In the Child's Mind: Language Acquisition and Mastery
Besides birth itself, there is no other event in a child's life that is more significant or elicits the excitement of proud parents more so than the utterance of his first words. Whether those words are "mama", "daddy" or "baba" is significant in itself, but the remainder of childhood will be spent adding to, and honing early language skills during the voyage through adulthood. Language acquisition and its mastery entail a vast array of cognitive processes -- ones that continually shape and re-shape the human brain until death.
While language acquisition as a part of cognitive development still largely remains a mystery, the answers to its questions are slowly becoming more definitive and are providing more insight than ever into how children think based on what they say. Children, in fact, think a lot and their thoughts tell us just as much, if not more, about the complexity of their minds than the complexity of the world around them. As we advance further into the information age, researchers will uncover hitherto unknown aspects of the developing mind, and reinvent our system of education accordingly.
Language acquisition and mastery do not follow a simple trajectory. Even when broken down into understanding and using speech, there is considerable overlap between language and the other six areas of cognitive development: memory, perception, conceptual understanding, social cognition, problem solving, and academic skills. It is impossible to study language without referring to one of the other areas of cognitive development. While child development researcher, Piaget, helped advance our understanding of how language intersects and overlaps the other areas of child development, contemporary researchers utilize a more integrative approach. (Siegler & Alibali, 2005, p. 427).
Researchers have identified four components of "change processes" that inform language acquisition. These are: automatization, encoding, generalization, and strategy development. Automatization refers to a process whereby additional cognitive resources are not allocated to a process when it is required. Encoding is highly related to the formation of mental models and being able to represent events and object in terms of their unique characteristics and relationships. Generalization is the ability to apply what is known to other scenarios or situations. Finally, strategy development refers to adaptability to demands placed by new tasks. (Siegler & Alibali, 2005, p. 428).
How do children acquire language? How do they learn to talk? To understand the answers to these questions, it is important to understand a process called mimesis. According to Nelson (1996, p. 63) who cited Donald (1991), mimesis is the basis of all learning, including learning to speak, read, and write. More than imitation, or mimicry, mimesis is tied to functionality and is not bound by a given time and/or space. Mimesis is a looser sort of representation and re-enactment. Nelson stated that mimesis occurs when children imitate their parents. Thus, we have a rudimentary understanding of how speech begins in infancy, how "baby babbling" slowly morphs into well-articulated and easily-understood words. According to Piaget, there is also an element of invention that is innately human with respect to language and the process of mimesis. As language is also a social artifact, it requires social cognition, the awareness of the "other", in order to interact with other people (Nelson, 1996, p. 65).
Learning to effectively communicate using the symbols and sounds of an entire language requires a great deal of automatization. That is, as a child becomes more familiar with his primary language, less cognitive resources are allocated to its usage and other tasks, such as learning another language, are easier and faster to do. Daily usage of the primary language has become "automatic" is automatized to the point where the child no longer has to think about it. Studies related to language proficiency have shown that thinking beyond normal, everyday, context-imbedded speech and developing an "interiorized monologue", or a level 2 understanding of a language, takes place roughly between ages four to seven. Bebko (1998) has shown that "rehearsal" is an important -- and necessary -- component of language proficiency (p. p. 4). Rehearsal has been defined as a strategy that is linguistically-based that has been associated with recalling "sequentially-ordered information" (Bebko, 1998, p. 7). Rehearsal is akin to automatization. Rehearsal, as the name suggests, is the repetition of words or phrases (in terms of language processing) until information is remembered and is able to be recalled effectively at a later time. Thus, automatization, or "over learning" was shown to be an essential component of rehearsal (Bebko, 1998, p. 7).
Another important finding of Bebko's (1998) research was that older children tended to rehearse more and therefore demonstrated greater recall. Younger children, who rehearsed less, demonstrated less recall ability. Thus, recall based on automatization and rehearsal was not age-dependent. Instead, the presence or absence of rehearsal was found to be the most significant predictor of recall ability (Bebko, 1998, p. 9).
