Monday, March 7, 2011

Linguistics for Babies

You know, for a person like me who loves all things related to linguistics (except for William Foley, whose horrible writing skills have forever scarred me), watching a baby learn language is a rare and amazing opportunity.  Okay, okay, it is a rare and amazing experience for every parent, but I can't help but examine this with the fascination of a linguist as well as the wonder of a mother.  How can a human go from "bababababa" to writing dissertations, novels, or articles?  No one really teaches us language.  The amount of deductive reasoning required  is, if you stop to think about it, quite boggling.

At seven and a half months, Kira is just starting to really exhibit signs of comprehension.  As a really small baby, she would try to mimic sounds without any understanding.  She would try to repeat "good girl" and "I love you," but it was obvious that she didn't know what she was saying.  Around four months, she went practically silent for 2-3 weeks.  Then, she starting practicing in her crib.  We would hear "bababa" and eventually "dadada" over the baby monitor, but she refused to repeat it around us.  Until one day, she yelled "dadadada" triumphantly while playing in the living room.  Apparently, she likes to practice in secret.

Kira loves the song "If You're Happy and You Know It" and would get super excited every time we clapped.  It didn't take her long to learn to join us.  Within a week of first clapping to the song, she would clap every time she heard the song.  I was amazed, though, when she learned to clap when I asked "Can you clap your hands?"   

What is even more fascinating is watching her learn doesn't mean clap. Should she clap for any song or any phrase that starts with "can you.."?

At first, it seems like a simple error or that maybe she doesn't really understand, but when you pay attention, it becomes obvious that she is trying to narrow down the meaning in a similar way to how we learn to classify objects (i.e. a cat has four legs, a long tail, and pointy ears, but so do some dogs.  We have to narrow down the criteria to differentiate between the two).  For instance, I started to sing "Bingo" to her and she clapped.  She didn't get the same response from me as when she claps to the other song, so the next time I sang "Bingo," she did not clap.  She learned that singing in general does not mean "clap".  She clapped when I asked "Can you kick your feet?"  I moved her feet the next few times I asked until she started kicking instead of clapping at the question.  With each of these interactions, she learned to narrow down the meaning of what I say.

If you think about it, it really comes down to this: In order to understand what something is, we have to know what it isn't.  A cat isn't just defined by having four legs and a long tail and by meowing for attention; it is also defined by the fact that it doesn't bark, have floppy ears, neigh, or eat grass.  These are things that we must all learn to reason out for ourselves, though others may help us.

Isn't language an amazing thing?

1 comment:

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