sexta-feira, 3 de agosto de 2012

Difficulties in Learning Acquisition

Typical children are constantly exposed to language in the form of adults and older children speaking and communicating around them. Children acquire language at a very rapid rate, and most children's speech is relatively grammatical by age three. Normal children are able to hear and understand reasonably complex syntax, including rules of inflection and pluralization, and remember irregular verbs and nouns without ever having a direct lesson in grammar or speech. In fact, some cultures such as the !Kung San do not speak directly to children who have not yet learned to speak back. How do children achieve the amazing mental feat of learning something they have never been taught?

The Grammar Module and Mental Dictionary

According to Steven Pinker's model, presented in Words and Rules, all normal human brains come primed for language acquisition. They have an innate ability to memorize vocabulary, internalize rules regarding their native language's grammar and syntax, and remember irregular forms. Children are constantly hearing and processing speech, so their brains are able to analyze the grammatical structure of the sentences and parse it into basic rules about the language. As a result, children learn the basic vocabulary of their language, as well as grammatical details like add an 'ed' to put a verb in the past tense and irregular forms like went instead of goed.

Anyone who has spent time around young children knows that they do not always speak correctly, however. Children's error rates are often overestimated by adults whose trained ears pick up incorrect forms or usages easily, but ignore or take for granted the more common regular forms; in actuality, their mistakes are relatively rare considering the mental feat being attempted. Those mistakes that are made are often highly illuminating - they reveal information about how children learn their native language.

Of course, children's mental dictionaries expand rapidly as they acquire new vocabulary and learn new idioms and expressions. Likewise, their grammar modules quickly learn and apply the proper rules of the language. The errors adults notice arise when one of two situations occurs: either the grammar module fails to supply the proper rule, or the mental dictionary fails to supply the proper word. In the first case, the result is sentences like Her went to the store or They was leaving early. In both examples, proper English grammar is not being upheld; the grammar module has supplied an incorrect rule or has not supplied a rule at all.

In the second case, the mental dictionary fails to provide an irregular verb or pluralization or a complete idiom; the result is sentences such as We goed to the store, I saw three deers, or He's such a two-goody-shoes. In these cases, it is not regular English grammar that is violated; rather, it is irregular forms that cannot be predicted from grammatical rules (that is, that must be stored in the mental dictionary) that are misused. Of course, this error can go the opposite way as well, and children can irregularize regular words that are similar in sound to irregular ones. This leads to items such as hat as a past tense of hit (by analogy to sit-sat).

The Stages of Language Acquisition

There are rather regularly observed stages of language acquisition, from random baby babble through the advanced syntax used by an adult. The first stage, of course, is the goo-goo-gaa-gaa type of sound heard from babies. This stage is essential to proper language acquisition because it familiarizes children with the sounds of their voices, allowing them to gain control over their vocalizations. The next stage occurs when children begin to acquire simple words, such as mama or water. They commonly use these words to request, demand, or exclaim.

The next stage is the beginning of real communication, and may resemble early proto-languages. In this stage, children begin to string their words into short, ungrammatical strings, such as give milk as a request for a drink and daddy home to observe that the father has returned. Children quickly progress to real grammar in short sentences, correctly placing words in proper order as in mommy call doggie - though this is not entirely correct, it shows an understanding of English sentence structure.

The final stage is that of developing more and more complex grammatical concepts. Most children by the age of four or five (and many even earlier) can correctly pluralize the invented noun wug to wugs. This is true of many other basic grammatical rules as well (though they may occasionally be overlooked, particularly when the child is excited or speaking quickly). In general, the major infrastructure of language has been completed by ages six to eight, though some errors may remain and the conscious knowledge of advanced grammar is not commonly taught in American schools until children are twelve or older.

Linguistic Plasticity

It is commonly believed that children have a certain period of "linguistic plasticity" that extends only to a certain age; beyond that point, language acquisition becomes a difficult and demanding process that is not always completed successfully. Estimates of the linguistic plasticity period vary greatly, but in general it can be assumed that children must learn their first language before age eight at the outside. So-called "wolf children" who had no contact with humans or who were isolated from speaking populations before age eight have met with very limited success in acquiring language, especially grammar. In one famous example, a thirteen-year-old girl called Genie was discovered isolated in a room by her father. Attempts to teach her grammatical English resulted in failure; she was able to learn the words identifying certain objects, but was unable to put them together into comprehensible, grammatically correct English sentences. By contrast, the even more famous Helen Keller was left blind and deaf from an early illness; her teacher was able to communicate language to her and she developed into a highly articulate woman. Similarly, a girl of six and a half once escaped from imprisonment in her grandfather's house; she quickly began to learn proper English and produced complex sentences a year and a half after she began to learn. (Source: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.)

The same principles apply to the acquisition of foreign languages - learning to write and especially to speak a foreign language can be a difficult experience. The "window of opportunity" for proficiency with a foreign language is larger and more variable; in general, those who attempt to learn a new language after puberty are less likely to master writing and especially speaking a foreign language. Those who acquire multiple languages before puberty often speak both or several with ease, but those who acquire them later do much worse.

This phenomenon is especially noticeable in speech - for a normal person who already has a first language, it is not impossibly difficult to memorize the grammatical structure of another (though this depends on the similarity between the two languages). However, people whose speech is already structured for producing the sounds of one language will have a difficult time producing the sounds of another, even if they are intimately familiar with the second language's grammar. Ukrainian-born author Joseph Conrad had a very thick accent, but was an extremely fluent writer in English. Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand never lost her heavy Russian accent despite living in the United States for decades, writing four novels and a number of philosophical books and essays. She also learned to read and write German, but freely admitted that she could not speak it.

Specific Language Impairment

There is a relatively rare genetic disability called Specific Language Impairment (SLI) that renders its victims unable to acquire language as normal children do. Their grammar modules are compromised, and they try to compensate by consciously memorizing and reasoning out the rules of their native language. Some drill rules such as "add an 's'" into their brains to help them remember normal grammar; others simply memorize inflected forms such as walked as well as ordinary forms such as walk. They have difficulty pluralizing novel words like wug, a feat that most children can accomplish with ease. Their cognitive functioning in other areas is not necessarily impaired, and some outscore normal relatives on general-intelligence tests. 

Source II: Words and Rules by Steven Pinker

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