9. Baby born talking--describes heaven (11/29)

acquisition of language -overview

Pinker's 'stages'

Syllable babbling

Gibberish babbling (JL wonders how much of this is lack of motor skill/speed-- a phonological output bottleneck. See below).

One word utterances

Two word utterances

All hell breaks loose

early skills

habituation paradigm (language video)

But what does it show?  Babies can discriminate  one syllable from another but so can many non-linguistic critters.

prenatal sensitivity to language?

Experiment putting a mike into a ballon of jello!  Lots of low frequencies?  Neonates can discriminate their moms language.

prosody? (Anne Fernald in video-- infants sensitive to F0 , pitch changes)

loss of discrimination ability within 1 year?

direct categorization of their phonemes by 1

production development

(see overview graphic above)

descent of larynx

syllables 5 to 6 months

is babbling at 7 or 8 months important?

"By listening to their own babbling, babies in effect write their own instruction manual; they learn how much to move which muscle in which way to make which change in sound.266"

first words: social routines, objects, actions at 1

an output bottleneck? -- the idea that much more language is "there" but not produced

Brown noticed the ordering was correct even in early sentence fragments.  Also see Limber  (1973)

comprehension at one year

stressed final word strategy

there is always a question of linguistic vs non-linguistic comprehension ('semantic bootstrapping')

(Recall how the aphasic woman from Iowa tried to interpret the test sentence according to 'event probabilities')

vocabulary and syntactic explosion at 18 months or so

first two word combinations are universal

exponential growth in vocabulary

vocabulary growth 16-30 months ( vocab range in percentiles from 95 to 5. Data from Macarthur CDI website.)

complex sentences at 4 morphemes

"a full range of sentence types flower – questions, words like who, what, aad where, relative clauses, comparatives, negations,  complements, conjunctions and passives." 271 and Limber (1973)

This is about as early as possible and is compatible with the idea of an "output limit" or "output constraint" rather than lack of knowledge.  (An output limit would be some kind of production bottleneck, e.g. not being able to compose and/or articulate syllables fast enough.)

Roger Brown's data supports this output limit idea since 1-2 year olds tend not to produce more than one or two morphemes at a time but will produce various selections of two as if drawn from a larger set.










In the kitchen









































Mlu and variance correlated with age

universal acquisition features

"It is safe to say, except for constructions that are rare....(etc) all languages are acquired with equal ease, before the child turns four. 273"


"Most children's errors in English, in fact, would be grammatical in other languages.276"


How do they do it?

"whatever innate grammatical abilities there are, they are too schematic to generate speech, words, and grammatical constructions on their own. 277"

How does experience interact with wiring to give a three year old the grammar of a particular language?" 277

"If you are given a translation of the content words in parents' speech to children in some language whose grammar you do not know, it is quite easy to infer what the parents meant."

The rosetta stone analogy 278

For the child, the unknown language is English (or ….); the known one mentalese." 278  (See Rosetta notes.)

Motherese useful but not critical

"the melodies attract the child's attention, mark the sounds as speech as opposed to stomach growlings…, distinguish statements, questions, and imperatives, delineate major sentence boundaries, and highlight new words." 279

acquisition doesn't require active feedback and correction from parents

"the child must be a naturalist, passively observing speech of others”

languages are infinite; childhoods finite

"children cannot memorize…they must generalize to an infinite world of as yet unspoken sentences."

What's required?

The child must use categories like noun and verb – not just words

"If children are willing guess that words for objects are nouns and words for actions are verbs, they would have a leg up on the rule learning problem.

Look for phrases

Words must be ordered but that requires categories (N, V, etc) within phrases.

That requires two assumptions

"children cannot attack the language learning task like a logican free of preconceptions; they need guidance.    That guidance could come from two sources… parents' speech respects the basic design of human phrase structure…. Second, since the meanings are usually guessable in context, the child could use the meanings to set up the right phrase structure. 285"

X-bar theory of phrase structure is innate

Heads of phrases (N, V, A) are grouped with modifiers inside X phrases.

the child then uses the meanings (guessable in context) to determine the right structure.  (see Rosetta…)

Pinker's example "The big dog ate ice cream."

1, From learning the individual content words, the child guesses their categories and grows the first twigs of a tree. 285


       A      N     V        N

The big   dog ate ice-cream

2.     Nouns and verbs must belong to phrases; the child posits one for each of these words.

  NP  VP     NP

        A      N     V        N

The big   dog ate ice-cream

3.     From the meaning of the utterance (by context), the child knows the dog just ate ice cream and guesses that "ice-cream" and "dog" are role players for the verb "eat."

4.     with a few other assumptions including "dog" being the agent and hence subject NP, a tree has been created reflecting the structure of English.

"A tree for the sentence has been completed…. The rules and dictionary entries can be peeled off the tree:

S-> NP VP, NP->(det)(A)N, VP->V (NP)

Dog:N, ate: V; eater=subject, thing eaten=object


5.     Having only a few categories (N, V, A) and corresponding phrases is critical to reducing the information load for the child.

"Mental flexibility confines children; innate constraints set them free."   (They don't get lost in possibilities like us adults!)

the infant brain and evolution

grows and is pruned; "Leibniz' model of innate ideas"

the baby is born talking when compared to other primate births relative to our size

lots of selective advantages to early acquisition of language


Check this dialogue with Tiger Woods, age 2.

later language acquisition

why children's superiority in acquisition?

age factors

brain changes- myelinization, neural pruning, synaptic growth

other interests interfer, e.g. puberty and 'critical periods'

case studies

Genie(13) vs Isabelle (6)


This well-treated but badly diagnosed child grew up not recognized as deaf. "Despite intensive training and impressive gains in other spheres, Chelsea's syntax is bizzare. 293"

The case of "EM" -- profoundly deaf "homesigner"

This boy of 15, with low average IQ, received no formal training in sign. He had developed a "homesign" but had a 85 dB hearing loss. Fitted at 15 with hearing aids to both ears, raising his hearing to 35 dB loss did not do much for his spoken language. Grimshaw et al concluded that this case supported the conclusions drawn from the Genie case, without the complications of her deprivation and unknown early health.


why a critical period?

only need LAD early

natural aging processes

"The linguistic clumsiness of tourists and students might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies, just as the decrepitude of age is the price we pay for the vigor of youth. 296"



Many report difficulty in later acquisition of a second language. Kegl in the NSL video indicated older individuals into their teens and beyond, find learning a complete sign language difficult. The research in Pinker, 291, suggests the same: immigrants to the US between 3 and 7 performed identically to children born here. As birthdate of immigration increased, skills in English decreased. Those arriving after 17 were the worst, though there was considerable variability.


As Pinker points out there are many possible reasons from motivation to biology. Recent work on activation of genes supports some of his conjectures (294). "so genes that strengthen young organisms at the expense of old organisms have the odds in their favor....(adult) linguistic clumsiness might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies." 296