Bebko's (1998) studies also led to more advanced theoretical underpinnings in the understanding of automatization with regards to language proficiency. Moreover, by studying rehearsal in deaf as well as hearing children, it was found that deaf children exhibited developmental delays in reading and writing. The researchers theorized that this was due to the visual-spatial nature of American Sign Language (ASL). This learning process takes up more cognitive resources, thus slowing down automaticity and eventually, a "ceiling" in early reading skills is reached (Bebko, 1998, p. 10).
Viewed through the lens of encoding, language learning is another important element of language proficiency. For example, in research conducted by Rose, Feldman & Wallace (1988), it was found that child development is more contingent on the nature of experimental tasks than the nature of cognitive development itself. Psychometric testing was divided into three subsets of children: infancy, early childhood (3-4 years), and later childhood (5-7 years). Rose, Feldman & Wallace (1988) found that novelty of stimuli was the key determinant of infant intelligence, playing a central role along a longitudinal line (Rose, et al., 1988, p. ).
However, cognitive development can be impeded by encoding difficulties in children with learning disabilities. In these cases, a child may have difficulty putting events into sequential order, writing coherent stories, as well as the retrieval of ideas and their subsequent articulation. A child may also mispronounce words such as spaghetti, mistakenly enunciating it as "musketti". The child completely comprehends what is represented by objects and story sequences but is unable to relate them to others in an understandable manner, struggling to find the correct words as well as relating the plot of a story from beginning to end (Schultz, web).
Shaywitz's research uncovered a telling statistic (Hahn, web). She discovered that 15-20% of children have a "glitch" in their ability to process language. She identified the glitch as applying to phonological processing. Phonological processing is defined as how a child understands words as "amorphous blurs", unable to understand that word sounds are broken down into discrete segmented units called phonemes. Dyslexia is one such glitch that affects language processing. During normal encoding, a child begins to identify that the spoken word and the written word are broken down into identical (and sequential) units (Hahn, web). At the oral level of encoding words in the Slingerland Practical Guide, the child begins by reinforcing speaking proficiency by utilizing hand-written cards (Hahn, web).
An underlying theory of intelligence (including language) is Sternberg's triarchic theory. The theory posits that there are three kinds of intelligence: analytic, creative, and practical. These are generalized categories, and many adults exhibit considerable overlap, or blending, among these kinds of intelligence as well as their implications for learning which will be reviewed later, in consideration of the future of teaching methodology (Curry, web).
A substantial body of research has been conducted with respect to language in the domain of generalization. For example, Marcus (2000) has proposed underlying mechanisms for learning and generalization. Marcus defined the two mechanisms as a "statistical mechanism which extracts, collects, and tabulates statistical contingencies in the environment, and a rule mechanism which suppresses variation between examples within a category, thereby treating all instances of a category as equal members" (Marcus, 2000, p. 155). Marcus chose to study the usage of inflection; in particular, his research focused on the use of the English past tense "-ed" to underscore the theoretical basis of the two simultaneous mechanisms, the statistical mechanism and the rule mechanism. About 180 verbs, according to Marcus, have irregular past tense forms (Marcus, 2000, p. 155).
Marcus's thesis is relatively straightforward. That is, he defined over regularizations -- when the past tense "-ed" is used too often -- as a failure to remember irregular past tense forms. However, over repeated exposure to irregular verb past tense forms, the frequency of over regularizations lessens. In his work, Marcus makes a distinction between so-called pattern associator models of inflection and rule and memory models by collecting data comprising a computational model of neural networking. Connectionists contend that "regular inflection" causes a high regular type frequency, a hallmark tenet of connectionist models (Marcus, 2000, p. 159).
