Month: July 2013

Ask-A-Linguist: Child Language Acquisition

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, independent scholar, with input from the following other panelists: Suzette Haden Elgin, James L. Fidelholtz, Susan Fischer, Nancy J. Frishberg, Anthea Fraser Gupta, Robert A. Papen, Elizabeth J. Pyatt, and Harry A. Whitaker. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section regarding child language acquisition.

Is the language acquisition process the same for all children?

All children acquire language in the same way, regardless of what language they use or the number of languages they use. Acquiring a language is like learning to play a game. Children must learn the rules of the language game, for example how to articulate words and how to put them together in ways that are acceptable to the people around them. In order to understand child language acquisition, we need to keep two very important things in mind:

First, children do not use language like adults, because children are not adults. Acquiring language is a gradual, lengthy process, and one that involves a lot of apparent ‘errors’. We will see below that these ‘errors’ are in fact not errors at all, but a necessary part of the process of language acquisition. That is, they shouldn’t be corrected, because they will disappear in time.

Second, children will learn to speak the dialect(s) and language(s) that are used around them. Children usually begin by speaking like their parents or caregivers, but once they start to mix with other children (especially from the age of about 3 years) they start to speak like friends their own age. You cannot control the way your children speak: they will develop their own accents and they will learn the languages they think they need. If you don’t like the local accent, you’ll either have to put up with it or move to somewhere with an accent you like! On the other hand, if you don’t like your own accent, and prefer the local one, you will be happy. A child will also learn the local grammar: ‘He done it’; ‘She never go there’; ‘My brother happy’ and so on are all examples of non-standard grammar found in some places where English is spoken. These might be judged wrong in school contexts (and all children will have to learn the standard version in school) but if adults in the child’s community use them, they are not “wrong” in child language.

These examples show that different dialects of English have their own rules. The same is of course true of other languages and their own dialects. In what follows, examples are in English, because that is the language in which this article is written, although the child strategies illustrated in the examples apply to any language and to any combination of languages that your child may be learning.

We start with a number of observations about child learning in general, about speech and language, and about how children themselves show us how they learn, before turning to children’s acquisitional strategies. These also teach us that children follow their own rules, and that they need plenty of time to sort these rules out.

How do children acquire words?

Suppose you show a banana to a group of children who are at the one-word stage, when all their utterances contain single words only, and suppose you ask them “What’s this?” Some children will say ‘nana’, others will say ‘mama’, others still may say ‘bana’. Child words like these exemplify children’s use of generalization: children modify words, replace, add and remove word bits to make them conform to a general pattern that they find easier to tackle. The two-syllable structure of these words and others like them, with straightforward consonant-vowel syllables and a sample of preferred consonants, is typical of children’s first words all over the world.

But suppose now one child in the group replies ‘moo’ to your question. Before you start worrying about this child’s linguistic (or cognitive) abilities, try to think about your question and the child’s answer on the child’s own terms, not yours. You are expecting a word that sounds like ‘banana’, but how does the child know that? And how do you know what prompted the child to give you this answer? In particular, why should the sound of the word be more relevant to the child than, say, the shape of the object you’re holding? It may well be that this child has recently been fascinated by the night sky, and all shiny things in it whose names he’s just learned. And a banana does look like a waning or waxing moon. This child is also generalising, though in a different way from his friends. He is besides showing you that he knows how to relate what he learned before to whatever activity is required of him now, which is a very good thing to have mastered indeed. (On a side note, it is this kind of generalization that makes young children, sometimes very embarrassingly, call all adult males ‘daddy’.)

How do children acquire sentences?

Once the first words are in place, children are quick to realize that saying several words together in one same utterance is the next step. So, just as they will attempt to run as soon as they are able to stand up unaided, and will then stumble and fall because of lack of practice walking, they will attempt to say too many words in one go, and will end up jumbling them all together. Many children start stuttering or stammering at this multi-word stage of their development precisely for this reason: lack of practice. Other children may even fall silent altogether for a while, until they’ve worked out the very difficult skill of coordinating breathing with speaking in long utterances. Professional speakers need practice in this skill too, so that speaking for long periods of time does not wear them out completely, or impair their delivery. Yet other children won’t bother at all about the way they sound and will just go on producing unintelligible speech until things fall naturally in place for them, even those children who may have had perfect single-word articulations before.

Jean Berko-Gleason with the wug drawing used during her child language acquisition studies.

