Language acquisition is a labor of love, but it’s labor-intensive

Mother-baby synchrony shows the start of language acquisition [1]

Language acquisition depends on social contact

Children get their information about language from their caretakers and the adults around them. They tend to pick up on the most frequent nouns, verbs and adjectives first, and then extend their range. They attend to what is in the joint focus of attention for adult and child, to what is physically and conversationally present, and hence to the language directed to them as addressees.[2]

Infant attention… was significantly higher in response to the live person than to either inanimate source… During live exposure, tutors focus their visual gaze on pictures in the books or on the toys they talk about, and infants’ gaze tends to follow the speaker’s gaze… Infants in the live exposure sessions were visibly aroused before the sessions – they watched the door expectantly, and were excited by the tutor’s arrival, whereas infants in the non-social conditions did not.

Exposure to a new language in a live social interaction situation induces remarkable learning in 9-month-old infants, but no learning when the exact same language material is presented to infants by a disembodied source.[3]

Language acquisition is fostered by emotional expression

…infant-directed speech style reflects free vocal expression of emotion to infants, in comparison with more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult-directed speech. …infant-directed speech is accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions of emotion…[4]

American infants exposed in the laboratory to Mandarin Chinese rapidly learned phonemes and words from the foreign language, but only if exposed to the new language by a live human being during naturalistic play. Infants exposed to the same auditory input at the same age and for the same duration via television or audiotape showed no learning…[5]

…infant-directed prosody itself is not special. What is special is the widespread expression of emotion to infants in comparison with the more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult interactions.

…infants prefer to listen to infant-directed speech expressing positive (approval) affect over infant-directed speech expressing negative (prohibition) affect…[4]

Infants of nondepressed mothers readily learned that their mothers’ speech signaled a face, whereas infants of depressed mothers failed to learn that their mothers’ speech signaled the face. Infants of depressed mothers did, however, show strong learning in response to speech produced by an unfamiliar nondepressed mother.[6]

Language acquisition takes substantial labor and time

… a mother’s immediate social feedback results both in greater numbers and more mature, adultlike vocalizations from infants…

…infants vocally imitate adult vowel sounds by 5 months but not acoustically matched nonspeech sounds that are not perceived as human speech…

By 10 months… Children raised in Beijing listening to Mandarin babble by using tonelike pitches characteristic of Mandarin, which make them sound distinctly Chinese. Children being raised in Seattle listening to English do not babble by using such tones and sound distinctly American.[5]

Language acquisition labor changes, but the labor continues

Parents frequently check up on what their children mean. They often do this by reformulating with a side sequence or an embedded correction what they think their children said. Since the child’s utterance and the adult reformulation differ while the intended meanings are the same, children infer that adults are offering a correction. Analyses of longitudinal data from five children between 2;0 and 4;0… show that (a) adults reformulate their children’s erroneous utterances and do so significantly more often than they replay or repeat error-free utterances; (b) their rates of reformulation are similar across error-types (phonological, morphological, lexical, and syntactic) in both languages; (c) they reformulate significantly more often to younger children, who make more errors.[7]

At a conservative estimate, the average 5-year-old child will have learned more than 2,000 words… and will learn up to 3,000 more per year in the coming school years…[8]

  1. Melina, Remy. “” LiveScience, 23 Aug. 2011, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
  2. Clark, Eve V. “How language acquisition builds on cognitive development.” Trends in cognitive sciences 8.10 (2004): 472-478.
  3. Kuhl, Patricia K. “Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?” Developmental science 10.1 (2007): 110-120.
  4. Trainor, Laurel J., Caren M. Austin, and Renée N. Desjardins. “Is infant-directed speech prosody a result of the vocal expression of emotion?” Psychological science 11.3 (2000): 188-195.
  5. Meltzoff, Andrew N., et al. “Foundations for a new science of learning.” Science 325.5938 (2009): 284-288.
  6. Kaplan, Peter S., et al. “Infants of depressed mothers, although competent learners, fail to learn in response to their own mothers’ infant-directed speech.” Psychological Science 13.3 (2002): 268-271.
  7. Chouinard, Michelle M., and Eve V. Clark. “Adult reformulations of child errors as negative evidence.” Journal of child language 30.3 (2003): 637-669.
  8. Baddeley, Alan, Susan Gathercole, and Costanza Papagno. “The phonological loop as a language learning device.” Psychological review 105.1 (1998): 158-173.

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