SL Psychology/Language

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Directions[edit | edit source]

This content should include the following items:

  1. Definitions
  2. Biological Elements of language (Chomsky, the LAD and universal grammar)
  3. Language and animal communication (the talking chimps and how they illustrate elements of language)
  4. Piaget and Vygotsky (Cognitive development and the Zone of Proximal Development)
  5. Bruner cognitive development and language

Content[edit | edit source]

We live in a society that thrives on communication- books, newspapers, television, music, cell phones, and the internet are all mediums through which we use language to report information and express ideas. What is truly amazing is that each one of us begins life without knowing a single word, and yet within a lifetime learns approximately 80,000 words (Miller & Gildea, 1987) and the grammatical structure that allows these words to be put together in meaningful combinations. Furthermore, we are the only species in the animal kingdom that has demonstrated a sophisticated use of language, which consists of “our spoken, written, or signed words and the way we combine them to communicate meaning” (Myers, 2004)

Phonemes are the smallest sound units. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning (usually words, but also prefixes).

Bat, Bait, Beat, Beet, Bet, Bit, Bite, Boat, Boot, Bought, Bout, But are all only one phoneme different, and thus are different morphemes. The word undescribable has four morphemes un, de, scrib, and able (Myers, 2004).

Biological Elements of Language[edit | edit source]

An early, prominent language development theory had been proposed by psychologist B. F. Skinner. A behavioralist, he felt that language is learned through association (“milk” with a bottle), imitation, and reinforcement (through praise offered by parents). Children with little language reinforcement, he argued, are less conditioned to speak, and therefore do it more slowly and less fluently.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist at MIT, proposed a different theory. He believed that children acquired language too rapidly to have been the result of conditioning, and that their ability to create novel sentences proved that they weren’t just imitating others. Chomsky decided that there must be an underlying biological component that facilitates in language development.

This theorized biological component was originally called the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), but is now more commonly referred to as universal grammar. We each learn the language most prevalent in our environment, but we have a natural ability to learn grammar. Our innate capability is illustrated by commonalities in languages worldwide: though ordering subject, verb, and object can create six distinct orders, 44% of languages have subject-object-verb order, and another 35% have subject-verb-object order (book handout). The fact that we often cannot explicitly state grammar rules that we use all the time further demonstrates this. For example, what order should these words be in: tin rusty can, or rusty tin can?

Brain damage provides psychologists with insights into how the brain processes language. Aphasia is the general term for language impairment, and usually comes in two forms: Broca’s aphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia.

They have found that injury to a part of the left frontal lobe causes suffers to struggle to form sentences, though they are still left the ability to comprehend speech and recite their favorite song lyrics. This region of the brain, known as Broca’s area, helps mold ideas into grammatically-structured sentences and facilitates the muscle movement required for speaking. Consequently, their speech generally consists of telegraphic phrases.

Injuries to the left temporal lobe, in a region of the brain known as Wernicke’s area, also cause language impairment. However, though a sufferer of Wernicke’s aphasia maintains grammatical structure in their sentences (without paying attention to the actual words, an observer might think a patient was a normal speaker), the thoughts they convey seem vague, confusing, and lack meaning. They may use words in the wrong context, or even use nonexistent words. Thus, a person with Wernicke’s aphasia has an impaired ability to comprehend spoken language. Words’ greater implications are lost to them.

A study of from-birth deaf children who learn sign language after age 9 found that these children are less fluent in ASL than deaf children who had previously learned spoken English before losing their hearing at age 9 or later (Mayberry & others, 2002). This finding demonstrates the benefits of early language learning. The from-birth deaf children had not had sufficient language exposure at a time when their brains could most easily respond to language stimulation. Without this stimulation, Wernicke's and Broca's areas did not completely form. The system of communication in our brain that we use to comprehend speech and to produce our own wasn't present in these children. This can be related to the idea that "neurons that fire together, wire together." The average human brain has a system that allows us to listen to speech, comprehend its meaning, and react to it. The brains of children who are deaf from birth are not allowed to make these connections and are therefore not able to learn speech in the same way that average children are. Other parts of their brains, however, allow them to comprehend and react to ASL, much as they would to regular language. This exemplifies the plasticity of a child's brain.

One way psychologists study language is through triangulation of results using primates. When looking at language in other animals, criteria must be developed. According to Hockett (1960), in order to be considered language, communication must possess semanticity (morphemes must contain meaning), arbitrariness (the letters ‘cat’ refer to a feline), displacement (in the absence of the object, ideas can still be expressed), prevarication (humor), and productivity (wide ranges of ideas can be expressed). Language also needs to be completely unique to every person; in order for any sort of communication to be considered as language, the animal speaking it has to be able to come up with unique word combinations on its own. Without the idea of unique language, some communication that is inherent in certain species could be called language. Admittedly, these criteria are possibly too stringent.

Important animal studies[edit | edit source]

Washoe, 1-year-old female common champanzee- in four years of training, learned 132 ASL signs, and was at the telegraphic speech stage (Gardner, 1969). Though her trainers believed she showed some comprehension of grammar, deaf signers noticed fewer signs (Pinker,1994) and other researchers doubt the grammatical conclusions of the Gardners.

Kanzi, male bonabo chimpanzee- learned to understand 60 lexigrams and use 50. By four years he had created 500 combinations of words. A study found that Kanzi was correct 82% of the time when told a command in the form “Go ___ to get ___” while a 2-year-old girl was only correct 45% of the time (Savage-Rumbaugh & others, 1993). Of course, he had been well-trained in retrieving objects.

