The Echoes of the Mind (44) Language Development

Language Development

Neonates naturally understand the import of certain facial expressions, such as smiles and scowls. The noises that those oversized caretakers make is something else, even as some are more pleasing to the ear than others.

Language development starts in utero. Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born. ~ Japanese linguist Utako Minai

A fetus develops the ability to hear at ~30 weeks gestation, and so is able discern its mother’s voice during the last 2 months of pregnancy.

Even in late gestation, babies are doing what they’ll be doing throughout infancy and childhood: learning about language. ~ American psychologist Christine Moon

A newborn already has familiarity with certain sounds. A baby’s first cries correspond with its mother’s native tongue.

Babies a few days old are sensitive to the differences between languages. ~ Utako Minai

As a generalist species, humans have a broad-ranging faculty for symbolic pattern-matching, which is employed in every cognitive area, including perception. One of the earliest and most demanding challenges is acquiring language skill. It happens surprisingly quickly.

Language learning requires that children segment continuous events into discrete units. ~ American psychologist Sarah Roseberry Lytle et al

We have a whole lot of little statisticians running around. ~ Australian psycholinguist Joanne Arciuli

Statistical learning is the process of using the probability of co-occurrence to group elements. This predictive craft is essential to language acquisition. For infants learning language, identifying regularities from a small number of samples quickly leads to generalizations.

(The capacity for statistical learning varies among individuals. This goes a long way in explaining the relative ease or difficulty different people have in learning languages, beginning in infancy.)

Babies are constantly looking for language clues in context and sound. ~ American psychologist Jill Lany

At just ~3 months, infants are successfully segmenting words out of fluent speech. Mentally mapping syllables based upon the probability of their occurrence leads to categorization. Shortly thereafter, babies are distinguishing nouns and verbs in the sound stream.

By soaking up the statistical regularities of seemingly meaningless acoustic events, infants are able to rapidly structure linguistic input into relevant and ultimately meaningful units. ~ American psychologist Jenny Saffran et al

Discovering words is only the first step. Children must also determine how the distribution and modification of these elements combine to convey meaning. Given only a few examples, babies correctly ascertain rules that generate an infinite set. If the capacity was not innate, doing so would be an impossibility.

Infants at a very young age already understand the referential relationship between auditory words and physical objects, thus show a precursor in appreciating the symbolic nature of language, even if they do not understand yet the meanings of words. ~ Hungarian psychologist Hanna Marno et al

Assigning meaning to words is a gradual process. That sounds refer to objects (nouns) is easier to apprehend than associating a sound with a specific action (verbs).

The inborn programming for language acquisition is illustrated by quantifiers, such as “all,” “none,” and “some.” Children master words denoting relative quantities in the same order, regardless of their native language. Terms referring to totality are learned earlier than those which cover only part of a set. This corresponds with math education, where whole numbers are understood before fractions, which take some getting used to for most students.

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Infants acquire knowledge through spoken descriptions of phenomena they haven’t observed. ~ American psychologist Athena Vouloumanos

At 1 year, infants can glean intent from others’ communications. The implications for survival are obvious.

For 12-month-olds, speech can transfer information about unobservable aspects of the world, such as internal mental states, which provides preverbal infants with a tool for acquiring information beyond their immediate experience. ~ Athena Vouloumanos et al

Being able to access information beyond personal experience, including insight into others’ intentions, accelerates social and intellectual development. That infants can do so before they themselves can talk shows how quickly statistical learning proceeds.

While children do not typically begin talking until around 18 months, vocal expression begins early. By 3–4 months infants are uttering a full range of emotions. This wide-ranging flexibility is critical in learning language, as perceiving and producing a range of symbolic sounds affords attaching meaning to them.

Whereas limiting sounds and circumscribing patterns of sounds defines a language, their unlimited potential expression and combination is what makes language an infinite set. That these sounds have emotional resonance is critical to learning, as retention is keyed upon emotional impact.

Functional flexibility is a defining characteristic of language, because all words or sentences can be produced as expressions of varying emotional states, and because learning conventional “meanings” requires the ability to produce sounds that are free of any predetermined function. ~ American psycholinguist Kimbrough Oller et al