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Lecture 3 : The Evidence from Acquisition in Extreme Conditions

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This lecture, like the others in this series, was given to students of English at the Université of Versailles St. Quentin, for a course in the Didactics of English, which I taught from 1993 to 2002.

It offers a simplified introductory account. The embedded links, most of which point to material off this site, are for readers who are looking for greater depth and complexity.

Didactics - 3: Chomsky - the Evidence II


A : Introduction

Last week we looked at two forms of evidence concerning the nature of language

B. Wild Children

From time to time, there appear in our midst beings who challenge our conception of what it means to be human. These beings are often referred to as wild children or wolf children. They are often tragic figures, offering glimpses of what might have been, of fully human intelligence that somehow does not enable them to live a social life. This is particularly true if they are already through puberty when they are found. They suggest to us that there may be a 'critical age', an age beyond which any child who has somehow missed out on learning a language will never completely master one.

The most striking recent case, however, is rather more ambiguous in its results 1

On further investigation, she turned out to be 13 years old. She could understand some words - about 20, including the colours, red, blue, green and brown, the word 'Mother' and some other names, the verbs 'walk' and 'go' and a few other nouns, such as 'door' or 'bunny'. She could say only two things - 'Stopit', and 'Nomore'.

Why was she in this condition? When she had been about 20 months old, her father, who was suffering from a severe depression, sparked off by the accidental and brutal death of his mother, decided that she was severely retarded, and that she needed protection from the world. This protection he provided by shutting her up in a small bedroom, and leaving her there for the next eleven years.

Genie had very little visual or physical stimulation. Hung up in the room were a couple of plastic raincoats, and she was sometimes allowed to play with them. Other small toys - plastic containers, or the TV journal - were sometimes given her. Her feeding was swift and silent, and she had eaten nothing but baby foods and cereals - she did not know how to chew.

Genie was immediately surrounded by a team of scientists. These people were particularly interested in her progress in language. Would she ever learn to speak?

According to the neuropsychologist, Eric Lenneberg, in his book Biological Foundations of Language, 1967, the capacity to learn a language is indeed innate, and, like many such inborn mechanisms, it is circumscribed in time. If a child does not learn a language before the onset of puberty, the child will never master language at all. This is known as the critical period hypothesis. If Lenneberg was right, then Genie, at over 12 years old, would never be able to speak properly. If, on the other hand, she did learn to produce grammatically correct sentences, then Lenneberg was wrong.

At first, a number of the people working with her were convinced that she was going to demonstrate the falsity of the critical period hypothesis. One year after her escape, her language resembled that of a normal 18-20 month old child.

It is at this point that the language of the normal child begins to take off - there is a sudden qualitative change, and the infant learns not only more and more vocabulary, but also more and more complex grammar. But with Genie, this did not happen.

So had Genie's case proven that Chomsky and Lenneberg were right? No, she had not. Lenneberg himself observed that Genie's personal history was so disastrous, that it would not be at all clear why she had been unable to make more progress. It could be that she had been so emotionally damaged by her father's treatment that all learning processes would be interfered with.

Others suggested that perhaps her father had been right in judging that she was mentally abnormal. Brain scans had shown some unusual features - in particular that Genie's brain was dominated by her right hemisphere. Language, as we have seen, is mainly situated in the left hemisphere. Was it her brain that was interfering with her language, or was it the lack of linguistic stimulation, and resulting under utilisation of the left hemisphere that had resulted in right brain dominance?

Genie's lack of progress with language is, as so often with the evidence that I have quoted, capable of interpretation either in a Chomskian framework, or in line with Bruner's ideas. Her experience does suggest that, over a certain age, any child who has not learnt a language will have great difficulty in acquiring one. Lenneberg's hypothesis is not proven, but it is strongly supported. Is there further evidence?

C. The blind and the deaf

I mentioned to you last week that blind children, particularly when born to sighted mothers, do not receive the same degree of stimulation, and that they therefore fall behind in their linguistic development. In most cases, they catch up pretty quickly - thus comforting the Chomskian line ; parents may hasten the speed of progress a little, or they may hold it back a little, but in the long run, all children brought up in normal circumstances achieve fluency.

What about deaf children? Here there is some evidence that being unable to hear can have long-term effects upon language acquisition. This is true not simply of spoken language, but also of sign language.

