Language and its Learning


  • Psychology
    • Cognitive
    • Developmental
    • Gestalt
    • Behaviourist
  • Linguistics
  • Education and learning
  • Poststructuralism

Relevance to Psychology:

Linguistics started out as Latin and Greek grammar, and important as it became in Mediaeval and Renaissance education, it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that a Darwinian approch began, asking how one language evolved from another. This meant an historical approach, and was itself superseded by looking at the nature of language in the job it does, from De Sassure, with reference to meaning. The behaviourist approach, without reference to the mind's activities itself, had some wind, and then others saw that taxonomies went beyond any one language. Then psychology really became significant (after the behaviourists) when Chomsky (1965) asked what it is people need in order to learn a language, and his answer was the innate mental structure to handle language, where the mind has a language based processor to learn language. Linguistics itself remains relevant but narrower, and behaviourism is inadequate for what is a speculation about mental structure from predicting how a child in particular gains the ability to speak and understand beyond the conditioning of those around.
(Jackson, 1969, 214-215)

Language In and Out:

  • Comprehension
    • Parsing (sentence processing)
      • Speaker and hearer know the grammatical rules and word order
      • Writer and reader know the grammatical rules and word order
    • Parsing views:
      • Serial:
        • One after another syntactic analysis for ambiguous sentences
      • Parallel:
        • Multiple syntactic analyses at once
      • Misleading ambiguous sentences up "garden path" (Frazier, Rayner, 1982):
        • Due to minimum given to reading/ hearing to get context (this to speed processing)
      • Context reaffirmed:
        • Working out a context first from a sentence influences meaning from its grammar and then any ambiguity slows reading time
      • Constraint based (MacDonald, et al., 1994)
        • Different words into the same grammatical structure limit syntactic (meaning) possibilities
        • Evidence gathers for the real meaning
    • Pragmatics (goal based intended meaning) (Austin, 1976)
      • Locutionary force or literal meaning
      • Illocutionary force or intended meaning
      • Perlocutionary force or effect on the listener
      • (Intended meaning seems to take no longer to process in reception than literal meaning)
    • Inner speech (silent to the world) when reading:
      • Faster (150-200 wpm becomes around 300) (Eysenck, Keane, 2000, 341) due to:
        • Abbreviated phonological output
        • No motor work
      • Puts word order into working memory
      • Those who read more into working memory have sufficient working memory capacity to handle ambiguity when parsing meaning from grammar (Just, Carpenter, 1992)
    • Use of lip reading
  • Receptive language
    • Categorical speech perception of phemones
    • Reading letters, words and phrases
    • Hearing and recognising words in context
      • Phonemic restoration
      • Prosody - speech stress
      • Motor of the hearer mimicing the speaker
        • Cannot be all
      • Word cohort
        • Initial phenomes to (early or late) word recognition eliminating meanings out of sentence context
      • Trace model
        • Voicing, phenomes and words interconnect and cause excitation and inhibition and activate candidate words to levels of recognition
(See Eysenck, Keane, 2000, 307)
  • Expression
    • Participant and Spectator (Britton, 1972)
      • Transactional
        • Using language to achieve a direct material result
        • Participant role
          • Example: buying and selling
      • Expressive
        • Half way
        • Participant and Spectator
        • Free to fluctuate
      • Poetic
        • Using language for its qualities and subtleties of meaning
        • Spectator role
          • Example: the novel
      • Note that all language is symbolic; even transactional language has to be poetic to some degree
    • Metacognition (see Vygotsky, 1978)
      • Concrete
        • Direct material language
        • The world consists of concrete realities
        • There is but one actual truth
        • Learning style at least up to puberty
      • Abstract
        • Higher order meaning
        • Programmatic cognitive accelaration into deeper understanding (Adey, 1991)
          • Adult interaction pushing the child
          • Giving to many the thought abilities of the highly able
          • The "gifted" get abstract learning faster
        • World is of multiple possibilities and competing claims
        • There may be ultimately one truth or not
  • Productive language
    • Reception and copmprehension via producing
      • For example, parsing is in the production of grammar
(See Gleason, 1955, 12-13)
The following diagrams are both reception based (hearing, reading) and yet involve output in the sense that the process of understanding and interpreting is the process of producing (in both cases, speech).
(Derived from Eysenck, Keane, 2000, 315, adapted from Ellis, Young, 1988)
(Derived from Eysenck, Keane, 2000, 326, adapted from Ellis, Young, 1988)

An interesting exercise regarding the above diagram is to reverse it: what is involved moving from speech to writing?
Note that the diagrams above each carry but one (rather useful) explanation. The reading diagram shows readers taking different paths for unfamiliar words and no lexical reference for non-words. Others, like Plaut and Shallice (1993) and Plaut et al. (1996), argue for a much more interactionist approach at every level in a network of grapheme, phoneme and semantic meaning towards the pronunciation of read non-words as well as words (if produced at different speeds) so that semantics do play a part in the armoury of understanding in how to speak even non-words.