Jean Berko-Gleason with the wug drawing used during her child language acquisition studies.

Other examples of child acquisitional strategies surface in ways that would also appear to give reason for concern, if we didn’t know better. Say your child uses so-called irregular past tenses like came, drove or slept with no problem, as well as regular ones like baked or cried. Then one day he starts saying things like ‘Mummy drived me to school today’, or ‘I sleeped so well’. What is happening here is that your child has realized that there is a pattern in some part of the language: some words (linguists call them ‘verbs’) can have extra sounds at the end to indicate events that happened before the time we are talking about them. Most verbs are regular in this way, so productions like catched or swimmed show that your child has actually learned a general rule and immediately started applying it to any verb — just as you once learned that cockroaches ‘pattern’ in a certain way, and so this funny new insect before you must be a cockroach too. The same happens with noun plurals, and your child may start talking about foots or even feets whereas he talked about feet before. Child language researcher Jean Berko-Gleason used an ingenious experiment to show that children are in fact learning rules of language. For example, she showed children a picture of one imaginary, cuddly animal and told the children that the animal was called a ‘wug’. Then she showed a picture with two of these cuddly beings and asked the children: “Now there are two of them. There are two ___”. The children had to complete her sentence, and they used the correct plural form ‘wugs’, showing that they could apply the plural rule to words that they had never heard before. Apparent ‘errors’ like foots (or catched) thus mean that learning is progressing as it should: the previous, ‘correct’ production of irregular and regular forms was simply due to imitation. The generalized forms will disappear once your child is ready to learn the next rule, which is that some words follow the general rule and others don’t.

LL-MAP Featured Map Collection: Yup’ik Dialect Atlas and Study

The LL-MAP team digitized a collection of 157 maps on the Yup’ik dialect in Alaska courtesy of a grant (Integrating Cartographic Elements: Creating Resources Emphasizing Arctic Materials; #0952335) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In this collection, Jacobson (1998) mapped dialectal differences from surveys that were completed by bilingual teachers in 61 out of 68 Yup’ik villages.

Each map contains a legend that tells how often each term is used in the 61 Yup’ik villages. For instance, below we can see one map that compares Cottonwood and Balsam Poplar against each other. From this we can see that some villages will use both interchangeably, while others will use one term exclusively.

Map of the variations for “COTTONWOOD,” BALSAM POPLAR in Yup’ik

Want to use LL-MAP images in your papers or work? We have a feature that allows you to download or print maps for your own use. Simply click the print button under the “Map Viewer Option” and adjust the size of the image you want to print. Our maps can be freely used under the Creative Commons 3.0 Unported license. You are welcome to use any of our maps as long as LL-MAP is cited as the digital source; however, since most of our maps are digitized from original images, it will also be necessary to cite the original sources, if they exist. Additionally, you may need to contact the original authors as well depending on the map.

“COTTONWOOD,” BALSAM POPLAR

“DOG” OR CHUM SALMON

“JACKRABBIT,” ARCTIC HARE

“MOUSE,” VOLE

“RABBIT”, SNOWSHOE HARE

“SALMON BERRY”, CLOUDBERRY

(BEING) HAPPY

(BEING) SICK

(BEING) SLEEPY

(HE IS) CRYING

(HE MAY BE TRYING TO) DO SOMETHING AGAIN

(HE) ASKS HER TO ENTER

(HE) CAUGHT FISH

(HE) ISN’T AROUND

(HE) KEEPS BEING SAD

(IN THE EXTENDED AREA) OUT THERE

(IT IS) SMALL

(RIVER) OTTER

(STRAIGHT) KNIFE

AXE

BARREL

BEARDED SEAL

BECAUSE I LEFT

BIG TOE

BLACKFISH

BOAT

BONE

BREAD

BUCKET

BUMBLE BEE

CANADA GOOSE

CHEWING GUM

CIGARETTE

CLIFF, RIVER BANK

COAT

CONVERSING

COOKING IT

CRANE

CROSSING IT

CROWBERRY

CUTTING FISH FOR DRYING

DAY AFTER TOMORROW

DEVICE FOR SLEEPING

DOG HARNESS

DON’T GO OUT (NOW)!

