Thursday, February 09, 2012

New approaches to child language acquisition

http://www.instablogsimages.com
This probably isn't a link to follow if you're still struggling with the basics of child language on your A level course, but it's a really fascinating way of looking at how languages are acquired that offers a challenge to the Chomskyan model of a language acquisition device that's specifically designed to process the rules of grammar.

Construction grammar is a relatively new field of linguistics to me and one I can't claim to fully grasp as yet, but in this blog post, the expert grammarian and ELT specialist, Scott Thornbury takes a look at how construction grammar might be applied to language acquisition.

Instead of looking at language as words and rules (lexis and grammar) as we often do when looking at stages of acquisition and how children move from one word to two words to telegraphic talk, and the rest of it, construction grammar offers a model in which children pick up chunks of language from those they hear around them. It's not a simple parroting of input, as per Skinner's behaviourist model, but a more subtle processing of meaningful units of language that they hear around them.

As Thornbury explains here, language learners are not just picking up words from around them like leaves and sticking them back onto a pre-programmed grammar tree:

Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct.

It's therefore an active process, one which involves putting together chunks of meaning rather than piecing together individual units and linking them by grammar rules to other bits.  Where this differs markedly from Chomsky's model is that he sees a child's language environment as linguistically impoverished: this is the poverty of the stimulus argument in which a child can't be simply taking in language data from around them and regurgitating it because what they hear is so fragmented and often apparently ungrammatical. Construction grammar offers a different approach which seems to be arguing that a child can make much more sense of this language input and that by hearing enough language they tune in to the patterns that emerge and can start to spot the most frequent structures, using them in their own language soon after.

Thornbury points to the fact that so many of English's phrase and clause structures are repeated patterns, where if you know the first part you can have an educated guess at what the second part will consist of. He points to structures such as:

  • take the [noun] for a [noun] (e.g. take the dog for a walk, take the cure for an illness, etc.)
  • [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] (e.g. on the top of the mountain, in the middle of the night, on the tip of the tongue)
So, perhaps what young children acquiring language hear around them isn't quite the jumbled mess of  random noises and unfinished structures that the poverty of the stimulus argument posits, but a rather regular system that can be picked up more quickly than previously thought.

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