Structure of Language

he Structure of Language Language is a system of symbols and rules that is used for meaningful communication. A system of communication has to meet certain criteria in order to be considered a language: A language uses symbols, which are sounds, gestures, or written characters that represent objects, actions, events, and ideas. Symbols enable people to refer to objects that are in another place or events that occurred at a different time. A language is meaningful and therefore can be understood by other users of that language.
A language is generative, which means that the symbols of a language can be combined to produce an infinite number of messages. A language has rules that govern how symbols can be arranged. These rules allow people to understand messages in that language even if they have never encountered those messages before. The Building Blocks of Language Language is organized hierarchically, from phonemes to morphemes to phrases and sentences that communicate meaning. Phonemes Phonemes are the smallest distinguishable units in a language.
In the English language, many consonants, such as t, p, and m, correspond to single phonemes, while other consonants, such as c and g, can correspond to more than one phoneme. Vowels typically correspond to more than one phoneme. For example, o corresponds to different phonemes depending on whether it is pronounced as in bone or woman. Some phonemes correspond to combinations of consonants, such as ch, sh, and th. Morphemes Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units in a language. In the English language, only a few single letters, such as I and a, are morphemes. Morphemes are usually whole words or meaningful parts of words, such as refixes, suffixes, and word stems. Example: The word “disliked” has three morphemes: “dis,” “lik,” and “ed. ” Syntax Syntax is a system of rules that governs how words can be meaningfully arranged to form phrases and sentences. Example: One rule of syntax is that an article such as “the” must come before a noun, not after: “Read the book,” not “Read book the. ” Language Development in Children Children develop language in a set sequence of stages, although sometimes particular skills develop at slightly different ages: Three-month-old infants can distinguish between the phonemes from any language.

At around six months, infants begin babbling, or producing sounds that resemble many different languages. As time goes on, these sounds begin to resemble more closely the words of the languages the infant hears. At about thirteen months, children begin to produce simple single words. By about twenty-four months, children begin to combine two or three words to make short sentences. At this stage, their speech is usually telegraphic. Telegraphic speech, like telegrams, contains no articles or prepositions. By about age three years, children can usually use tenses and plurals.
Children’s language abilities continue to grow throughout the school-age years. They become able to recognize ambiguity and sarcasm in language and to use metaphors and puns. These abilities arise from metalinguistic awareness, or the capacity to think about how language is used. Ambiguous Language Language may sometimes be used correctly but still have an unclear meaning or multiple meanings. In these cases, language is ambiguous—it can be understood in several ways. Avoid biting dogs is an example of an ambiguous sentence. A person might interpret it as Keep out of the way of biting dogs or Don’t bite dogs.
Theories of Language Acquisition The nature vs. nurture debate extends to the topic of language acquisition. Today, most researchers acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role in language acquisition. However, some researchers emphasize the influences of learning on language acquisition, while others emphasize the biological influences. Receptive Language before Expressive Language Children’s ability to understand language develops faster than their ability to speak it. Receptive language is the ability to understand language, and expressive language is the ability to use language to communicate.
If a mother tells her fifteen-month-old child to put the toy back in the toy chest, he may follow her instructions even though he can’t repeat them himself. Environmental Influences on Language Acquisition A major proponent of the idea that language depends largely on environment was the behaviorist B. F. Skinner (see pages 145 and 276 for more information on Skinner). He believed that language is acquired through principles of conditioning, including association, imitation, and reinforcement. According to this view, children learn words by associating sounds with objects, actions, and events.
They also learn words and syntax by imitating others. Adults enable children to learn words and syntax by reinforcing correct speech. Critics of this idea argue that a behaviorist explanation is inadequate. They maintain several arguments: Learning cannot account for the rapid rate at which children acquire language. There can be an infinite number of sentences in a language. All these sentences cannot be learned by imitation. Children make errors, such as overregularizing verbs. For example, a child may say Billy hitted me, incorrectly adding the usual past tense suffix -ed to hit.
Errors like these can’t result from imitation, since adults generally use correct verb forms. Children acquire language skills even though adults do not consistently correct their syntax. Neural Networks Some cognitive neuroscientists have created neural networks, or computer models, that can acquire some aspects of language. These neural networks are not preprogrammed with any rules. Instead, they are exposed to many examples of a language. Using these examples, the neural networks have been able to learn the language’s statistical structure and accurately make the past tense forms of verbs.
The developers of these networks speculate that children may acquire language in a similar way, through exposure to multiple examples. Biological Influences on Language Acquisition The main proponent of the view that biological influences bring about language development is the well-known linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argues that human brains have a language acquisition device (LAD), an innate mechanism or process that allows children to develop language skills. According to this view, all children are born with a universal grammar, which makes them receptive to the common features of all languages.
