Acquisition of Form Function Mapping of Morphology and Function Words Term Paper

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Language Acquisition: Nature, Nurture, or Both?

How exactly do children learn to connect language with the things around them? Though virtually all of us were participants in this complex process, a full understanding of how children learn language and learn through language is a matter of debate. Primarily, the debate takes on two major points on view. Those who argue for a nativist theory find that children have some built in or learned knowledge of ideas before the actual development of language (Shanker 481; Slobin 407). These theorists believe that functions of language are universal and innate. This is the "nature" side of the argument. In contrast, functionalists and anti-nativists argue that culture and language itself shape the meanings behind language (Bowerman and Choi 475; Slobin 407; Shanker 481). These theorists argue for a "nurture" argument, where children are more affected by their surroundings than their hard-wired genetics and development path. As might be expected, there are also theorists who fall somewhere in the middle, believing that children both possess some innate understanding of ideas before language and learn about ideas from language and culture.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Term Paper on Acquisition of Form Function Mapping of Morphology and Function Words Assignment

Since many of us can recognize the differences in language -- for example, the difference in language used in your own family vs. The neighbor's family -- functionalist thought is easily understood. Functionalist and anti-nativist theorists support the idea that human relationships and culture affect language and the ability to learn it (Maratsos and Matheny 487). The idea behind this train of thought is that language is a function of communication, and develops out of the common needs of human beings to communicate with one another. According to this school of thought, those in different cultures and those with different human relationships will develop different language systems (Maratsos and Matheny 487). Anti-nativists do not believe that children acquire an understanding of a thing before naming that thing (Slobin 406). Instead, they argue that children begin to learn ideas alongside language, with language changing their ideas as they go.

Once a nativist, Slobin changed his argument to that of a functionalist. His change of position was based on what he considers evidence supporting a non-nativist viewpoint. Among this evidence, Slobin explains that there are too big of differences in the construction of different cultures and languages. These differences include grammatical use,-word development, and word understanding. Each different language has many little differences that make the user of that language think about things in a certain way. The English language has many such points that are different - or nonexistent - in other languages. These include plural words and possessive words, just to name a few (Brown 513; Heike 452; Slobin 407-408). Ideas like ownership and numbering are shaped by these language changes, as is apparent in different cultures.

One example of word use and naming having different associations is the difference in naming traditions in Navajo culture. Since the Navajo consider their names private and spiritual, they do not call themselves by those names. In cases where non-Navajo people have given them "white" names, Navajo have looked at those names as a word with a function instead of a way to identify with themselves (Shanker 481). Heike points out another language / cultural difference, citing that the English phrases "I am wearing pants" and "I am putting pants on" are the same phrase in Japanese (452). Slobin believes that differences like the examples given here, which appear to be based on language differences, are evidence of anti-nativist language learning (407).

The anti-nativist theories do not get by without criticism (or there would not be much of a debate). Not all critics completely disagree with anti-nativist theory, either: as a theorist who falls somewhere in between the two schools of thought, Heike finds that language learning based only on language is hard to believe (450). In studying how children learn about time and tense, Heike explains that children must have some cognitive understanding pre-language. To learn about things that happened before or after certain events, or to learn that something "was" or "is" implies that a child must first be able to understand how they fit into their own past and present experiences (Heike 450-451). So, while Heike agrees that the grammatical and semantic differences of language shape understanding, he also believes that children do have some pre-language knowledge. Heike also agrees, and disagrees, with the nativists on some ideas as well.

Nativists like Bowerman and Choi, for example, disagree with Slobin and Heike on the relationship between culture and language. However, nativists and Heike agree that a child has some basic ideas before the development of language. Bowerman and Choi and other nativists base much of their argument on the results of cross-linguistic studies. In the studies' results, children from many different languages and cultures appear to have similar early language. That is, the different children's first words were of similar types. Words like "mama" and words naming the things around them were most common (Bowerman and Choi 476). Since children with different languages all began speaking using the same type of words, nativists believe that the children's language was the natural result of their cognitive development (Bowerman and Choi 476; Maratsos and Matheny 487). In other words, the children are believed to have understood the concept or thing and then sought out the words to name that concept or thing (Bowerman and Choi 476).

This idea can be supported by a child's quick learning of so many words during the toddler years; during this time, a child is exposed to many new ideas and, as such, seeks out new names for those ideas. This, say nativists, shows that children are experiencing the development of language after the formation of ideas. Nativists also point to the additional evidence for nativism in that babies appear to understand things long before they can talk. Examples of this include a baby's ability to recognize loved ones or react to games like peek-a-boo and certain patterns in activity. This is also supported by the fact that children's first words are often the names of loved ones (Bowerman and Choi 476).

While nativists claim that the evidence of cross-linguistic studies is strong, anti-Nativists like Brown and Shanker find that their evidence does not cover all languages and cultures. Both Brown and Shanker imply that many of the current world languages have become similar over the years. Such similarities would make it more difficult to recognize what language is really innate in children. Additionally, Shanker finds that it differences in language are more easily recognized in languages and cultures that have small groups, like those of the Native Americans (481). In small groups it is more likely that cultural and language differences will be recognizable and different from the "mainstream" ideas of language and learning.

In his studies of the Mayan / Tzeltal language system, Brown found that children of that language did not learn words in the same patterns suggested by the nativist school of thought. Brown believes that it is the Tzeltal language itself that makes language learning trends different for these children; since the language has unusual and highly specific verbs, Brown believes that the children develop vastly different ideas about what kinds of meanings verbs and language can have (513). He finds this study to be evidence that children learn through language, since these children did not follow the common patterns based on child development of ideas. In other words, nativists who believe that language is the result of children developing ideas naturally do not account for this and other anomalies in their primary argument.

Critics of nativist theory also cite that many elements of the theory do not add up. For example, how can anyone be sure that a child learns an idea first? Anti-nativist theorists point out the difficulty that many children have with adjectives and pronouns, explaining that these words do not seem to be well-defined in the child's mind before knowledge of the word (Shanker 481). It may also be the case that children learn to repeat words that they hear from parents or others without fully understanding what the words mean. For example, many children sing along to songs without knowing what many of the words in the song mean. Additionally, many children in early language stages repeat the words of others to learn vocalization, often saying words without seeming to mean anything at all. Though they know all of the song's words, they do not have the understanding of ideas that must accompany the language. Anti-nativists and linguistic anthropologists like Shanker find this as evidence that children learn language from language, not the other way around (481).

Despite their differences, nativists and anti-nativists share some ideas. Theorists from both sides, for example, would likely agree that a lack of stimulation would affect language learning. (However, nativists would say that the lack of stimulation hindered cognitive development, while anti-nativists would say that it sheltered them from human and cultural contact). Both sides would… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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