EGG

EIGHT

ELBOW

ELEVATED CACHE

EYELASH

FIGURINE, SMALL DOLL

FISH EGG, ROE

FISH SCALE

FISH HOOK

FOREHEAD

FORGETTING IT

FORTY

GRANDCHILD

GRANDMOTHER

GRASS

HAND

HE GOT BIT BY A DOG

HEAD

HEART

HELPING HIM

HEY YOU, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

HORSE

HOUSEFLY

HOW MANY

HUMPBACK SALMON

I ALSO TALKED ABOUT THEM

I ATE IT

I DON’T LOVE HIM

ICE

IT IS UP ABOVE THERE

IT WILL SPILL

JUMPING

KASS’AQ (MEANING)

KNEE

LAMP, LIGHT

LAUGHING

LET’S LEAVE

LOUSE

MAGGOT, GRUB

MAQIVIK (PRONUNCIATION)

MATCH

MIDDLE FINGER

MILK

MITTEN

MOON

MOSQUITO

MOTHER

MUSKRAT

MY HOUSE & ITS WATER

OAR

OLDER SISTER

ONE HUNDRED

OUTBOARD MOTOR

PANTS

PATCH ON GARMENT

PERSON

PICKING BERRIES

PIKE (FISH)

PINTAIL DUCK

PLUCKING IT

POOR THING!

PORCUPINE

PTARMIGAN

RAIN

REGULARLY HE USES IT

RIB

ROPE (OF TWISTED FIBER)

RUFF FOR PARKA HOOD

SCHOOL

SCRATCHING (AN ITCH)

SHORTENING

SKIN BOOT, “MUKLUK”

SLED

SLEEVE

SLIPPING

SMELT

SONG

SOURDOCK, WILD SPINACH

SPOON

SQUIRREL & MARMOT

STICKING UP FOR HIM

STICKLEBACK, “NEEDLEFISH”

STONE, ROCK

STORY KNIFE

STOVE

SUN

SWEEPING IT

TAQUKAQ (MEANING)

TASTING IT

TEA & SUGAR

THIMBLE

THINKING

THUMB

TONGUE

UNDERSTANDING HIM

WAITING FOR HIM

WALRUS

WATER GOING DOWN

WEASEL

WEATHER, WORLD, AWARENESS

WHEN HE SAW ME

WHILE I WAS GOING

WHITEFISH

WHO OWNS IT?

WII (PRONUNCIATION)

WILD RHUBARB

WITHOUT SEEING IT

WOLVERINE

WOMAN’S OR SEMILUNAR KNIFE, “ULU”

WOOD

WRITING

YOU, ANSWER ME!

ILIT Open House 07/11 and 07/12

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Are you in Michigan for the 2013 Linguistic Institute? Come and visit us for our Open House! Stop by to talk to the staff and students about their work here and the possible opportunities that await. We will be open to the public for two times: Thursday July 11th from 9-2 and Friday July 12th from 2-5. We plan on making it an informal event, so bring your friends and stop in throughout the two session times.

We are in the Cooper building near Eastern Michigan University’s campus at 2000 N Huron River Dr. in Ypsilanti.

The easiest way to get here from downtown Ann Arbor is to take “The Ride” on line 3 for $1.50. You can get on at two locations: Ann and State or Glen and Catherine. Take this into Ypsilanti and it will go down Washtenaw Avenue. Your stop will be on Huron River Drive at the Eastern Michigan University Stadium. The LINGUIST List is across the street from the stadium bus stop inside the Cooper Building. On Thursday, one of our interns, Thomas Haider, will be guiding people to the Cooper building from the Ann and State Street stop. The bus will pick people up at 8:55am and Tom will be there around 8:45am. If you miss the bus, the buses run about every half hour and you can take another one into town.

If you get lost, you can call us at 734-487-0144. We look forward to seeing you!

Thomas Haider

Here’s Tom, your friendly tour guide and the face to look for at the bus stop.

 

Ask-A-Linguist: How Old is Language?

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by Elizabeth Pyatt, Pennsylvania State University.with input from other panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about the oldest language.

How old is language?

Although this question is still being debated, most linguists assume that the full language capacity had evolved by 100,000 BC. This is when modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved in Africa with a modern skull shape (indicating modern brain function) and a modern vocal tract which would allow these people to articulate all the sounds found in modern languages. Some anthropologists speculate that language or parts of the language ability may have developed earlier, but there is no firm consensus yet.

What is the “oldest language”?

In my opinion, we don’t know the answer to this question, although some people will give one anyway. Here are some criteria people use, and reasons why linguists don’t think they really work.