Because of this hard-wired background in grammar, children easily pick up a language when they are exposed to its particular grammar. Evidence for an innate human capacity to acquire language skills comes from the following observations: The stages of language development occur at about the same ages in most children, even though different children experience very different environments. Children’s language development follows a similar pattern across cultures. Children generally acquire language skills quickly and effortlessly. Deaf children who have not been exposed to a language may make up their own language.
These new languages resemble each other in sentence structure, even when they are created in different cultures. Biology and Environment Some researchers have proposed theories that emphasize the importance of both nature and nurture in language acquisition. These theorists believe that humans do have an innate capacity for acquiring the rules of language. However, they believe that children develop language skills through interaction with others rather than acquire the knowledge automatically. Language, Culture, and Thought Researchers have differing views about the extent to which language and culture influence the way people think.
In the 1950s, Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. He said language determines the way people think. For example, Whorf said that Eskimo people and English-speaking people think about snow differently because the Eskimo language has many more words for snow than the English language does. Most subsequent research has not supported Whorf’s hypothesis. Researchers do acknowledge, however, that language can influence thought in subtle ways. For example, the use of sexist terminology may influence how people think about women.
Two ways that people commonly use language to influence thinking are semantic slanting and name calling. Semantic Slanting Semantic slanting is a way of making statements so that they will evoke specific emotional responses. Example: Military personnel use the term “preemptive counterattack” rather than “invasion,” since “invasion” is likely to produce more negative feelings in people. Name Calling Name calling is a strategy of labeling people in order to influence their thinking. In anticipatory name calling, it is implied that if someone thinks in a particular way, he or she will receive an unfavorable label.
Example: On the day a student buys a new desk, he might say, “Only a slob would pile junk on a desk like this. ” This might help ensure that his roommate keeps it free of junk. Bilingualism Although people sometimes assume that bilingualism impairs children’s language development, there is no evidence to support this assumption. Bilingual children develop language at the same rate as children who speak only one language. In general, people who begin learning a new language in childhood master it more quickly and thoroughly than do people who learn a language in adulthood. Language and Nonhuman Primates
Some researchers have tried to teach apes to use language. Because of the structure of their vocal organs, apes can’t say words, but they can communicate using signs or computers. Using these means, apes can make requests, respond to questions, and follow instructions. The Case of Washoe the Chimpanzee Researchers at Central Washington University taught a chimpanzee named Washoe to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. She could sign not only single words but also meaningful combinations of words. She could follow instructions and respond to questions given in ASL.
Later, Washoe’s foster child, Loulis, learned signs just by watching Washoe and other chimps that had been trained to use language. Some research even suggested that language-trained chimps may use signs spontaneously to communicate with each other or to talk to themselves, although this behavior is not thoroughly documented. Skepticism about Ape Language Critics of the idea that apes can learn and use language have maintained several arguments: Apes, unlike people, can be trained to learn only a limited number of words and only with difficulty.
Apes use signs or computers to get a reward, in the same way that other animals can be taught tricks. But learning tricks is not equivalent to learning language. Apes don’t use syntax. For example, they don’t recognize the difference between Me eat apple and Apple eat me. Trainers may be reading meanings into signs apes make and unintentionally providing cues that help them to respond correctly to questions. Clearly, communication in nonhuman animals differs drastically from language in humans. The spontaneity, uniqueness, and reflective content of human language remains unmatched. Nonprimates Can Communicate
Researchers have taught nonprimate animals, such as parrots, to communicate meaningfully. Parrots that participated in language acquisition studies learned to identify dozens of objects, distinguish colors, and make simple requests in English. One famous example is Alex the African gray parrot, owned by Irene Pepperberg from the University of Arizona. Alex can “speak” hundreds of words, but what makes him more unique is that he appears to do more than just vocalize. Though Pepperberg does not claim that Alex uses “language,” she does believe that when Alex talks, he is expressing his thoughts, not just mimicking.
The Structure of Cognition Cognition, or thinking, involves mental activities such as understanding, problem solving, and decision making. Cognition also makes creativity possible. The Building Blocks of Cognition When humans think, they manipulate mental representations of objects, actions, events, and ideas. Humans commonly use mental representations such as concepts, prototypes, and cognitive schemas. Concepts A concept is a mental category that groups similar objects, events, qualities, or actions. Concepts summarize information, enabling humans to think quickly.
Example: The concept “fish” includes specific creatures, such as an eel, a goldfish, a shark, and a flying fish. Prototypes A prototype is a typical example of a concept. Humans use prototypes to decide whether a particular instance of something belongs to a concept. Example: Goldfish and eels are both fish, but most people will agree that a goldfish is a fish more quickly than they will agree that an eel is a fish. A goldfish fits the “fish” prototype better than an eel does. Cognitive Schemas Cognitive schemas are mental models of different aspects of the world. They contain knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, associations, and expectations.