Panbinisha, bonobo chimpanzee- raised emersed in language, learned 3000 words in 14 years. She also could form grammatically correct sentences and exhibited the criterion of prevarication. She understood that a person was looking for a sweet, and not the insect that it had been replaced with (Leake, 1999).

Important Theories and Theorists[edit | edit source]

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Piaget hypothesized that humans desire a state of cognitive balance and in order to adapt an individual will use assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of changing one's environment to place into the preexisting schema. Accommodation is the process of changing the cognitive structure to adapt to the new environment. Children have to develop first mentally in order to develop language. Piaget believed that children create their world through interactions that build the schemas, mental structures of the mind. This coincides with the constructivist view which is a "viewpoint in [the] learning theory which holds that individuals acquire knowledge by building it from innate capabilities interacting with the environment". Constructivist theory suggests that as students learn, they don’t memorize or take on others' conceptions of reality; instead, they create their own meaning and understanding of reality. He also held many other key ideas which helped shape his beliefs on how young children learn and develop language. For instance:

Classification- the ability to group objects together on the basis of common features.

Class inclusion- understanding and more advanced than classification; also understanding that some classes or sets of objects are also sub-sets of a larger class.

Conservation- The realization that objects or sets of objects stay the same even when they are changed or made to look different.

Egocentrism- The belief that you are the center of the universe and everything revolves around you which disable you to see the world as someone else does and adapt to it. According to Piaget however, this is not mere moral "selfishness" it is rather an early stage of psychological development.

Operation- The process of working something out in your head; young children have to act things out instead of working problems out in their heads like older children and adults can often do.

He also developed a four stage model of cognitive development.

1. Sensorimotor stage (Infancy-0 to 2 years). Knowledge of the world is limited because it is only based on immediate physical interactions / experiences. During this time the infant experiences very . The infant also has a lack of object perception. General symbolic function allows language and object permanence to develop.

2. Pre-operational stage (Toddler and Early Childhood-2 to 7 years) The child's knowledge is dominated by the external world and its appearances. A child will only focus on one aspect of something at a time. The ability to carry out logical operations of the world is limited and the child lacks the understanding of categories. Thought is still egocentric and the child has with conservation task, such as distinguishing the volume of water in different glasses.

3. Concrete operational stage (Elementary and early adolescence-7 to 11 years). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops and the child is able to do more activities at once. Egocentric thought diminishes.

4. Formal operational stage (Adolescence and adulthood-11 to 15 years). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. The ability to generate abstract propositions, multiple hypotheses and their possible outcomes is evident. Ideas can be thought about mentally without concrete examples. Problems are approached in a systematic way and formal logical systems can be acquired.

Criticisms of Piaget[edit | edit source]

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

The major theme of Vygotsky's theory is that language and thought start off as separate processes but gradually unite to influence each other through social learning that actually leads to cognitive development. Vygotsky's theory was an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization

Vygotsky (1978) states: "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals."

According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills. When Piaget observed young children participating in egocentric speech in their preoperational stage, he believed it was a phase that disappeared once the child reached the stage of concrete operations. In contrast, Vygotsky viewed this egocentric speech as a transition from social speech to internalized thoughts.

Vygotsky's theory is that the potential for cognitive development depends upon the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD): a level of development attained when children engage in social behavior. Vygotsky describes it as "the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky, 1978). Full development of the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.

The importance of Vygotsky's theory is that it showed that Piaget had under emphasized the role of social factors in cognitive development. It also helped other psychologist, such as Bruner, to conduct more research to provide evidence for this theory. Overall, Vygotsky's theory has successfully been applied to education.

Jerome S. Bruner (1915- )

Bruner believed that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given". Bruner was more concerned with how knowledge was represented and organized as the child developed, and therefore proposed that there are modes of representation. He believed there were three different modes that allow the child to develop its thought process:

1. The Enactive Mode (0 to 1 years) Bruner believed that babies represent or interact with the world through their actions and therefore knowledge is stored in the babies muscle memory.

2. The Iconic Mode (1 to 6 years) This mode demonstrates knowledge developing through visual or auditory likeness or images. Children in this mode have difficulty thinking beyond these images as in categorizing the knowledge or understanding the relationships between objects.

3. The Symbolic Mode (7 to adult) Bruner believed that during this mode children were able to encode the world in terms of information storing symbols, like the words of our language or numbers in mathematics. Then the information can be categorized and summarized so that it can be more readily altered and considered. Therefore children can think beyond the physical images of the iconic mode.

Similar to Vygotsky, Bruner stressed the importance of education and social interaction as major influences upon cognitive development, and more specifically proposed that society provides language which gives us thought. Bruner believed that language is symbolic/logical/operational thought, and one can not occur without the other, which is opposite of Piaget's belief that language was simply a tool used to reflect and describe the underlying symbolic cognitive structures. Bruner rejected Piaget's theory that cognitive structures could only be developed through the child's individual maturation and interaction with the world, and proposed that language training can speed up cognitive development.

Essay Questions[edit | edit source]

1. Compare, using appropriate examples, the behaviorist and cognitive views on language development.

2. To what extent do you agree that animals are capable of language?

3. Assess one of the theories of the language development. Be sure to include references to the perspectives and use examples!