Order of Learning:

  • Phonology
    • Sounds
  • Semantics
    • Meaning
  • Syntax
    • Grammar and Rules
  • Pragmatics
    • Modification for context
(Shaffer, 1993)


From Action Description

Immediate Children cry Reactions and attention
Around 3 weeks Fake cries Like sound of own voice
3 to 5 weeks Coo Vowel sounds
4 to 6 weeks Babble  
4 to 6 weeks Echolalia Repetition of phenomes (mamama)
8 months Discrimination babble Clue to which language

8 months (to 18) Holophrastic period Single words
16 months daddy, gone, more, there, teddy
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)
Explanations include:
  • Limited attention span
  • Small vocabulary
  • Limited cognition
  • Straining to say more
Order of use:
  1. Objects
    • Two thirds of all words
  2. Doing words
  3. Modifiers
  4. Social words
  5. Function words
    • e.g. where, when
(McNeill, 1970; Nelson, 1973)

18 months Telegraphic period Speech like telegrams
Two parts to word utterances that strain meaning:
  • Pivot words (often given, same position)
  • Open words (rarely used)
Word order:
  • Agent
  • Action
  • Object
  • Location

(Brown, 1973)
21 months daddy here, see daddy, want book, no potty, big car, in box, where teddy
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)
24 months want that car, my daddy gone, box in there
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)
27 months daddy kick ball, teddy gone now, where that teddy gone, want more milk in there
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)

2.5 (to 5) years Morphenes rise Meaningful units of language
  • Includes grammatical morphenes
  • Simple
    • e.g. in, on
  • Complex
    • e.g. they're, we're
In this period it is clear that children do not just copy but apply rules themselves:
  • They often apply rules wrongly
    • Over regularisation
30 months daddy gone town in car, me want more those, that man do kick that ball, where you put that big car
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)
36 months daddy gone in the garden, and he did fall over, you pick that ball up, cos it's pretty
(Crystal, Varley, 1993, 177)

2.5 (to 5) years Pragmatics introduced Style of speech altered for contexts
  • Children simplify for younger children
  • Children full range for adults

Developmental Explanation

The Nativist explanation says that language capability is inbuilt, and therefore children will develop themselves rule of grammar (method) and syntax (meaning).

Chomsky first introduced in 1965 the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This contained:
  • Deep structure of grammar
  • All possible meanings
Thus it helped to deliver the:
  • Surface structure of grammar in any language
  • Intended meaning
  • Actual words
The issue is whether such a device actually exists. Perhaps Chomsky himself doubted it. He changed his mind when he replaced LAD with Universal Grammar. This now suggested that all language has:
  • Substantive universals
    • Nouns, Verbs etc.
  • Formal Universals
    • General rules
There is support for the inbuilt view:
  • The difficulty animals have with anything other than vocabulary
  • Grammar and syntax seem to be acquired up to biological maturation
    • After puberty only vocabulary is easily added
  • Young children can learn two languages quite easily
  • Older children and adults struggle more to learn
    • Formal methods are needed

The Environmentalist approach derives from behaviourism and argues that:
  • There are echoic responses in children
  • Language results from operant conditioning
    • Language is shaped by reward and punishment
This just does not match the evidence.

  • Children learn the grammar faster than the conditioning.
  • Nevertheless, motherese does help
    • This is where the primary carer speaks in more complex sentences than the child

The Interactionist approach is the social stimulation of language:
  • Without stimulation some children fail to speak
  • Children's grammar suffers in quality when not stimulated
  • They can recover quickly when entering a stimulating environment
  • Children need the stimulus of conversation
    • It is not enough to be put in front of a television
Bruner in 1983 came up with Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) taking his cue from Chomsky (though Chomsky soon dropped LAD).

