How do we speak?

langsoc-cover“Everybody talks, but not everybody listens”. This is a statement I heard my grandmother tell me when I was young as she described me as  a  “tonto”, which means fool in Spanish. This only happened when I did not listen to her instruction of course, but as I study Linguistics this has taken on a new meaning for me. Although my grandmother grabbing me by the ear and telling me how foolish I was, is something I will not forget anytime soon. I look back and now know that she was more wise than I ever gave her credit for.

No matter what language we speak, or what accent and dialect we use, the truth is everyone speaks some sort of language. Even those who have lost the ability to speak still communicate through the use of sign language. The need for all of us to communicate in some way is essential to our survival. But, How do we automatically know what to say and how to say it? How do we learn the chain of sounds necessary to explain our wants, needs and thoughts? These are just two of the many questions that some have asked and still, the beauty that is language is constantly learned and used day in and day out without a second thought.

Language Acquisition is described, by those who study language, as the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language, as well as to produce and use words and sentences to communicate. The process of language acquisition begins as soon as the ears develop in the womb. The fetus responds to sounds and jumps to the noises made around the mother. All the sounds heard in the womb become familiar and, when born, the baby will acknowledge the voices of the mother, father, and even respond to the music most listened to during the pregnancy.

After birth, according to the essay “How do babies learn their mother’s tongue?” by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the challenge for language learning transitions from knowing the basic melody of the language spoken around them to finding the units in the sounds that are being used to construct words. The child’s vocabulary ultimately grows as they learn the meaning of the combined sounds that form the words of the language they will eventually speak. This understanding of new definitions, combined with the application of the language’s constructed system, will enable the child to learn how to combine words to form sentences.

Now that the child can form basic sentences, a stronger implementation of the rules and principles ( the language’s grammar) begins. This grammar can be affected by the country, region, social class and education of the parents and those who speak most often around the child. Nevertheless, the general rules of a language, for example english, will apply as he/she grows.  The learning of language coincides with Noam Chomsky’s “Universal Grammar” theory, which argues that the ability to learn language is innate, and distinctly human from all other aspects of human cognition. “The person who has learned a language has constructed a system that determines the sound meaning correspondence in the domain of that language” , Noam Chomsky, The Sound Pattern of English, 1968.

Before any child can learn language, what is it that makes humans more capable of building complex sounds in numerous combinations, in order to create the seven thousand languages that exist today? The natural biology that we are born with to create these sounds is fascinating. When you consider all of the moving pieces that must work consistently along with the cognitive ability to understand what these sounds mean is nothing short of remarkable.

The first anatomical feature that we will discuss is the Vocal-Auditory channel. This is the way humans manipulate the airflow through the vocal folds of the larynx and break the vibrating air stream into sounds of speech. These sounds are then received by the listener and interpreted through the ears. I must mention that this is not the only channel of communication, as those who use sign language use the visual channel.  If it were not for this biological ability, the society that we enjoy living in today could be totally different.

It is important to mention these features of our biology when talking about Language Acquisition. When babies are born they have all the parts and pieces they need to give them the capability to perform all the sounds of every language. Although some of the parts take time to develop, the ability to do this, along with the mental capacity to interpret this information is an evolutionary advantage. All species of plant, animal or other communicate with each other in order to ensure a more probability of survival.

It is impossible to understand speech without considering the hearing mechanism that allows us to receive speech and monitor our own speech productions. Listening is the most important skill a baby has when learning how to speak a language. In fact, even as an adult studying French, listening to the sounds of the language has helped me understand faster.

The sounds that come out of our mouths disturb the air particles characterized by compressions and refractions. These sounds are then funneled into the Ear Canal which acts as a resonator and is perfectly shaped to receive the frequencies of speech sounds.  These sounds travel deeper into the ear and are met by the Ear Drum.  In this part of the ear, known as the middle ear, the vibrations of speech meet a group of tiny bones called the Malleus, Incus and stapes, or the hammer, anvil and stirrup respectively.  These three bones work in unison and vibrate according to the frequency of speech and transfer the energy to the cochlea, which is in the inner ear. The cochlea changes the energy received into hydraulic energy which continues through the inner ear and vibrates tiny hairs that trigger neural impulses for brain interpretation. All this action occurs in fractions of a second as we speak.

With our ability to create and interpret synchronized puffs of air is nothing short of amazing. But what about those who are born unable to speak and communicate with sounds? Do the rules of language acquisition change for them?

Hearing children reportedly produce their first expressive words between 10 and 13 months of age. They then gradually expand their vocabulary to about 50 words between the 17th and 18th month of development. The rate of vocabulary growth is thought to be related to the frequency of language input that they receive.  Further studies also indicate a difference in vocabulary development between genders. This is no different for deaf children, but the vocabulary of deaf children also hinders on the effect of learning from deaf or non-deaf parents.

For deaf children with deaf parents much debate exists about what age a child will begin to express themselves through signing expressively, and thus demonstrate vocabulary acquisition. There have been reports that say that some children (both hearing and deaf) with signing deaf parents begin to sign as early as 5-9 months, which is earlier than a hearing infants first use of spoken words. Debate still exists on the data as some are believed to have reported baby babble as evidence of word acquisition.

A study of sign language production of the deaf infants of deaf parents showed that no infant was observed to sign excessively at 12 months when compared to the hearing infants with deaf parents. In addition the sign vocabulary of both hearing and deaf children of deaf parents at 18 months were similar. This study indicated that there is no delay in learning sign language between deaf and hearing children of deaf parents.

With deaf children who have hearing parents, the findings showed that they trailed both hearing and deaf children of deaf parents in vocabulary size. It also revealed that half of the group studied had no formal language at 18 months. It was concluded that this was because the hearing parents did not sign as much or as fast as the deaf parents. It is to be said that during this study much of the data obtained was marred by the inclusion of infants born with disabilities unrelated to hearing loss.

The learning of language to function as a member of a group, culture, and civilization is something that is taken for granted by many and rarely considered. Every group of people on earth have their own language, but so do certain occupations, such as businessmen, journalists, and politicians for example. You must understand the language of a profession to be proficient at executing the best performance possible. The same applies to our individual cultures and families. To be a part of anything and flourish you must learn the language.

My study of Language acquisition is something that has taken new meaning and opened the door for a deeper understanding in the way we learn.  Just as it is important for a child to listen in order to learn how to communicate, I feel that if maybe we all heed my grandmother’s advice and listen more, we may be able to learn to quelch the things that divide us most. The sources I have read show that when we are born we are generally the same and that all of the language, culture and behavior we learn is something that helps us to create our identities as individuals, who are merely a thread in the patchwork quilt of human existence.

Sources:

Adamsom, Lauren B., and Mary Ann Romski. Communication and Language Acquisition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks, 1997. Print

Hulit, Lloyd M., Kathleen R. Fahey, and Merle R. Howard. Born to Talk: An Introduction to Speech and Language Development. Boston: Pearson, 2015. Print.

Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick., Hirsh-Pasek, Kathryn. “How do babies learn their mother tongue?” The Five-minute Linguist: Bite-sized Essays on Language and Languages. Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub., 2012. 68-71. Print.

Matthei, Edward H. “Children’s Interpretations of Sentences Containing Reciprocals.” Language Acquisition and Linguistic Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1981. 97-115. Print.

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