ITHACA, N.Y. -- Kids understand the smartest things even before they cansay the words, according to a Cornell University psycholinguist. Herstudies of American and Chinese children provide new compelling evidencethat human babies are born to grasp the complex rules of word order andsentence structure in any language.
"Our studies show that both American and Taiwanese children as young as 3years of age already possess a remarkable knowledge of language structureand syntax which is so complex and precise that it must challenge any knownlearning theory to account for its acquisition," says Barbara Lust, adevelopmental cognitive psycholinguist who has been heading studies onlanguage acquisition in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell for morethan 15 years.
She is presenting her research at a symposium at the annual meeting of theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 16 inPhiladelphia.
"This ability of young children requires complex analysis and complexinterpretations that were never taught; and it is difficult to imagine howthey could be derived by unguided induction alone," Lust says. "Thisevidence supports the idea that humans are biologically programmed for alanguage faculty which guides language acquisition."
Lust and her collaborators conducted the English portion of the research by86 American children between the ages of 3 and 7 to act out sentences suchas, "Ernie touches the ground and Big Bird does, too," "Oscar bites hisbanana and Bert does, too," and "Big Bird scratches his arm and Ernie does,too." Such sentences includes information that is not given, such as, whatdoes Ernie do in the last sentence ? Does he scratch Big Bird's arm or hisown arm? Each sentence appears simple, but actually has four correctgrammatical interpretations and five incorrect interpretations.
Lust says that consistently, children as young as 3 understand theambiguity and different interpretations and have the knowledge tounderstand what is "not present" in the sentence . In addition, she says,they do not make the interpretations that aren't grammatically possible.
Lust, is co-director of Cornell's interdisciplinary Cognitive StudiesProgram and a professor of human development as well as of modern languagesand linguistics.
Working with Chinese researchers, Lust also conducted matched studies withchildren whose parents spoke Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. She found thatthese children also understood the complex grammar of their language inways similar to the American children learning English.
Linguists are divided about supporting Noam Chomsky's theory of universalgrammar -- the idea that children are born with an innate ability todevelop language. But Lust's research provides new and compelling evidencethat kids don't just copy-cat to learn their language but are born with theability to "crack the codes" of their language through structural analysis.Specifically, they early can figure out their language's system of wordmeaning, sentence structure and sounds (semantics, syntax and phonology).
Lust believes this language faculty in young children is universal. "Inprevious work, we have compared the acquisition of more than 16 differentlanguages, and in each language we have seen the power of the individualchild's mind in creating the formal and highly complex grammatical systemthat linguists spend their careers puzzling over," Lust says. "Whereprofessional linguists take years trying to figure out the rules andprinciples and parameters of language, children, infuriatingly, seem ableto create the right theory for whatever language is around them -- English,French, Japanese or Tulu -- within just three years."
Lust works with graduate students, including native speakers of Chinese,Japanese , Spanish and Tulu in the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory.She and her students also collaborate with native speakers in more than adozen other languages, including German, Dutch, Swedish, Korean, Arabic,Indonesian, Sinhalese, Inuktitut, and the South Asian languages Hindi,Tamil and Malayalam. Through her work, Lust and her students havedeveloped a database of samples from 800 to 1,000 young children atdifferent developmental periods across the languages they study, eachtranslated and cross-referenced by developmental stage and linguisticstructure.
On the English study, Lust collaborated with former graduate student ClaireFoley, now a professor at Morehead University, former graduate studentIsabella Barbier who now teaches in Australia, and researcher KatharinaBoser, and with current graduate students, Zelmira Nuñez del Prado andWhitney Postman, as well as with undergraduates Julie Pactovis, MelanieKaye, Beth Rothenstein and Dorothy Lowe. On the Chinese study, Lust workedwith Chinese graduate student Fang Fang Guo and former graduate student YuChin Chien and Chi-Pang Chiang, a professor in Taiwan.
The research presented at the AAAS meeting was supported by in part by theNational Science Foundation.
Materials provided by Cornell University News Service. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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