Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How we learn language

From the Quadrangle magazine:

“Humans have evolved with some general capacities to do things like remember, pay attention, recognize patterns,” says psychologist Laura Namy, who heads the Language and Learning Lab at Emory’s Child Study Center.

"Pattern recognition, for example, can help you see a tiger in the grass, which would have helped early humans, but that same cognitive capacity can lend itself to lots of other skills, including the trick of discovering how language works."

Early on, children use gestures spontaneously, Namy says. "They might make one hand motion for ‘more,’ another for ‘juice,’ or ‘up.’ Then as verbal vocabulary develops, the gestures sort of fall by the wayside. While it’s not anything we teach our kids, we want to learn what parents do to encourage this, either with their own gestures or by their responses.”

Our sensitivity to tone of voice is remarkable, too. “When we stress words in certain ways, for instance by saying ‘eNORmous’ or ‘teeny-weeny,’ we’re doing with our voice what we would call an iconic gesture with our hands. And kids get that,” Namy says. “Even with made-up words, pre-schoolers can reliably infer from these cues whether a word should mean big or small, hot or cold. We can even filter speech so that content is gone and all that’s left is tone of voice. And even then, people can guess.”

Sound symbolism goes further. In English, for example, sl words often refer to slippery or slimy things, and sn words to nasal things (think sniffle and snort). “And while that’s not true for all words in every language, there is something about certain sound clusters that makes them common carriers of meaning across languages,” Namy says. “If you play an Urdu word to native English speakers who’ve never heard Urdu and ask them to say if it means tall or short, they guess right more often than chance would allow.”

Emory recently brought together leading scholars in the emerging field of sound symbolism for a conference: “Sound Symbolism: Challenging the Arbitrariness of Language.”

Uncovering secrets of sound symbolism
Gestures may point to speech origins
What is your baby thinking?

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