In this episode, we talk about how babies have language as an innate, inborn talent, a position known as nativism. Not any specific language, but just a general ability to know how languages can work, and to pick up languages easily and efficiently. To help show why linguists believe that, we bring up a few different pieces of evidence.
Kids go through similar stages of learning how to make sounds, words, and sentences no matter what language they’re picking up. They have the ability to hear the difference between sounds that adult speakers of their language can’t tell apart. They do make certain mistakes (which are often really cute), but they don’t make a lot of other mistakes that seem pretty tempting. And they learn language way faster than anything else. So why are they so good? Because they have a Universal Grammar in their heads from birth that tells them what’s possible in language and what’s not.
We talk about a couple of the lines of reasoning behind why we believe in Universal Grammar and nativism. But there are a lot of other lines that fit in here, too! For example, how about how when kids do make mistakes, they’re often mistakes that aren’t possible in their language, but are possible in other languages. In other words, when an English-speaking baby makes a mistake, they don’t do things that are impossible anywhere. But they do sometimes sound like they’re German.
For example, take this data reported from an English-speaking child in a study by Rosalind Thornton.
(1) What do you think who’s in that can?
This is a totally bad sentence for English – English doesn’t have multiple question words like that in a sentence. But for a German or Dutch speaker (for some dialects), among other languages, that’s actually fine. Here’s a German sentence below:
(2) Wen glaubt Hans wen Jakob gesehen hat?
whom thinks Hans whom Jakob seen has?
“Who does Hans think Jakob saw?”
So when a kid is making this mistake, it’s maybe not really a mistake, but more like something that’s possibly in other languages. It’s still part of Universal Grammar; it’s just not the language they’re speaking.
Or how about this: it’s not just speaking babies that show this profile. Deaf babies do the same thing. Sign language is just as much a real human language as any spoken language, and it shows the same kinds of patterns of development. So deaf babies that are exposed to sign language actually start babbling at the same age as other babies do! They just use their hands to babble rather than their mouths. And they show the same profile in what kinds of errors they make as speaking babies do!
Recent research has been looking into kids that are exposed to both sign language and spoken language, and how kids can then do both signing and talking at the same time, and what their grammars look like. Definitely, there’s a topic the Ling Space will be returning to in the future!
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about Universal Grammar and how babies get so good so fast. There’s so much more interesting stuff to say, and so we want to hear what interests you!