Out of the Mouths of Babes: Unlocking the Mysteries of Language and Voice

by Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue's uttering, yet I know the sound.

Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet
— by William Shakespeare

BIG Questions

Children learn language not by rote, but by a seemingly effortless interaction between their sponge-like brains and their language-rich environments. This breathtaking process begins as rapidly as Juliet learned to recognize Romeo's voice.

At birth, babies show a preference for language over other sounds, and after a few weeks, they can distinguish sounds of their native language from those of a foreign one. Normally developing babies utter their first words between nine and eighteen months, and by age four, most children are learning an average of ten words a day! But language is not simply words. A true language is governed by a set of rules about how all those words can be combined and modified (i.e., grammar). How do children understand these rules — without explicit teaching — and how do they understand the meaning of words?

Language is an integral part of our camp culture. Our games, songs, cheers, and stories — which rely on linguistic communication — transmit our history and values, express our hopes and fears, and forge friendships. Language, like other expressions of symbolic thought, also gives us unique intellectual power. Famed Russian psychologist Alexander Luria elegantly captured this notion when he wrote:

"With the help of language, [humans] can deal with things which they have not perceived even indirectly and with things which were part of the experience of earlier generations. Thus, the word adds another dimension to the world of humans . . . Animals have only one world, the world of objects and situations which can be perceived by the senses. Humans have a double world."

Colorless Green Ideas

The first study of three summarized in this article is a short book called Syntactic Structures, by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky. But who cares about a grammar book published in 1957? Don't we all have enough scary memories of diagramming sentences in English class with Mrs. Cratchet? Not to worry.

Chomsky's goal was not to write a prescriptive grammar book. Instead, he set out to describe a set of word-order rules that would apply to all languages. To do that in 117 pages is remarkable. But even more impressive is how Chomsky changed the way people think about the human brain. If it is true, as Chomsky argued, that a complex but finite set of rules governs all languages, then humans must be born with an innate capacity to learn whatever language they are exposed to. In later writings, Chomsky actually proposed that the human brain has a "Language Acquisition Device" or LAD for short.

To understand why Chomsky's theory was revolutionary, we need to take one step back and look at the earlier theory he shattered. Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner had argued that children learn language by imitating adults. Skinner also argued that children learn meaning and grammar when adults reinforce them for saying things that are meaningful and grammatically correct. For example, a toddler says, "Ball!" and her parent hands her a ball.

Chomsky pointed out two problems with this behavioral explanation. First, children begin speaking in a way that does not directly imitate adults. In fact, they utter things adults never say. For example, little Danilo might say, "Mommy sock" — a word combination that he had never heard before. Such ungrammatical, novel utterances suggested to Chomsky that something more than imitation was going on. Chomsky also pointed out that an utterance like "Mommy sock" may mean "That is Mommy's sock" or "Mommy, give me the sock" or "Is Mommy holding the sock?" The same "surface structure" of a sentence may have different underlying meanings, or various "deep structures."

The second problem with behavioral theory that Chomsky identified was that children are not reprimanded for uttering ungrammatical sentences. Adults rarely correct children's speech — much of which is superficially ungrammatical. For example, young children routinely over-generalize grammar rules. The sentence "I touched the apple" is grammatically correct and shows that young Daniela has correctly applied the usual "-ed" ending to form the past tense of the verb "to touch." But when Daniela says, "I taked the apple," she is over-generalizing this common rule. Of course, she will eventually learn to say, "I took the apple," but the fact that she first says "I taked . . ." — especially having never heard an adult say that — convinced Chomsky that imitation did not explain language acquisition.

The most famous sentence in Chomsky's Syntactic Structures is "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Although this sentence does not make sense, any adult can tell that it is grammatically correct. (To test this, say the sentence backwards and see whether it still sounds grammatical.)

Chomsky used this sentence to demonstrate three things at odds with behavioral theory. First, a sentence can be grammatical without having any meaning. (So humans must not learn grammar based on what words mean.) Second, we can tell the difference between a grammatical sentence and an ungrammatical one without ever having heard the sentence before. (So humans must not learn grammar based on past experiences with specific sentences.) Third, we can produce and understand brand new sentences that no one has ever said before. (So humans must not learn language based solely on imitation.)