A particularly interesting case is that of 'Chelsea'; when she was small, her behaviour gave her parents cause for concern. They took her to see a series of doctors, who diagnosed her as being retarded. Her family refused to believe this - she was brought up in a very sheltered and loving environment, but never learnt how to speak. Then, at the age of 31, she was taken to see a neurologist, who recognised that she was, in fact, deaf. She was given hearing aids, which brought her auditive capacity up to about normal levels. After therapy, she now scores on IQ tests at levels for a normal ten year old, she works at a vet’s, reads, writes and communicates. But when she speaks, she produces strings of words, with no apparent underlying syntactic structure. Her utterances may be comprehensible in context, but they look nothing like normal sentences.

Other evidence from deaf people is also interesting. Recently, linguists have been showing more and more interest in the language of the hard-of-hearing - Sign language. We now know that Sign Language is a full language - it has a full lexical range, it has a complex syntax, and a complex system of signs, whose relationship to referents is as arbitrary as is that of other languages - even when they seem most iconic. There is not simply one sign language - people who use British Sign Language cannot understand people who use ASL - neither language is directly related to English.

People who learn to sign in adolescence or adulthood are very similar to people who learn a foreign language - they have an accent, and they never master the more arcane syntactic rules. Children who learn do master the language - and, according to Steven Pinker, they master it even when they learn from parents who do not speak it properly. Once again, this is suggestive - children are specially programmed to learn a language, and they lose this skill at puberty - once again, both Chomsky's and Lenneberg's positions appear to be vindicated.

Evidence from neurology is also suggestive - many children who have suffered damage to the left hemisphere are able to acquire a language by transferring language to the right hemisphere. Adults are not able to perform the same feat as easily. Once again, it would seem that Lenneberg may be right - there is a critical period for first language learning.

This obviously interests us as teachers of a second language. Many observers have noted that a second language appears to be more difficult to learn after puberty. Later on, we shall see that this observation has not gone unchallenged, and that for certain kinds of linguistic knowledge, adults and adolescents apparently learn more quickly than children - but it may be that the way that they learn is totally different - whereas children may still call upon the LAD to learn a second language, adults and teenagers have to use other strategies, and in particular, they have to lean heavily upon their first language.

D : Conclusion

Over the last three weeks, we have seen that there is a heated debate amongst linguists as to how a child learns her mother-tongue. On one side are those like Chomsky, who believe that language is an innate ability, built into the brain. On the other are those who believe that speech is a skill like most other human skills, which we learn in much the same way as we learn other things. For the Chomskians, the environment has little importance, whereas for those who do not agree with him, it is of the utmost importance.

We have looked at several different kinds of evidence. We have looked at the way in which the brain itself is structured, and we have seen that there does appear to be a close linkage between different areas of the brain and some of the skills that are necessary to language. We have looked at the ways in which children learn language, and we have seen that they do indeed appear to learn a great deal from very little evidence, and that they do appear to build upon grammars that they could not have simply plucked from the language that they hear around them. We have looked at one or two examples of language learning in extreme situations, and we have seen that there are indications that language must be learnt at a certain period in a child's life, and that a reasonably intelligent adolescent or adult, capable of learning many things, finds learning a language simply too difficult.

We now need to turn to look more closely at the acquisition of a second language. In doing so, we will bear in mind a number of questions

We will begin by looking at one theory of L2 learning that holds that it is very similar to L1 acquisition. This is the theory of Stephen Krashen, an American linguist who holds a Chomskian position, and who at one time worked on the team that investigated Genie's language acquisition. Krashen's theory is called the 'Input Hypothesis', because he claims that it is through input - what we hear, and what we read - that we make progress in a foreign language - and not through output - speaking and writing.

1. For a readable and touching account of Genie's history, see Russ Rymer, 'Genie : A Scientific Tragedy', Penguin, 1994. There are numerous accounts of 'wild' or 'feral' children : I have found Douglas Keith Candland, 'Feral Children & Clever Animals ; Reflections on Human Nature' particularly useful.

2. In this section, I have mainly relied on Pinker. David Crystal, 'The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language' is also very informative, as it is on other aspects of language disability, such as aphasia.

(If you wish to comment or ask a question, please write to tmason@timothyjpmason.com)

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