech and language (Lictenbelt et al., 2005; Vargha-Khadem et al., 2005).

Regardless of the exact mechanisms involved in language production, both nature and nurture are necessary for language to develop. Our ability to use language depends not only on having a biological capacity for language production but also on experience with the sounds, meanings, and structures of human speech (Berko Gleason & Ratner, 2009).

Children naturally acquire language by listening to the speech of others, well before they learn rules of formal grammar in school (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2006; Sakai, 2005). They also enlarge their vocabularies by imitating the words others use to refer to particular objects.

Try This Out! From the Mouths of Babes
If you have the opportunity to observe an infant over time, keep a running record of the infant’s verbalizations, jotting down the types produced at different ages. Compare the chronology of these verbalizations with the one presented in the Concept Chart ; neonatal crying that progresses to cooing at about two months and is followed by babbling (starting at about six months), one-word speech (starting at around 12 months), two-word speech (starting at around 18 months), and more complex speech (between 24 and 36 months). Keep track of the infant’s vocabulary, noting the rapid increase beginning at around 18 months.

Parents can help children develop language skills by talking and reading to them frequently. They can also use principles of operant conditioning and observational learning by modeling proper language use and rewarding children for imitating it.

Regardless of how language develops, it is clear that language and thinking are closely intertwined. As discussed in this webpage, some theorists even propose that language determines how we think.

related literatures:
    Adapted from: Jeffrey S. Nevid's, Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (p. 263-8) Language: Components of Language and Language Development