Just for fun, make up a grammatical sentence that no one — including you — has ever uttered. Say it out loud. Good. What you just did is an example of how Chomsky changed the way psychologists think about how children learn. Perhaps we all have an innate language capacity that is programmed to recognize the universal grammar common to all languages. This enables us to produce and understand an infinite number of brand-new sentences. Wow! What else might be programmed into our brains?

Eve and Adam

This section heading will give most readers pause because of its uncommon order. We are more familiar with the order "Adam and Eve." As psychologist Roger Brown discovered, order is a key concept in children's language acquisition. In his 1973 book, A First Language, Brown reported on his research team's findings after an intensive study of three toddlers for nearly two years. (By the way, the toddlers Brown studied were named Adam, Eve, and Sarah. So much of their early speech appears in child psychology texts that they have achieved a kind of academic celebrity.)

Some of Brown's discoveries will not come as a surprise to parents. For example, the hours and hours of speech samples that Brown and his team collected revealed that toddlers speak longer strings of words as they get older. However, the explosive speed of language acquisition begins at different times for different children. Eve, for example, spoke in meaningful two-word utterances at twenty months, whereas Adam and Sarah were closer to thirty months when they consistently uttered phrases like "more milk" and "daddy car."

Other discoveries were unexpected and, it turned out, revolutionary. For example, the order in which children learned words was unrelated to the frequency with which their parents used the words. Many words commonly uttered by parents, such as "good" or "you" were not among the first words that the children spoke. Also, the children almost never used prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and other "function" words. Such words (e.g., of, the, and) are important parts of grammatical sentences, but have little meaning by themselves. In fact, the children seemed to ignore mature grammar rules altogether. Instead, they put words together in an economical yet meaningful way. For example, they said "put ball" and "allgone truck" and "Adam fall."

Although ungrammatical, adults certainly understood such utterances.

Brown hypothesized that young children's emphasis on meaning rather than grammar was practical. Why waste time adding extra words when Mommy and Daddy understand you? But think about what a startling conclusion this leads to. Human brains are designed for efficient, context-dependent language acquisition. Even an eighteen-month-old's speech automatically takes into account the limitations of the speaker and the sophistication of the listener. Also, Brown noted that toddlers do not simply imitate what they hear adults say. Adults would more likely say, "The truck is all gone" than "allgone truck." This finding strongly supported Chomsky's "LAD" theory and argued against Skinner's behavioral explanation.

Different Voices

How people use language to express themselves is as fascinating as how they acquire language in the first place. The revolutionary work conducted by Carol Gilligan and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Education showed that linguistic expression is not only fascinating, but also politically charged and personally revealing. In her 1982 international bestseller, In a Different Voice, Gilligan presents compelling evidence that males and females speak about the world differently. The way males and females express themselves, says Gilligan, reveals the limitations of our self-concepts.

To appreciate Gilligan's enormous contributions, we need to review the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, one of her graduate school professors. In the 1960s, Kohlberg conducted a series of studies on moral development. He asked men and women how they would respond to moral dilemmas such as the following:

Mr. Heinz's wife will die unless treated with a drug that costs $2000. Heinz scraped together all the money he could, but it was not enough. He promised to pay the balance later, but the pharmacist still refused to give him the drug. Should Mr. Heinz steal the drug? Why or why not?

Kohlberg's analysis of people's explanations suggested different stages of moral reasoning. For example, some people said things such as, "Your family will think you're inhuman if you don't help your wife." Avoiding disapproval from others, said Kohlberg, is an example of the Conventional Stage of moral reasoning. Other people said things such as, "If you didn't steal the drug, you wouldn't have lived up to your own standards of conscience." This kind of internalization of a moral code is an example of a higher level of moral reasoning, which Kohlberg called Postconventional Morality. That was Kohlberg's take.

