Babbling babies

There was an interesting piece in The Times yesterday about a new book, The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Charles Yang of the University of Pennsylvania, in which he argues that babies are born with templates for the grammatical structures of all languages in their brains, but gradually forget them as they become familiar with the structure of their mother tongue.

Professor Yang, who’s theories are based on Noam Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar, suggests that when babies babble, they are trying out the various templates until they find one that ‘works’, i.e. that earns them encouragement and praise from their parents and others. So the strange word order or constructions young children use, might be correct in other languages. For example, the sentence ‘I want ball’ is ungrammatical in English but perfectly grammatical in Russian, Chinese and other languages which do not have articles.

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

2 Responses to Babbling babies

  1. TJ says:

    I don’t know what is meant really by “template” of grammatical structures but does it have to do anything with genes?
    Well, I read once for example that the human is born with sixth sense but gradually the human being forgets about it because of lack of use. The story here somehow sounds the same, but, we are talking about grammar and not a sense of something!
    It’s an interesting theory however. Maybe one day we can enable our next generations and make them flexible for language learning simply by adjusting genes or so (although still this is highly an ethical matter).

  2. Pg says:

    When I took a ling class a wee while ago, one of the interesting things I remembered hearing was similar to this, about how every child is born with the tools, but they effectively begin to throw out the ones they deem unnecessary in a short amount of time. Specifically, the prof was talking about how Japanese babies lose the English “r” at around 6 months of age, which could be part of why adult Japanese who learn English later in life have trouble pronouncing mor/phonemes including the letter.

    I imagine for children who grow up in bilingual environments, this is a more pleasurable experience, as they find they can say a wider range of things and recieve positive feedback in their production.