1. Oldest written form

Some people base their answer on which language got written down first. If you’re counting absolute oldest, probably Sumerian or Egyptian wins because they developed a writing system first (both start appearing in about 3200 BC). If you’re counting surviving languages, Chinese is often cited (first written in 1500 BC), but Greek is a possible tie because it was written in Linear B beginning ca. 1500 BC.

But all of this is irrelevant, because writing is not equal to speaking.

In 3200 BC, there were many, many languages spoken besides Sumerian and Egyptian, but they weren’t fortunate enough to have a writing system. These languages are just as old. To take one interesting case, the Albanian language (spoken north of Greece) was not written down until about the 15th century AD, yet Ptolemy mentions the people in the first century BC. The linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that Albanians were a distinct people for even longer than that. So Albanian has probably existed for several millennia, but has only been written down for 500 years. With a twist of fate, Albanian might be considered very “old” and Greek pretty “new”.

2. Longest in the Region

Another criteria people use is how long a language has been spoken in a particular region. For instance, Basque is considered very old because the evidence is that there have been Basque speakers in Spain and France since at least the 2nd century BC and probably longer than that. Similary, Welsh is considered the “oldest language in Britain” because its speakers were there first.

But population movements cannot determine a language’s age.

English speakers have moved all over the world, but even if English only arrived on a continent in the 19th century, it does not negate the fact that some form of English was spoken in the 6th century AD in England. Even Welsh has moved a bit, establishing foot holds in Patagonia (Argentina) and Canada – however, this language still originated in Britain.

3. Age of Sister Languages

Many linguists do date languages to when they split from their parent tongue. For instance, French and Spanish are both descended from Latin, so their age is determined by when they evolved into separate languages (between 400-700 AD). Some languages like Greek and Basque are considered older because they never “split” into daughter languages (although both have dialects), and so maintain their status as a “language.” In that criteria, there may be a language with the world record of being spoken the longest without having spawned daughter languages – but no one could tell you which one it is.

Even with this criteria, the situation is still murky. It’s true that there was a spoken form of Greek in 1500 BC during the Bronze Age, but if a Bronze Age Greek was transported to Modern Athens, he or she would probably not be able to understand Modern Greek. Even speakers of Classical Greek (500 BC) are lost in Athens unless they have also learned Modern Greek. Speakers of Modern English have trouble with Shakespeare from just 500 years ago.

Languages are continuously evolving over time, and probably most languages, even conservative ones, require special training in order for modern speakers to fully understand older texts. In the final analysis, most modern languages are equally young.

Ask-A-Linguist: What is an Accent?

Answers for this blog excerpt were provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta, Senior Lecturer at the School of English, University of Leeds, with input from other panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about accents.

What is an accent?

AccentAn accent is a way of pronouncing a language. It is therefore impossible to speak without an accent.

Some people may think they do not have an accent. Or you may think that there are other people who do not have an accent. Everyone has an accent. The term ‘accentless’ is sometimes used (by non-linguists) about people who speak one of the high prestige ‘reference’ accents (such as ‘General American’ or, less commonly, ‘RP’), which are associated with people from a fairly wide region and with people of high social class. But these are also accents. I will mention them again later in this FAQ.

Your accent results from how, where, and when you learned the language you are speaking and it gives impressions about you to other people. People do not have a single fixed accent which is determined by their experiences. We can control the way we speak, and do, both consciously and unconsciously. Most people vary their accent depending on who they are speaking with. We change our accents, often without noticing, as we have new life experiences.

How accurate people are in knowing about you from your accent depends not only on the features of your accent, but also on who the listener is, and what they know about the other people who speak with a similar accent to you.

Your accent might be one that is associated with people from a particular place (for example, with being from New York, London, or Delhi). Some people might just hear you as simply being from the US, England, or India. Your accent might give the impression that you spoke some other language before the one you are speaking at the moment (you might speak French with an English accent, or English with a Korean accent). It’s impossible to speak without conveying some information through your accent.

All languages are spoken with several different accents. There is nothing unusual about English. And not everyone who comes from the same place speaks the same: in any place there is a variety of accents.

Language changes over time. We get new words, there are grammatical changes, and accents change over time. If you listen to recordings made by people from your own language community 100 years ago, you will hear for yourself that even over that time accents have changed. Try out some of the links from the Spoken Word Archive Group, for example.

Why are the accents a particular place like they are?

