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Language and cognition

Psychology, 15 April,
Zoltn Jakab

The components of language

(1) Phonology
-- The basic units of speech are
-- Each language uses only a subset of
speech sounds that humans can

(2) Morphology and semantics

The units of language
that have meaning of
some sort belong to this
Morphology studies the
internal structure of
words. Morphemes
either have meaning on
their own, modify the
meaning of the
associated constituents.

(3) Syntax
The rules that specify how words can be combined into
meaningful phrases and sentences.
(1) [[Max and Samantha][went shopping]]
Spelling out an intuitive distinction between subject
and predicate.
Resolving ambiguity:
(2) Put the box on the table by the window in the kitchen.
Put [the box] [on the table by the window in the kitchen ].
Put [the box on the table] [by the window in the kitchen].
Put [the box on the table by the window ] [in the kitchen].

(4) Pragmatics
(3) She will trip over that.
Literal meaning: there is a female human being who is
in danger of stumbling because there is an obstance
in her way.
Filling in the contextual details:
(3b) Sue will trip over that step-stool.
A further element to reconstruct: there is a tacit
imperative in these sentences (i.e., Would you please
remove that step-stool so that it does not block Sues

Language development: some


(1) The behaviorist approach

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1957):
Verbal Behavior
-- Language learning is the shaping
of behavior via reinforcement
-- sounds are shaped into words,
then words are shapes into
-- Reinforcement is attention,
approval, etc.
-- Communication pressure:
-- Imitation

Objections to the behaviorist account

Noam Chomskys review
Imitation, reinforcement, and
communication pressure
obviously play some role,
syntax is not shaped by
parents or caregivers
(parental feedback focuses on
meaning, not grammaticality)
children are creative language
users who gradually recognize
and apply rules of syntax
resulting in special types of
errors never shown by adults
or second language users
children do not imitate a
grammatical rule until they
have used it spontaneously

The scientist was baffled.

The scientist the boy talked to was
(i.e., The scientist to whom the boy
talked was baffled)
The scientist the boy(->the woman
looked at) talked to was baffled.
- We can interpret novel and unfamiliar
structures ones we have never seen
- There are performance limitations though

Companions and language learning

Joint attention
Willingness to initiate and maintain
verbal communication
Motherese: slow talk, high-pitched
voice, simple utterances (e.g.,
questions, imperatives) that are
easily repeatable
Parents gradually increase the
length and complexity of their
utterances (so that they are just
ahead of the childs level,
pulling it forward) Zone of
proximal development!
Parents goal is effective
communication, not, for instance,
teaching grammar
Expansions, recasts, and topic

N. Chomsky (1968):
Humans are equipped with a language acquisition
device (LAD).
The LAD is a language processor which contains a
universal grammar, common to all languages.

What are the principles or rules of universal grammar?

Are there such rules at all?

An example
Structure Dependence: all rules of syntax, in all
languages, refer to syntactic categories, phrase structure,
or other entities of syntax.
Isnt this principle vacuous?
A pair of rules:
Nonexistent Rule #1: Invert the first and second word in
a sentence to form a question (not structure dependent)
Actual Rule #1: Invert the subject and the auxiliary verb
in a sentence to form a question. (structure dependent)
Here are some linguistic data: two grammatical sentences
(4) John is singing.
(4) Is John singing?

Which rule explains this

transformation? Can we choose?
Yes, if we have a little more linguistic input.
(5) That teacher is very good.
(5) *Teacher that is very good? (ungrammatical)
(5) Is that teacher very good? (OK)
Actual Rule#1 explains the formation of both
grammtical questions it wins, the other is out.
Can we generalize? No language studied so far violates
the structure dependence principle.

Another universal: Case filter

All noun phrases are case-assigned, even if
their case is not overtly marked.
(6) Max thought


had cheated on him.

(7) Max thought


to have cheated on him.

(8) It was thought


cheated on Max.

(9) *It was thought


to have cheated on Max.

Types of universals
(1) Syntactic categories (verb, noun, etc.)
(2) Constraints on the types of rules that can occur
in different languages (structure dependence; case
filter: noun phrases must be assigned case, even
when it is not overtly marked)
(3) Implications (e.g., if nouns have gender, then
pronouns do too).

The principles and parameters


Why are the rules of syntax in a particular language what

they are?
How can we connect the general principles of universal
grammar with the particular rules that obtain in different
natural languages?
Universal principles plus parameter setting the latter is
triggered by linguistic input.
Example: the pro-drop parameter. Some languages
allow optional deletion of the grammatical subject; others
It is raining.
Esik. [Rain-3rd-singular]
Are you guys hungry?
hesek vagytok? [Hungry-plural is-2nd-plural]

Toward an explanation of linguistic


UG and the variable parameters specify what kind of language

processing system we are born with, namely
a biological system that can handle or implement the complex
formal system provided by Chomskian linguistic theory
The interaction between genetic blueprint and linguistic
environment leads to the internal representation of ones
known languages

Support for nativism

The arguments are similar
to those which undermine
The poverty of the
Speed; no explicit teching
Children form many novel
sentences; and make
creative mistakes
Acquisition has cultureindependent steps and

Sensitive period
Children before puberty spontaneously acquire
languages that they are exposed to.
This differs much from the second-language
acquisition of grownups which takes a lot of effort.
The prognosis for recovering from traumatic aphasia
depends on the age at which the injury was sustained.
Children who suffer brain damage before age 5 will
recover all or most of their language without special
After puberty, aphasic patients need extensive therapy
even for partial recovery.

Some problems with nativism

Child language does differ in several respects from
the language of adults. Children do not really speak
like adults, and it does take a long time until they
reach full proficiency in their native language.
What causes this difference between child language
and adult language?

Nativist answer:
(1) Competence vs. performance:
-- childrens memory span is below adult levels
-- their vocabulary is small
-- articulatory control is under development
(2) Parameter setting is not yet complete.

A variant of nativism: Steven Pinker

The Semantic bootstrapping
hypothesis: children utilize
their semantic knowledge to
access grammatical categories
when learning their first
Early combinations are guided
by heuristic principles of
limited validity
These rudimentary principles
refine later.

Some interesting evidence for

Linguistic isolation (Susan
Goldin-meadow and Carolyn
Mylander, 1984)

Deaf children with hearing

-- invented verbs, nouns, and
adjectives, formed

Some interesting evidence for

nativism, II.

Pidgin and creole languages

(Derek Bickerton, 1983).
Within a generation
Children are thought to be
-- Children do not use pidgin
-- New grammatical rules
-- Syntax mirrors patterns of
language acquisition
-- Similarities all over the

Interactionism and language

Piaget; Vigotsky; Elizabeth

M. Tomasello
The role of general cognitive
Conceptual development affects
language use
-- The complexity of motherese
-- deferred imitation and the first
-- Semantics of first words
-- object permanence
-- hypotheticals and counterfactuals in
different languages

Is language ability human-specific?

R. E. Passingham: Monkeys and chinchillas have powers
of auditory discrimination similar to humans
(categorical perception).
Categorical phoneme perception: an experiment (David
B. Pisoni)
Dashed curve:
The probability of discrimination
for two adjacent stimuli in the series
Highest at the category obrder
Solid curve: likelihood of pa decision


Syntetized syllables


Vocal learning (E. Jarvis)

6 csoport:
- parrots
- songbirds
- bats
- cetaceans
(whales and
- humans

innate vocalizations

Auditory area.
Anterior vocal center.

Posterior vocal center

Language-learning apes
Washoe the chimpanzee (1965-2007):
Raised in human environment; over more than 20 years of
training, she learned about 250 signs of ASL (Gardner and
-- Creative description of objects and events, e.g., water bird for
-- Making requests (give candy)
-- Asking and answering questions (e.g., naming her own
bodyparts and other familiar objects in response to questions;
color naming)
Other chimps were introduced to linguistic hieroglyphics printed
on computer keys (Savage-Rumbaugh and Rumbaugh, 1978).
-- chimps comminucated with each other using the special
-- made requests to the companion and complied with them

Language training of apes

Washoe (1965-2007)

Loulis (1978-)

Any difference from humans?

Yes indeed!
(1) Grammar
(2) Word-learning rate
(3) Parental teaching


Stages of acquisition
I. The prelinguistic period
-- Newborns tune in to human speech (opening their eyes,
gazing at the speaker, and occasionally vocalizing).
-- One-month-old infants are already capabe of categorically
discriminating consonants (Peter Eimas, 1982).
-- By age two months infants reliably discriminate vowels,
and may also recognize them when uttered by different
Prelingustic vocalizations:
-- cooing by 3-5 weeks (repeating vowel-like sounds)
-- babbling starts sometime between 4-6 months (syllables)
-- up until 12 months, babbling becomes selective to speech
sounds present in the infants linguistic environment

-- Vocal turn-taking by 7-8 months

-- Sensitivity to intonational cues: the
tone of voice conveys different
-- Nonverbal communication:
imperative and declarative gestures
-- 13-month-olds do, whereas 11month-olds do not understand the
meanings of words names of
familiar objects (tested by
preferential looking on hearing the
name of the object).

II. The holophrastic period

-- Early limits of
articulation: the first
words are abbreviated,
-- By 18 months, simplified
pronunciations are guided
by rules and are more
-- Pronunciation is
approximately adult-like
by 4-5 years of age

Early semantic development

At the beginnging, word learning is slow; the first 50 words
are acquired roughly between 12 and 18 months of age
Vocabulary spurt: the rate of learning increases dramatically
between 18-24 months (20-40 words per week, on average)
~200 actively used words by age 2, and likely a lot more that
are understood
The semantic content of early words (Katherine Nelson,
Roughly 2/3 of the first 50 words are names of objects including
family members
Objects whose names were learned included manipulable ones
(e.g., toys, utensils), and objects that move on their own
(cars, animals)
Overextension and underextension

One-word utterances often convey messages that
grownups would express using sentences.
Greenfield and Smith (1976):
Shelley, 17 months old, used the word ghetti three times
in a five-minute period:
-- First pointing to a pan on the stove (apparently asking if
the stuff in it was spaghetti)
-- Then naming it when it was on the table
-- Finally asking for it (repeating the word in a whiny tone)
The ambiguities that arise this way may also help the
child realize the advantage of combining more words in
a single utterance.

Toward simple sentences: telegraphic


Beginning between 18 and 24 months of age, the first

combinations of words occur in childrens speech.
Daddy car, Go doggie, Mommie drink milk, No
wet, There ball

-- Only the critical content words are present

-- Although clearly ungrammatical, some influence of
grammar is already present; e.g., in English,
Mommy drink is much more likely than Drink
Mommy, My car is is typical, whereas Car my is
virtually never occurs.
An early recognition of the fact that some word orders
are better then others to convey meanings.

The semantics of early speech

By focusing only on the
syntactic structure of early
speech one might understimate
the the young childs linguistic
Children rely heavily on the
context in conveying their
Lois Bloom (1970): Mommy sock
meant Mommys sock in one
context (when the child held the
sock in her hand), and Mommy
is putting on my sock in another
(being dressed up).
Roger Brown (1973): The typical
two-word utterances of
telegraphese capture a single
semantic relation.

Semantic relations expressed in

childrens earliest sentences
(Brown, 1973):
Agent + action

Mommy come;
Daddy sit
Action + object drive car; eat grape
Agent + object
Mommy sock;
baby book
Action + location Go park; sit chair
Entity + location Cup table; toy floor
My teddy;
Mommy dress
More milk
Allgone cookie;
no wet

Fast improvement between 2 and 5

years: some examples

Speech samples by one child at three ages (After McNeill,

28 months
35 months
38 months
Somebody pencil No I dont know I like a racing car
What dat feeled like?
I broke my racing car
Where birdie go? Lemme do again Its broked
Read dat
Dont dont hold with me You got some beads
Hit hammer, mommy
Im going to drop it inne dump truck Who put dust on my
Have screw
Those are mines Why its not working?

-- Increasing complexity and function-word use

-- Syntactic overregularization/overgeneralization errors
(Its broked; Those are mines)
-- Increasing understanding of pragmatics

Even though children often learn and use the grammatical
form of some sentences around 2-2 years (e.g., It ran
away; my feet are cold), a little later (3 yrs or so) they
begin use the same types of utterances erroneously (e.g.,
It runned away; she goed; I brushed my tooths).
Why does this happen?
Nativist explanation: children discover more general rules of
syntax and start applying them to novel cases. Exceptions,
irregular cases, or more special rules that modify the
general ones may not have t aken effect yet.
Alternative explanation: past tense overregularizations may
occur because children occasionally fail to retrieve the
irregular form from memory.
Which explanation might be correct?

A quick comparison with Hungarian

Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that is
uses lots of suffixes (three general classes of them) to mark
syntactic roles. (As opposed to English, where word order
often plays the same role.)
An example:
in our houses (preposition, possesive pronoun, noun +plural)

(noun+plural possession affix+locative

Garfield chased Odie.

Garfield kergette Ubult.
Odie chased Garfield Ubul kergette Garfieldet.
It was Garfield whom Odie chased.
Garfieldet kergette

How does this affect acquisition?

In Hungarian, accusative case is overtly marked, almost
without exception, with a suffix -t.
However, there is lots of variation regarding how the
accusative suffix is attached to the root:
horse l
hand kz
scarf sl
salt s

lovat (insertion of -va- plus changes to o)

kezet (insertion of -e- plus changes to e)
slat (insertion of -a-; no change in the root)
st (oops; simple addition: compare with
(simple addition again)
lom lmot (deletion plus insertion)
krmt (same)

Of course
Hungarian children learn to use the -t suffix much
earlier than the various special ways in which it has to
be added in particular cases.
As a result, children around 3 years of age quite often
make errors attaching the accusative suffix
Typical error
lovat lt
slat slt
-- In such cases they appear to have mastered the general
rule, but not the specific procedures
-- May this be due to failure of memory recall? No,
because, very likely, 2-year-olds havent yet had a
chance to memorize all these special cases.

Constructivism and language


Constructivism rejects the idea of an innate, domainspecific language-processor

It assumes that domain-general learning mechanisms
underlie language acquisition language is a product of
general intelligence
Knowledge of grammar does not develop in an isolated
manner; instead it is linked up with other types of ability
(e.g., the complexity of childrens play is correlated with
the complexity of their utterances).
Constructivist response to poverty-of-stimulus type of
-- we mentioned some above: parents do react to
ungrammatical utterances in informative ways; child
language is influenced by that of the companions
Challenge to constructivism: lets see the detailed story!