What Gilligan discovered, both in her re-analysis of Kohlberg's data, and in many of her own studies, is that males often explained their moral reasoning in terms of rules and rights, whereas females explained their moral reasoning in terms of relationships and responsibilities. Gilligan also made the unsettling observation that many females hesitated to think for themselves. Together, these findings suggested that boys and men may be brought up to disconnect from intimate relationships and that girls and women may be socialized to be loving but submissive. Two real examples from Gilligan and Kohlberg's research highlight this point.

Jake, an eleven-year-old boy, explained the Heinz's dilemma using logic:

"He should steal the drug. For one thing, a human life is worth more than money, and if the druggist only makes $1000, he is still going to live, but if Heinz doesn't steal the drug, his wife is going to die . . . the druggist can get a thousand dollars later from rich people with cancer, but Heinz can't get his wife again . . . ."

Amy, an eleven-year-old girl, wavers:

"Well, I don't think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn't steal the drug — but his wife shouldn't die either . . . If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might have to got to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again . . . they should really talk about it . . . ."

Gilligan describes Jake's response as "a math problem with humans," whereas Amy sees the dilemma as "a narrative of relationships that extends over time." This is the "different voice" to which Gilligan refers. She argues that while seeing the world "comprised of relationships rather than of people standing alone" is wonderful — the fact that Amy is "evasive and unsure" is evidence that society has taught Amy that girls' opinions do not matter. And the fact that Jake's answer makes little reference to "communication in relationship" is evidence that society has taught Jake that relationships should take a back seat to logic and law. Imagine the limits such pressures put on our children and ourselves.

What to Pack for Camp

The three studies summarized in this article have revolutionized child psychology by teaching us the following:

  1. Children are biologically programmed to learn language;
  2. Children's language development is orderly and pragmatic, but grammatically mysterious; and
  3. Children's linguistic self-expression reveals some disturbing ways they have been socialized.

How can you use these findings at camp?

  • Respect the linguistic heritage of your campers and staff. People from different states and countries will come to your camp with varying accents, expressions, and English fluency. Encourage everyone to learn from, and not to disparage, these differences.
  • Laughing together about different accents or language blunders is fun, but only when the joking originates from the person with the difference. Follow-up joking with questions such as: Do our different styles of expression reflect different ways of seeing the world?
  • Explain the use of foreign language. For example, if you have traditional cheers or songs, place names, or team names that contain American Indian words or expressions, teach the campers what they mean and why they are important.
  • Celebrate your camp's lexicon. Every camp has special words that help define its unique qualities. For example, one camp calls its bathrooms "scolleges" and the campers who set the tables "slingers." Remember that new campers need to learn these words as part of their orientation.
  • Beware of crass, abusive, or sexist language that may have snuck into popular use. At some camps, for example, the term "wife beater" is widely used as a synonym for "tank top." What is this teaching impressionable campers about domestic violence?
  • Model respectful language. For example, when staff set a positive example by never swearing, it is much easier for the campers to follow suit.
  • Discourage staff from using "secret" words and abbreviations for certain behaviors or types of children. Most campers will figure out the counselor code; all will feel excluded. Staff should discuss campers and time-off activities when no campers are around. That way, they don't need secretive language.
  • Encourage boys to connect and girls to assert themselves. Camp can either perpetuate gender-role stereotypes or open children's eyes to the full range of human interaction. Let camp be a place where boys have sensitive male role models who are comfortable giving hugs and talking about how they feel. And let camp be a place where girls have self-assured female role models who are comfortable voicing their own opinions.
  • Listen. Really listen to what your campers and staff have to say. Listen not only to what people say, but how they say it. Listen to the words they choose. Think about what their style of self-expression says about their values and biases.

Language is not simply a tool for communication, but a tool for connection. In the words of Carol Gilligan, "speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing." Take a deep breath.

References
Brown, R. (1973). A first language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton & Co.
Cole, M. & Cole, S. R. (1996). The development of children. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co.*
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive developmental approach to socialization. In Goslin, D. A. (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research, pp. 347-480. Chicago: Rand McNally.*
Luria, A. R. (1981). Language and cognition. New York: Wiley.*
* Not part of the list "The 20 Most Revolutionary Studies in Child Development"

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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