How do children learn to speak?


In chapter 2 of my book, Making Kids Cleverer, I discuss, David Geary’s theory of biologically primary and secondary knowledge. Human beings seem to have various universal behaviours and characteristics in common regardless of the specific culture into which they’re born. Geary’s theory suggests that such species-wide traits must have some root in evolution and he argues that the capacity to learn ‘folk knowledge’ is a biologically primary evolutionary adaption. This means that we tend to pick up the knowledge of how to interact with our environments quickly and easily through mimicry without the need for instruction.

When considering what should happen in the Early Years of education, I tried to tread a line that skirted between those who believe that teaching must be based around play and those who see the benefit of explicit instruction even for the very young in the hope that both would both find something they could agree with. This was naive. In the event this passage seems to have made both groups unhappy:

We may need to make sure that children’s environments are conducive to acquiring the folk knowledge we all take for granted. Just because we have an evolved predisposition to attend to and rapidly learn this stuff, it doesn’t follow that we will automatically do so. If you spend your formative years locked in a darkened room or raised by wolves, you definitely won’t. Luckily, we’re highly motivated to learn these things and, just so long as we encounter them in our environment, we almost certainly will. This might provide an argument in favour of coaching and modelling approaches in the early years of education to ensure all children are immersed in the kind of environment in which they pick up speech, group cooperation and a sense of self. But if we’re tempted to teach these kinds of things explicitly later on, then we will be wasting our time. (p. 45-6)

Without intending to, I got myself embroiled in an extended discussion of whether children learn spoken language informally or whether it requires instruction. What follows is an attempt to clarify my understanding of how children learn to speak and what teachers ought to be aware of.

Within Geary’s framework, language may be considered a branch of ‘folk psychology’ which all human beings find easy to learn. This makes sense as every human culture of which we’re aware has developed a spoken language and the only means for learning language in our primitive past would have been though soaking it up from the group in which you happened to find yourself. Certainly adults would not have been free to spend time teaching children every aspect of grammar and vocabulary on which the ability to speak a language depends, this has to be inferred. All children, regardless of their culture, seem to go through very predictable phases of language acquisition: first they learn nouns, then they start to pick up verbs and then start to combine nouns and verbs with articles, prepositions, pronouns and all the other parts of speech into grammatically coherent and complex language.

In fact, children’s ability to intuit previously unheard structures and formulations from minimal grammatical knowledge is remarkable. For instance, when learning English, most children infer that the past tense of the verb to go is ‘goed’. But how? No adult ever says this; children independently work out the rule that you add ‘ed’ to the end of the verb to indicate that it happened in the past. It’s only later that children learn that ‘to go’ is an irregular verb and ‘went’ is the correct formulation. 

I find this astonishing. There is so much one needs to learn in order to speak a language fluently that it’s been suggested that we must have some sort of instinct for language. Stephen Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct, is an attempt to document how such an instinct may have evolved and how it operates. More recently, the idea that we have some sort of mental grammar module has been challenged. Jeremy Lent argues in The Patterning Instinct, that we have an innate capacity to notice and make meaning from patterns and that language is just one such type of pattern. The evolutionary mechanisms for the development of language are systematically explored in Kevin Laland’s book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony.

In How Language Began, Dan Everett argues that language predates homo sapiens and presents evidence that homo erectus possessed language over one and half million years ago. His research into modern-day hunter gather societies shows that so-called primitive societies have languages as rich as our own and that the primary mechanism for passing on language in such societies is nothing like the kind of parent-to-child interaction that has come to be considered the norm here in the West. In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich-Harris documents many societies in which language is learned almost solely though peer interactions. Contrary to what we consider normal, parents do not speak to babies and as soon as is practical the care for infants is passed on to older siblings. In the absence to parent-to-child interactions, all children learn to speak.

In addition, there are numerous other examples of children spontaneously creating language where there is none. When adults immigrate to a new country they often struggle to learn the language of their new home. Within their cultural group they continue to speak their native tongue but when communicating across cultures, diverse immigrant grounds tend to create pidgin versions of the host language. Pidgins allow basic concepts to be communicated and simple transactions to be conducted but, because of their lack of grammatical cohesion, struggle to allow the discussion of abstract or complex ideas. But, the second generation who grow up hearing pidgin add the missing grammatical structures to create a creole. There is documented evidence of over 100 creole languages emerging since 1500 and good reason to believe there may have been many more.

Another rather dramatic example of the spontaneous development of language comes from the experience of deaf children born to hearing parents. Nicaraguan Sign Language developed in the 1970s and 80s when groups of deaf children were sent to specialist schools. Although adults tried to teach children how to lip read spoken Spanish, instead they developed their own pidgin sign language by combining their home grown sign systems. Over time this became creolised into a fully grammatical language as younger children picked up the signs from their peers. This example is especially interesting because not only did the language develop without adult instruction, it developed despite it.

Today, we have become increasingly convinced that children’s language development is dependent on the quality of adult language children hear in their environment. Parents are encouraged to speak to their babies in infant directed speech or motherese. The idea is that infants can pick up on the vocal cues and will  pattern their babbling after it. It’s also quite common to see parents going through the motions of trying to explicitly teach their children to speak: saying words, pointing to what they represent, getting the children to repeat, giving corrective feedback and so on.

I’m not suggesting that there is no benefit to this – there probably is – but the notion that this modern practice is a prerequisite for speech to develop is startlingly chauvinistic and utterly in opposition to what we know about the way children learn to speak in cultures other than our own. As long as children hear sufficient language in their environments they will learn to speak, and have been doing so for millennia. Of course, parents deliberately directing speech to their children is likely to aid this process, but it isn’t a necessity.

What is true is that the language children learn to speak will be limited by the language they hear. If they hear more than one language they’ll learn more than one language. If they hear language spoken in different registers and using more elaborate vocabulary then they’re likely to learn this too. So, while it’s not right to say that children learn to speak by being taught to do so, it is probably correct to say that speech will be better if time is taken to improve their use of spoken language.

Interesting essay samples and examples on:

The Epistemology of English

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