Separate development accounts for some accent variation. But sometimes we need to talk about the first generation of speakers of a particular language brought up in a new place. The first children to grow up in a new place are very important. The children who grow up together are a ‘peer group’. They want to speak the same as each other to express their group identity. The accent they develop as they go through their childhood will become the basis for the accents of the new place. So where does their accent come from?

The first generation of children will draw on the accents of the adults around them, and will create something new. If people move to a new place in groups (as English speakers did to America, Australia and New Zealand) that group usually brings several different accents with them. The children will draw on the mixture of accents they hear and create their own accent out of what they hear. The modern accents of Australia are more similar to London accents of English than to any other accent from England — this is probably because the founder generation (in the eighteenth century) had a large component drawn from the poor of London, who were transported to Australia as convicts. The accents of New Zealand are similar to Australian accents because a large proportion of the early English-speaking settlers of New Zealand came from Australia.

The mix found in the speech of the settlers of a new place establishes the kind of accent that their children will develop. But the first generation born in the new place will not keep the diversity of their parents’ generation — they will speak with similar accents to the others of their age group. And if the population grows slowly enough, the children will be able to absorb subsequent children into their group, so that even quite large migrations of other groups (such as Irish people into Australia) will not make much difference to the accent of the new place. Most parents know this. If someone from New York (US) marries someone from Glasgow (Scotland, UK), and these two parents raise a child in Leeds (England, UK), that child will not speak like either of the parents, but will speak like the children he (I know of such a child!) is at school with.

To understand what happened in the past we need strong evidence from both language and history. We need to know about the places that migrants came from, and something about the kinds of accents they are likely to have had.

Can I change my accent?

Yes. Accents are not fixed. Our accents change over time as our needs change and as our sense of who we are changes and develops. Usually this happens naturally, and often unconsciously. Accents can be expected to change until we are in our early twenties. This is usually the time we come to some sort of decision about who we are. But even after that, if you want (and need) to change your accent, you can.

To change your accent you have to want to. Really want to, deep down. This usually happens without much effort because you move to a new place, mix with different people, or develop new aspirations.

If a change hasn’t happened naturally but you want to change your accent, you should ask yourself why. What is it about the messages you give to people that you don’t like? Are you finding it difficult to be a member of a group you want to join because you don’t speak in the way the group expects? Do you need to change your badge of identity?

Sometimes it is other people’s prejudice that you are responding to. Some popular prejudiced against certain groups (many Ask-A-Linguist postings suggest that a lot of people in the US are prejudiced against people from the Southern US). Do you want to accept other people’s prejudice? I myself changed my pronunciation of words like book, look because of pressure. I used to pronounce look the same as Luke (/lu:k/), which a lot of people found funny, so I changed look (to the vowel of ‘put’) to be more like other people. But it is sad to succumb to pressure like this — it is no different from dark skinned people using skin whitening creams to look like pale skinned people, or East Asian people having their eyelids operated on to get European looking eyes.

Anyway, if you do decide you have good reasons for changing your accent, and you want to put in some effort these are some things to do.

  • Identify the accent you want to speak.
  • Expose yourself to the accent you want as much as possible.
  • Try to get some friends who speak with the accent you want.
  • Try to make sure you are not mixing with people who will criticise you for changing your accent.

Here is what is recommended as a method by one of our panelists, Suzette Hayden Elgin. If you do this, it is best to choose recordings of someone of your own gender.

I suggest the following procedure, which has worked very well for many people:

  1. Get a cassette tape of someone who speaks English with the accent that you would like to have, at least twenty minutes long.
  2. Listen to the entire tape all the way through once or twice, just to become familiar with its content. Don’t write it down or try to memorize it.
  3. Listen to a brief sequence — just a sentence or two. Rewind the tape to the beginning of that sentence.
  4. Say the sentence aloud _with_ the tape. Don’t repeat it after the tape as is done in traditional foreign language courses — speak with the speaker. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just do your best to speak simultaneously with the speaker.
  5. Rewind to the beginning of the sentence and do this again, several times. (Ten times is not too many.)
  6. Move to the next sentence and do the same thing.
  7. Continue until you’ve worked your way through the whole tape speaking with your chosen model speaker.

The amount of time it takes for this to yield good results varies from one individual to another, depending on many factors. I’d suggest working in at least fifteen minute sessions and at least three days each week. When you become so familiar with the tape that you know it by heart or you’re so bored with it that you can’t stand it, choose a different tape that uses the same accent and repeat the process. Be careful not to work with any one tape so long that you start sounding as if you were trying to do an impersonation of the speaker.