[lit-ideas] Re: The Order of Aurality (ratification of fiction?)

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 09 Mar 2012 13:26:06 -0800

David Ritchie wrote
The current Alexander Mc Call Smith, "The Forgotten Affairs of Youth" opens with Elizabeth Dalhousie and son and lover musing on language questions. She reports that James IV conducted an experiment to see what language children would speak if they weren't exposed to English. She says he thought the answer might be Hebrew. He sent two children to Inchkeith Island to be raised in the care of a nurse who was unable to speak. Dalhousie and her lover conclude that they children would have invented a rudimentary language. Something I heard on the radio recently suggested that without early exposure to language the children not only wouldn't have spoken, they would have been unable to learn to speak. Something to do with neural wotsits...about which I know nothing.


     How do children acquire language? Do parents teach their children
     to talk?

No. Children acquire language quickly, easily, and without effort or formal teaching. It happens automatically, whether their parents try to teach them or not.

Although parents or other caretakers don't teach their children to speak, they do perform an important role by talking to their children. Children who are never spoken to will not acquire language. And the language must be used for interaction with the child; for example, a child who regularly hears language on the TV or radio but nowhere else will not learn to talk.*

Children acquire language through interaction - not only with their parents and other adults, but also with other children. All normal children who grow up in normal households, surrounded by conversation, will acquire the language that is being used around them. And it is just as easy for a child to acquire two or more languages at the same time, as long as they are regularly interacting with speakers of those languages.


It's far easier for a child to acquire language as an infant and toddler than it will be for the same child to learn, say, French in a college classroom 18 years later. Many linguists now say that a newborn's brain is already programmed to learn language, and in fact that when a baby is born he or she already instinctively knows a lot about language. This means that it's as natural for a human being to talk as it is for a bird to sing or for a spider to spin a web. In this sense, language may be like walking: The ability to walk is genetic, and children develop the ability to walk whether or not anybody tries to teach them to do so. In the same way, children develop the ability to talk whether or not anybody tries to teach them. For this reason, many linguists believe that language ability is genetic. Researchers believe there may be a 'critical period' (lasting roughly from infancy until puberty) during which language acquisition is effortless. According to these researchers, changes occur in the structure of the brain during puberty, and after that it is much harder to learn a new language.

---'Language Acquisition,' by Betty Birner <http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-lang_acq.cfm>


*The 'Wittgensteinian factor.'

I've been told that there's a point (age) after which children can no longer acquire a natural language, although now it it seems much more complicated than that.

(I don't know how 'the ratification of fiction,' words I was using for another purpose, got in the subject line of this note.)

Robert Paul

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