However, the rule-based model states that so-called default inflection occurs independent of frequency. Marcus utilized three different tests to determine the predictive power of his hypothesis, namely that over regularization increased more slowly than expected with respect to the proportion of regular verb forms and that type frequency is independent of regular inflection, longitudinal, lexical, and cross-linguistic tests. Marcus's data sets countered the predictive values of connectionist models (Marcus, 2000, p. 159).
As expected, Marcus's results confirmed the hypothesis. As a result, connectionist models were shown to be inadequate predictors of default inflection frequency. Connectionist models are unable to show any "hard-wired" neural network that operates in a unified manner. Rather, as Marcus proposed, the rule and memory model is more feasible as the likelihood that subjects will use regular generalizations is closely related to the proportionate input containing regular words. As Marcus demonstrated, even German speakers used a default inflective verb independent of the type frequency, thus following the rule and memory model and showing that connectionist models of the frequency of default inflection are outdated and ineffective. It can be deduced from these studies that children's language skills are less hard-wired than previously thought (Marcus, 2000, p. 157).
With respect to language learning, the theoretical foundation of the domain of strategy construction has vast implications for educational and cognitive psychology. Strategy construction offers more insight into the workings of children's cognitive abilities, telling us more about how and what children think.
One of the leading theorists of child development, Vygotsky emphasized the role of language in child development, stating that thought precedes language. Vygotsky also posited that thought and language are, at the beginning of a child's life, separate systems. Later on, at about the age of three, these two different systems begin to converge, producing the internal monologue. Vygotsky stressed the importance of sociocultural influences on cognitive development whereas Piaget stressed the significance of independent learning and what he called "self-initiated discovery" (McLeod, 2007, web).
Arguably, more than any other child development theorist, Vygotsky emphasized the role of speech in cognitive functioning. He differentiated between three different kinds of speech: social, private, and "silent inner speech" -- common from about the age of seven. As mentioned earlier, Vygotsky posited that speech and thought operated as two independent systems during the first three years of life. After that point, the two systems became interdependent, he asserted, with thought becoming verbal and speech becoming representational. Integral to strategy development, he viewed private speech as being a part of strategy development, enabling children to plan activities and therefore assist in their development (McLeod, 2007, web).
As with most aspects of a child's individual verbal development, Vygotsky insisted that social influences play the most important role in the development of private speech. While Vygotsky places an unusual amount of emphasis among researchers on the universality of verbal learning, other researchers insist that speech may not play as central a role in learning. However, Vygotsky's influence is monumental in terms of education and learning applications. For example, his term, the "More Knowledgeable Other", or MKO, places an emphasis on the value of classroom apprenticeships. Vygotsky's sphere of influence also circumscribed the realm of teacher-student relations. He coined the term, "reciprocal teaching", a learning process designed to improve a child's ability to learn by textual readings. He stressed a collaborative model between teacher and students, one which was broken down into four core skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting (McLeod, 2007, web).
Doubtless, one of the key areas of interest for future learning in language acquisition will be computer-based learning. Already, software programs like Plato are present in the classroom. Like Vygotsky's MKO, they assist children in the acquisition and mastery of language skills. New models of learning such as the rule and memory model have shown that very young children are far more malleable with regards to the refinement of language skills than previously thought. With the triarchic model of intelligence (as advanced by Sternberg), individual instructional styles and curricula can be customized towards the advancement of children who predominantly display one type of intelligence -- analytic, practical, or creative -- over other types of intelligence.
In conclusion, great in-roads have been made with respect to language learning and child development in the context of educational goals. While great questions such as "What and how do children think?" may never be fully answered to our satisfaction, the theoretical foundation has been laid and new fields such as computational child psychology have led to important discoveries. Moreover, pioneers like Piaget, Vygotsky, and Slingerland have led researchers down the road towards unlocking mysterious language processing difficulties such as dyslexia and some types of autism. A fascinating and promising vista lies before those whose research is focused on developmental, cognitive, and educational psychology at all points of their intersection.
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