Non-Unique but In-Bred view:

The argument is made that even if children do learn language with cognitive capability beyond copying and reinforcement, this is not to say that there is a LAD in the brain or a Universal Grammar.
New born babies have other capabilities as well as developing the ability to differentiate units of sound. For example, they can, before four months, group colours. They detect shapes, the horizontal from the vertical and the symmetrical from the asymmetrical. They detect melodies.
Scientifically, colours are wavelengths of light: continuous from one colour to another. So the classifying is biological in force and across the board, yet all these are forms of symbolism. Some people hearing certain word-sounds and (numbers too) see colours and positional arrangements. Ramachandran (2003 BBC Reith lectures) has shown some of these connections in everyone, between spiky and rounded words and the shapes they suggest. This is Synesthaesia. Mental errors show these connections by confusion of one to the other all the more clearly.
Are these primarily grammatical? Surely they indicate instead cognitive method: classification (boundary drawing) and ordering. Children are not born raring to go with absorbing and producing a language as soon as they have grown a little, but rather start to classify, and order, and build. This is a gestalt approach of finding minimal boxes, but one of the brain rather than objectively out there. Rapid absorption is paralleled with rapid categorising.
There is a further and important likelihood here. The human immediately sets about grouping and connected data into associated units and this is an act of simplifying. We do not know how much higher animal life does this: if not (very much) then the symbolic world for animals is one gigantic forest of trees whereas the human sees the wood. The symbolic world for an animal is a mess and becomes an impossibility. Except, of course, that there is some recognition and classifying going on with some of the highest, responsive animals. Nevertheless, the human who has acquired the ability to classify and arrange, and to represent this, and has this cognitive learning of finely attuned meaning, has a huge evolutionary advantage. It becomes planning, communicating specifics and a library of past achievements by which no one who acquires the language has to begin at the same place as the forebears.
Then as the classifying is done concretely comes the developmental ability to raise this to the level of handling abstract concepts in a similar way. Except this time thinking recognises that there might be no overall objective result from the classifying, that truths clash, and may not be truths at all but just working expressions (poetics all), or even that truths only come together at a higher level. Language and learning begins with the simplest of categorising and word combinations, and rises (in decreasing numbers of people) until it becomes highly abstracted and based in the pluralistic and even, possibly, the poststructural.


All sources marked + quoted in Eynsenck, Keane, 2000, * quoted in Eynsenck, Flanagan, 2001, and x quoted in Montgomery, 1996.

x Adey, P. S. (1991), Pulling Yourself Up by your own Thinking, European Journal for High Ability, 2, 28-34.

+ Austin, J. L. (1976), How to Do Things with Words, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* Brown, R. (1973), A First Language: The Early Stages, London: George Allen and Unwin.

* Braine, M. D. S. (1963), 'The Ontology of English Phrase Structure: The First Phase', Language, 39, 1-13.

* Bruner, J. S. (1983), Child's Talk, New York: Norton.

* Chomsky, N. (1965), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use, New York: Praeger.

* Chomsky, N. (1986), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cosin, B. R., Dale, I. R., Esland, G. M., Swift, D. F. (1971), School and Society: A Sociological Reader, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, The Open University.

Crystal, D., Varley, R. (1993), Introduction to Language Pathology, 3rd Edition, London: Whurr Publishers.

+ Ellis, A. W., Young, A. W. (2000), Human Cognitive Neuropsychology, Hove: Psychology Press.

Eynsenck, M. W., Flanagan, C. (2001), Psychology for A2 Level, Hove: Psychology Press, 329-338.

Eynsenck, M. W., Keane, M. T. (2000), Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook, Hove: Psychology Press, 305-391.

+ Frazier, L., Rayner, K. (1982), 'Making and Correcting Errors in the Analysis of Structurally Ambiguous Sentences', Cognitive Psychology, 14, 178-210.

* Gleason, M. A. (1955), An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

Jackson, L. (1969), 'Radical Conceptual Change and the Design of Honours Degrees', in Cosin, et al., 1971, 212-218.

Just, M. A., Carpenter, P. A. (1992), 'A Capacity Theory of Comprehension', Psychological Review, 99, 122-149.

+ MacDonald, M. C., Pearlmutter, N. J., Seidenberg, M. S. (1994), 'Lexical nature of Syntactic Ambiguity Resolution', Psychological Review, 101, 676-703

* McNeill, D. (1970), The Acquisition of Language: The Study of Developmental Psycholinguistics, New York, Harper and Row.

Montgomery, D. (1996), Educating the Able, London: Cassell.

* Nelson, K. (1973), 'Structure and Strategy in Learning to Talk', Monograph of the Society for Research in Child Development, 38, Serial number 149.

+ Plaut, D. C., McClelland, J. L., Seidenberg, M. S., Patterson, K. (1996), 'Understanding Normal and Impaired Word Reading: Computational Principles in Quasi-Regular Domains', Psychological Review, 103, 56-115.

+ Plaut, D. C., Shallice, T. (1993), 'Deep Dyslexia: A Case Study of Connectionist Neuropsychology', Cognitive Neuropsychology', 10, 377-500.

Ramachandran (2003), Reith Lectures , 1 to 5, London: BBC.

* Shaffer, D. R. (1993), Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, 3rd Edition, Pacific Grove CA: Brookes/ Cole.

x Vygotsky, L. S. (1978), Mind in Society, Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful