Language acquisition: a cognitive approach.

John Field until recently taught at the University of Reading in the UK. Here he gives his perspective as a psycholinguist on the mental processes involved when young children learn to make sense of language.

John Field
Psycholinguists like me adopt what is generally called a cognitive approach to language use. In other words an approach which is based upon trying to interpret what is going on in the mind of the language user. In our case the mind of a child as it’s acquiring its first language, as it’s exposed to speech in its environment. Forgive me for calling the child ‘it’ but it’s a most convenient way of referring to children.

It is possible to analyse the speech that a child produces linguistically in terms of the grammar patterns that it’s using for example. It is possible to interpret what the child says in relation to the socialisation of a child – the extent to which the child is participating in speech events involving others. But what we’re particularly interested in is the kind of mental processes that can be worked out from observing the behaviour of the child when the child is engaged in producing and in understanding speech.

So what we particularly focus on is the way in which the child stores speech in its mind and the way in which it accesses what it has stored when it has need of it and also the way in which it produces language. And by producing language I mean produces it automatically. For example, I’m talking to you now without having to focus a lot of conscious effort on the words that I’m choosing. And I hope I’m managing to do it efficiently and coherently. And what we’re interested in is how a child manages to acquire that facility, in which language becomes a process that doesn’t demand a great deal of attention.

Now it’s very easy to criticise this cognitive approach and to say isn’t it generalising enormously. We know that people are individuals. We know that they vary an awful lot in their vocabulary. They vary a lot in terms of whether they are particularly extrovert or introvert. We know that people are individuals. We also know that language varies enormously in terms of context.

But the argument in favour of the cognitive approach is that there are certain factors that are true across all children acquiring all languages. One of them is the need of the child to map from language onto reality, onto the real world. And of course many aspects of the real world are the same across cultures, the sky, the sea, trees, whatever. So that, we can look at, the relationship between language and the environment.

The other important factor is that the process of producing and understanding language is similar across languages. If you are producing speech you have to get your mouth into certain contortions which produce the sounds of speech. You have to move from one particular setting producing a particular sound to another particular setting. So these are features of speech which your mind controls. And what we’re interested in is how the child manages to acquire the ability to make those operations as effortlessly at the end of the day as an adult does. So that’s something which is common to all language production.

In order to understand cognitive approaches I think one needs to understand the Chomsky and nativist argument because as a psycholinguist I see cognitive approaches as rather distinct from that particular argument.

Chomsky in particular argues that language must be innately acquired. It must in some ways be inherited, transmitted from one generation to another. His reasons for arguing this are firstly that the child acquires its first language in an amazingly short period of time. Secondly, that nobody teaches the child and in fact that there is evidence that adults correct children very, very little. Thirdly, he argues that the kind of input to which the child is exposed is um he calls it ‘degenerate’. By that he means it’s full of pauses, hesitations, even incorrect grammar and therefore doesn’t provide the kind of model that we might assume for the child. And fourthly, he points out that children acquire language regardless of the kind of, what one might loosely term intelligence, they go on to show.

On these grounds he argues that we must have some kind of facility which enables us to, if you like, it kick starts us, enables us to acquire a language in ways that we would not otherwise be able to do just by being exposed to it.

The alternative to the nativist point of view is an empiricist one. And one can adopt two particular distinct approaches. On the one hand, one can adopt a sociological approach and say that a lot of the language that the child acquires, it does so through its need to interact with other people. Or one can adopt, and here I come back to cognitive approaches, or one can adopt a cognitive argument and say that the development of language isn’t necessarily something that we inherit, something that is innate, it could be something that simply reflects the capabilities of the human mind.

The last area that I wanted to discuss as an illustration of, of cognitive approach to language acquisition, is what is called child directed speech. There’s been a lot of interest in this because of Chomsky’s claim that the kind of speech to which a child is exposed is degenerate. It’s not actually informative enough for the child to acquire its language in the way it does. And what researchers studying child directed speech have discovered is that it’s much more informative than Chomsky would suggest and, and that was originally supposed.

First of all it’s largely correct. Adults don’t actually change their grammar considerably when they’re actually talking to children. They speak in sentences that are often grammatically correct and interestingly they often attune their sentences to what the child is capable of understanding. That’s important, not what the child is capable of producing, so they’re not imitating the child or talking to it in its own kind of baby talk. They’re attuning what they say to what they believe to be the level of understanding of the child.

A number of the features of child directed speech actually help the child to recognise, for example, the existence of recurrent words in speech, particularly exaggerated intonation patterns. We’re going to have our bath now, we’re going to have our bath now. So you’re drawing attention to important words and the fact that language does consist of a series of moveable units which we call words.

Adults tend to repeat what they say so that the child does get recurrent words. And above all adults tend to re-cast what a child says. They don’t actually correct children intentionally but what they do is to repeat what a child has said but putting it into a correct form in order to show that they have understood the child. The child says, ‘I want go bed’, adult says, ‘you want to go to bed’.

This is where, interestingly, cognitive approaches to language acquisition interact with sociolinguistic approaches. Because the other important functions of child directed speech have been shown to be socialising ones. Ones which introduce children to the functions of language. For example, adults make great use of questions and in particular tag questions. ‘Time for bed isn’t it?’ OK. The point of these questions and tag questions is that they invite the child to respond. So this is a very, very important part of the language socialisation of the child. And another very important feature of child directed speech is the way in which adults mark conversational turns. So that the child learns about the structure of conversation as something interactive and learns to recognise the cues when the child is expected to respond.