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Flashcards in Language and Communication Deck (23):


Language is based on an agreed set of symbols

Language is a tool for talking, but also for thinking and the representation of content in working memory as well as for abstract meaning in LTM


Language Understanding

Understanding is not trivial because boundaries between successive words are not clearly marked
There are no reliable ‘gaps’ between spoken words (spectrogram)

The speech stream shows “moments of silence” within words, not necessarily between words


Spoken language

It is estimated that spoken language originated in our evolutionary history 30,000-100,000 years ago
4000 and 6000 languages spoken on earth currently


Written Language

Written language is a recent human invention (a “meme”)
It originated in ancient Middle Eastern cultures about 5000 years ago


Spoken Language is Universal

Only 1/3 of the world’s population is literate

We seem to be genetically driven to learn a language

This is not true for reading, which is dependent upon formal instruction


Two skills necessary in order to use language

The capacity to produce sounds that correspond to meaning

The ability to understand and interpret sounds produced by others

Language has two major ingredients:
- arbitrary symbols
- syntactic rules



any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.

There are 44 in the english language



Phonology is a branch of linguistics concerned with the systematic organization of sounds in languages.


Phonotactic rules

knowing which sounds can start a word, end a word and follow each other (implicit knowledge).



The smallest unit that denotes meaning in a language

These include root morphemes (all monosyllabic words), affixes and suffixes (e.g. “re-”, “-ed”, “-ing”)

By combining morphemes, everything else can be constructed: e.g. “charge”, “charged”, “charging”, “recharge”


Lexicon (dictionary)

Is the entire set of morphemes in a given language, or in an individual’s vocabulary

An average adult speaker of English knows about 80,000 morphemes



Refers to the meaning of the sounds

The relationship between words/sounds and meaning is arbitrary (e.g. nothing “catty” about “cat”)

The same holds true for sign languages which are also arbitrary



For example the word order: It is important to understand who is doing what (e.g. “chase lion bear” – the agent comes first in English sentences

More complex syntactic rules are needed to convey more complex relationships between ideas

It is possible that syntax was the last thing to evolve, built on much more basic phonology-semantics mappings

We are usually not conscious about our knowledge of the syntactic rules, and often it is hard to explain them to people



is a combinatorial system, in which a small set of elements can be assembled by rules into an immense set of possible combinations

Grammar is generative: new ideas can be expressed

It comprises all implicit knowledge of phonology, semantics, syntax (similar to periodic system of elements, genetic code)

It reflects our linguistic competence


Universal Grammar (Noam Chomsky)

For Noam Chomsky, we are genetically determined to acquire language. He wanted to define the general properties of a human universal grammar:

wherever humans exist, language exists
- all languages change through time
- arbitrary relationship between sounds and meanings
- finite set of discrete sounds to form words, used to form sentences
- contain rules for the formation of words and sentences
- class of vowels and a class of consonants
- similar grammatical categories (e.g., noun, verb, adjective)
- referring to past time, negating, forming questions, issuing commands
- speakers can produce and understand an infinite number of sentences
- any normal child born anywhere in the world is capable of learning any language


Acquisition of language

We learn language implicitly, no formal teaching is required

We also have little insight into how we learn language
Once learned, our language allows us to learn other things explicitly

Language acquisition takes place in two stages:
pre-linguistic stage
linguistic stage


Pre linguistic stage

Newborns involuntary produce responses to stimuli, express emotions, cry, whimper and coo

Children who are born deaf also produce these sounds

It has been shown that newborns have the capacity to respond to contrasts in phonemes

This can be investigated using “sucking rate” experiments – They test how habituated the babies are


Pre linguistic stage

At 6th months, babies are start to “babble”, "babbling" includes a wide variety of sounds

Deaf children also babble

Over next months, infants’ babbling begins to reflect the phonemic characteristics of the native language

This marks the movement into the linguistic stage


Linguistic stage: first words

First words are spoken at 12 months, but this varies a lot

It starts with holophrastic sentences: one word sentences (e.g. “up!”)

The receptive language is growing faster than the productive language


Linguistic stage: two word phase

It begins at around 18-24 months (e.g. “Robbie sock”)

They then move on to utterances that may be 3,4,5 words

They develop telegraphic speech: leaving out the small function words (“is”, “the”) but the hierarchical structure is similar to adult speech

Finally, they begin to use function words and acquire grammatical morphemes (e.g. ed- past tense; ing – present progressive verb)


Skinner vs Chomsky

Skinner thought that children learn language by reinforcement. Thus, they can only learn what they picked up from adults, which then would be reinforced

Chomsky, however, challenged this view. He proposed that kids learn language by using rules, not imitation or reinforcement. For example, children make mistakes that they have never heard before:

Child: “My teacher holded the baby rabbits.“
Mother: “Did you say your teacher held the baby rabbits?”
Child: “Yes, she holded the baby rabbits.”


Skinner vs Chomsky (problems with Skinner's view that speech is learnt through reinforcement)

Errors might tell us more about how children learn language than do their correct utterances: E.g. children say “sheeps”, “bringed”

They overgeneralise the rule that they think is true

Another argument against Skinner’s reinforcement theory as an explanation for learning language is that parents don’t reinforce every correct sentence or punish incorrect ones

The type of errors and speed of learning is similar for all stages of language acquisition across cultures

Chomsky argued that we are “biologically pre-wired” to learn language. He calls that a language acquisition device (LAD)


Do other animals have real language?

Most researchers are sure that other species use their “language” only as a system of communication, but they don’t have a true language

They possess a signaling system with which messages associated with the immediate environment can be communicated, such as: danger, feeding, nesting, flocking

The use of their sounds is stimulus controlled, non-symbolic, and not re-combined creatively as we use it

There were several, initially promising approaches attempts to teach chimpanzees language (signs). However even the researchers involved (e.g. Terrace et al., 1979) concluded that ultimately, the animals did not acquire true language