Children start learning a language from birth, going from babbling to being able to communicate their wants and needs clearly, and continue their learning throughout their lives. TRT World asked linguists how this miraculous occurrence takes place.

“Children,” says Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Sumru Ozsoy of Bogazici University, “are not trained or taught in terms of language. They internalise from the day they are born to up to three years the language system of the adults surrounding them.”

She clarifies: “No adult tells them ‘This is how you structure a sentence in Turkish’ and teaches them.”

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics Dan Slobin of UC Berkeley further explains: “Any child, anywhere in the world, can learn to speak and understand a language simply by interacting with other people who use the language. Two factors are important: (1) hearing the language (or, for deaf children, seeing the language in the form of hand signs), and (2) interacting with speakers (or signers).”

According to Slobin, interaction is “critical” because the child learns what words mean by using them and seeing how people respond, and by trying to follow instructions, make requests, answer questions and more.

In an email interview with TRT World, Slobin says you cannot learn a language just by watching TV: “You need to be part of the conversation. Parents and other caregivers have to engage the child in talk—ask questions, give explanations—and encourage children to ask questions and to talk about their own experiences.”

In a phone interview with TRT World, Ozsoy says there is an assumption that there’s a cognitive system for a language acquisition device. This concept, generative grammar, is one of Noam Chomsky’s propositions: all children are born with a predisposition to acquire a human language.

Ozsoy notes that Chomsky’s theory, which has been around for decades, has been challenged on a regular basis.

“Yet,” she notes, “the challenge remains a challenge.” She further explains that the challengers have not been able to completely disprove Chomsky’s theory, which has undergone modifications during the long time it has been around.

According to Ozsoy, the innateness hypothesis says language is innate to us – not a specific language but Universal Grammar – there is a model of Universal Grammar that every human child is born with. “What the child does is once he or she starts getting the input from his environment the child starts superimposing, mapping the data onto this internal language, internal system. Starts forming his own grammar of his native language.”

Ozsoy says “Chomsky does say and emphasise the significance of primary linguistic data. That the child has to be involved. It does not mean that just because the child is born with this innate system that the child will be able to realise his full potential. No. The child has to be exposed to data.”

So in order for the innate language ability in a child to be triggered, data from the external world is needed. Ozsoy says the child is not born as a blank slate, but picks up cues from its environment. Yet these cues are nothing like learning a new language as an adult, where you learn the grammar and vocabulary in a structured manner. “In learning a second language the learners are exposed in a very formal way.”

Ozsoy says a child’s development is not immediate, that it goes in stages: “He does not come out with a full 10-word sentence at the age of eight months old. But he starts with the first word and then he progresses.“

She notes that even though there have been challenges to Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, which posits that there is an innate mechanism in the human brain that helps children acquire language, it still has not been completely disproven.

Asked about Chomsky, and his predecessor, behaviourist psychologist BF Skinner whom Chomsky opposed, Slobin suggests he finds their work “irrelevant to language development in the 21st century,” pointing out current debates, for example, the differences between intelligent problem-solving and learning by statistical calculation, that create much more curiosity in academia.

All languages are equally complex and equally easy to acquire in the first few years of life.
All languages are equally complex and equally easy to acquire in the first few years of life. (Miguel Sanz / Getty Images)

Nature and nurture

Slobin says language is just like any other skill, and requires no special training: “A child in a small jungle community in New Guinea, for example, or in an isolated desert community in Africa, goes through the same processes, and uses the same abilities, as a child living in an apartment in Istanbul or a villa in Paris.”

This is what “nature” provides, he writes, the biological equipment, the learning capacity of the child, the child’s perceptual and motor coordination abilities, and cognitive processes that are “built-in” into all human beings, whether they can hear or not, whether they are mentally challenged or of above average intelligence, and regardless of where they live.

Slobin groups all that is outside of “nature” into “nurture” and says both aspects play equal and essential roles. While the study of nature, he notes, is in the realm of neuroscientists and biological psychologists, the study of nurture is of interest to psychologists, anthropologists and linguists, he delineates.

Slobin notes that to learn any particular language, you have to learn how to say the things that are required by the structure of that language.

He gives an example of Turkish, in which a child explains to his grandmother that his father has gone to work. Whether he witnessed him leaving or not will change the verb tense he uses: Ise gitti, for having seen daddy leave, and Ise gitmis, for having heard about daddy leaving for work.

Slobin says “Turkish requires the speaker to be clear about the source of information.  This is systematically built into the language.  You have no neutral way of saying ‘went to work’.  The language forces you to say how you know.”

Slobin then gives an example from English, in which a child says I put the ball on the table, or I put the ball in the box. Slobin makes the distinction: “The language requires him to pay attention to in versus on.” A Turkish child may say masaya koydum, kutuya koydum, putting the same directional suffix, -ya on both masa and kutu.

“In Turkish you don’t have to attend—every time you say something—to whether an object is located on a surface or in a container. You know this, of course, because of the difference between tables and boxes, just as an English speaker knows if he saw daddy go to work or only heard about it or inferred it. 

“But each language trains the child to pay attention to particular aspects of experience because they are required for using words of that language. Those kinds of attention become habitual.  They remain in the background.  But they are always present. And they make it difficult to learn a language that makes different kinds of distinctions.”

Ideas today

Slobin says there are many different beliefs and ideologies these days, some scientific, some political. There’s one he disagrees with: That a parent is responsible for teaching the child language. He believes that “the child will always learn language” regardless of the parent’s actions. Yet, of course, the child’s language acquisition process could be helped by “engaging the child in mutual conversation” with sentences and questions that go beyond orders and yes/no questions.

Slobin also says reading to the child is especially important because it provides settings that may be outside the child’s everyday experience and words and verbs for things and actions, feelings and so forth.

“The most useful kind of reading, for language learning,” Slobin says, “is to engage the child in discussion of what is being read, and to use reading materials supported by pictures.”

Slobin also champions bilingualism or learning even more languages while the child is young, despite a common belief that it may be difficult for the child. He says a child can easily acquire two or more languages, as long as they are “all used in meaningful communication.”

He says it may even be more beneficial to the child to learn more than one language, as, he says, there is increasing evidence that it creates “a sort of cognitive flexibility.” He gives an example of problem solving, where a child knows multiple ways of talking about a problem in different languages, and attempts different ways of resolving it.

Slobin also disagrees with the common belief that some languages are more ‘primitive’ while others are more ‘advanced.’ He says that “all languages are equally complex and equally easy to acquire in the first few years of life.” He notes that while, of course, each language comes with its own set of challenges, there is “no language that’s so easy that a three-year-old can speak it perfectly, or so difficult that a five-year-old can barely speak.”

Source: TRT World