November 02, 2004

A Cootchie-Cootchie-Coo Theory of Language Acquisition

In a continuing effort to avoid thinking about the election tonight, I've been reading this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (11/5/04). On p. A15 there's a `Verbatim' column by Daniel Engber that reports on an interview with one of the authors of a book on the evolution of language: The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans (Da Capo Press). Since the column consists of Engber's questions and the author's answers, it's probably safe to assume that the answers reflect the author's actual thoughts, not a reporter's distortion. Some of them seem a bit...odd.

The authors are Stanley I. Greenspan, a pediatric psychiatrist, and Stuart G. Shanker, a philosopher and psychologist. The interviewee is Shanker, and he's quite confident about their scenario for the origins of human language:

`Guys that looked at the question of the origins of language always sort of looked at a group of adults sitting around with a problem that they had to solve as a group, like capturing a bison.

`We have to look at this in a totally different way. We have to look at caregiver-infant interactions; that's where the origins of language lay.'

So now we know; what a relief! No more worries about a lack of evidence! This view echoes (in a way, but I don't think it's too big a stretch) the common view that language change is usually or always initiated and implemented by children during first-language acquisition. I certainly wouldn't deny that children are sometimes responsible for significant linguistic innovations -- the evidence from the emergence of the Nicaraguan Sign Language makes that quite clear, clearer (in my opinion) than the theory-internal evidence provided by some historical linguists. But there's also excellent evidence that adults are sometimes responsible for significant language changes, and therefore that it's not an all-or-nothing choice for the agents of change. Maybe both the cootchie-coo and the let's-go-get-that-mammoth scenario for the evolution of language are valid too; who knows? Pace Greenspan & Shanker, I don't see solid evidence either way. (O.K., I haven't read their book. But they're hardly the first people to speculate on how language evolved, or the first to compare human communication to communication systems of other primates. And direct evidence is not going to be available.)

In the column, Shanker goes on to say this about language acquisition:

`It turns out that the information [available to the child for acquisition] isn't chaotic at all. If you just focus on certain things it may seem that way. But an awful lot of preverbal emotional signaling and interactions are going on in the first two years of life, which lay the groundwork and the foundation for language.

`Language development is a fairly long process.'

Possibly there's an interpretation of this passage that makes sense. But it looks to me as if Shanker is suggesting, or even claiming, that kids wait a couple of years before doing much language learning, and that during those two years they're building a foundation for language learning in all that emotional signaling and interactions with caregivers. So what about the very good evidence that six-month-old infants have already learned the phonemic inventory of the language in their environment? And the evidence that, throughout their first two years, children do a lot of actual language learning?

Shanker then mentions the development of syntax during first-language acquisition:

`One of the puzzles we've had in psycholinguistics is, How does the kid get from being able to put two words together to being able to put together a simple sentence or even more complicated grammatical constructions?'

Shanker doesn't give a definition of `sentence' that would explain his apparent belief that two words can't make a sentence in Standard English (consider Catch it!). His definition would have to exclude child utterances like Give book!, which seems awfully sentence-like even if it's not grammatical in Standard English. Don't child-acquisition specialists analyze such utterances as sentences?

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 2, 2004 09:35 PM