Example: People may have a schema about New York that includes information they’ve learned about New York in school, their memories of New York, things people have told them about New York, information from movies and books about New York, what they assume to be true about New York, and so on. Theories of Cognitive Development Cognitive development refers to the change in children’s patterns of thinking as they grow older. Jean Piaget’s Stage Theory The scientist best known for research on cognitive development is Jean Piaget (see pages 72–75), who proposed that children’s thinking goes through a set eries of four major stages. Piaget believed that children’s cognitive skills unfold naturally as they mature and explore their environment. Lev Vygotsky’s Theory of Sociocultural Influences Psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that children’s sociocultural environment plays an important role in how they develop cognitively. In Vygotsky’s view, the acquisition of language is a crucial part of cognitive development. After children acquire language, they don’t just go through a set series of stages. Rather, their cognitive development depends on interactions with adults, cultural norms, and their environmental circumstances.
Private Speech Vygotsky pointed out that children use language to control their own behavior. After children acquire language skills and learn the rules of their culture, they start to engage in private speech. They first talk to themselves out loud, and then, as they grow older, silently, giving themselves instructions about how to behave. Current Research on Cognitive Development Current research indicates that children have complex cognitive abilities at much younger ages than Piaget suggested. As early as four months of age, infants appear to understand basic laws of physics.
For example, a four-month-old infant can recognize that solid objects cannot pass through other solid objects and that objects roll down slopes instead of rolling up. At five months of age, infants can recognize the correct answers to addition and subtraction problems involving small numbers. These observations have led some researchers to speculate that humans are born with some basic cognitive abilities. Critics argue that researchers who find these results are overinterpreting the behavior of the infants they study. Quick Review The Structure of Language
Language is a system of symbols and rules used for meaningful communication. A language uses symbols and syntax and is meaningful and generative. Language is organized hierarchically from phonemes to morphemes to phrases and sentences. Children develop language in a set sequence of stages. Theories of Language Acquisition Behaviorist B. F. Skinner strongly supported the idea that language depends largely on environment. Skinner believed that people acquire language through principles of conditioning. Critics argue the inadequacy of behaviorist explanations.
Some cognitive neuroscientists have created neural networks that can acquire some aspects of language by encountering many examples of language. They think children may acquire language in the same way. Noam Chomsky is the main proponent of the importance of biological influences on language development. Chomsky proposed that human brains have a language acquisition device that allows children to acquire language easily. Some researchers believe that language is both biologically and environmentally determined. The linguistic relativity hypothesis states that language determines the way people think.
Today, researchers believe language influences, rather than determines, thought. Two ways that people use language to influence thinking are semantic slanting and name calling. People master a new language better if they begin learning it in childhood. Nonhuman animals can learn some aspects of language. Language and Nonhuman Primates Some researchers have tried to teach apes to use language. Apes can communicate, but researchers are divided on whether this communication can really be considered “learning language. ” The Structure of Cognition
Cognition involves activities such as understanding, problem solving, decision making, and being creative. People use mental representations such as concepts, prototypes, and cognitive schemas when they think. Theories of Cognitive Development Jean Piaget believed that children’s cognitive skills unfold naturally as they mature and explore their environment. Lev Vygotsky believed that children’s sociocultural environment plays an important role in cognitive development. Some researchers have shown that humans are born with some basic cognitive abilities. Problem-Solving
Problem-solving is the active effort people make to achieve a goal that is not easily attained. Three common types of problems involve inducing structure, arranging, and transformation. Some approaches to problem-solving are trial and error, deductive and inductive reasoning, use of algorithms and heuristics, dialectical reasoning, creation of subgoals, use of similar problems, and changes in the way the problems are represented. Researchers have identified many obstacles to effective problem-solving, such as focus on irrelevant information, functional fixedness, mental set, and assumptions about unnecessary constraints.
Decision-Making Decision-making involves weighing alternatives and choosing among them. Additive strategies and elimination strategies are ways of making decisions about preferences. Using expected value, subjective utility, the availability heuristic, and the representativeness heuristic are all ways of making risky decisions. Using the representativeness heuristic can make people susceptible to biases, such as the tendency to ignore base rates and the gambler’s fallacy. Using the availability heuristic can make people susceptible to overestimating the improbable or underestimating the probable.
In an effort to minimize risk, people also make decision-making errors, such as the overconfidence effect, the confirmation bias, and belief perseverance. Creativity Creativity is the ability to generate novel, useful ideas. Creativity is characterized by divergent, rather than convergent, thinking. Some characteristics of creative people are expertise, nonconformity, curiosity, persistence, and intrinsic motivation. People can best realize their creative potential if they are in environmental circumstances that promote creativity.

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