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NSF Funds More Language Acquisition Research
2017-07-05 11:50:44
Khristian Maclang

The NSF granted a Michigan State researcher to further her progress in linguistics research.

Cristina Schmitt, associate professor at Michigan State University (MSU), is spearheading the academic movement in the linguistics research field, and she was recently granted $200,000 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further that research.Schmitt teaches in MSU’s Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, and she’s using the NSF grant to research first language acquisition (FLA) on the parts of Spanish-speaking children in environments where two or more languages are interacting and influencing each other.

Before now, FLA studies dealing with how kids pick up on grammar rules usually looked at the acquisition of only a single dialect as opposed to several.They featured one dialect in fairly homogenous speaking communities.There is very little research published on FLA in heterogeneous speech communities where dialectical variability is high, according to Schmitt.

Schmitt says her research will be concentrated on children between the ages of three and five in the Paraguayan community of Buenos Aires where Paraguayan Spanish intersects a broad variety of Spanish dialects. “[This community] exhibits a number of properties that make it an ideal testing ground for theories of language acquisition, and particularly for shedding light on the complex interplay between the input data children receive and the grammatical system they construct,” said Schmitt.

Paraguayan Spanish is unique, too, because Paraguay is the only Latin-American country with two official languages that are accepted by virtually everyone.They have native language, Guarani, in addition to Spanish, and the latter is spoken in a Guarani crossover dialect, so Schmitt says it’s quite different from the Spanish people speak in Buenos Aires.

“We are looking at two dialects of Spanish in Buenos Aires that have contradictory grammatical properties and we want to know what the kids are doing with that contradictory input,” said Schmitt. “When the vocabulary is the same, but the dialect is different, it is very easy to think they are speaking the same thing, but they are not.That’s the part where we hope we can help.By discovering the principles used by these Paraguayan children to adapt to the new linguistic environment, we therefore learn something about how all children acquire a language.”

The significance of language acquisition in general is almost boundless.Several schools of thought among psychologists purport that FLA is requisite for complex thought.The argument can be made, in fact, that language acquisition is what separates human beings from other animals, not rational thought because rational thought is merely a product of being able to ascribe verbal signage to every concept encountered in the brain.

Lacanian psychology, informed by the linguistic field of semiology, deeply analyzes how language acquisition works.Semiology is the linguistic study of signs.Take a chair for example.The physical object is called a signified in semiology whereas the concept representing that object in your mind is referred to as a signifier; collectively, they are one sign.In other words, “chair” is a sign comprised of the signifier or concept of “chair” in your mind that signifies the physical object on which you sit.To contemplate how the chair was put together or what its purpose is, though, one would need language to even think about it.

As with many other debates in various contexts, language acquisition is a taxonomy of concepts not exempt from the question.Nativists argue that oral communication is developed instinctually, suggesting that children need little environmental influence to produce oral language as a sort of natural behavior.

Behaviorists, on the other hand, argue that the only inherent aspects of language acquisition are anatomical (e.g.the possession of a tongue and lips), and primarily, they privilege exposure to oral communication over natural instinct.These ideas address cognition and language from two different angles, and several theories have bolstered these opposing arguments.

Jean Piaget was a renowned nature theorist whose ideas shaped the accepted, nativist concepts of child development.He was the second-most cited cited psychologist of the latter half of the twentieth century, second only to B.F.Skinner, the primary architect of the behaviorist approach.Lev Vygotsky was a behaviorist who pioneered cultural-historical psychology.Their ideas differed, but they exemplified their respective ends of the debate.

Even so, it was Noam Chomsky who pioneered the nativist approach, and he was the nativist counterpart to B.F.Skinner’s behaviorist arguments.The two of them, more than any others, led the developments of their respective schools of thought around 1957.

Vygotsky observed the development of higher cognitive functions for children as rationally processing perceptions by way of practical activity within social environments.He dealt with signs and symbols in a way that would form the foundation for future semiology, semiotics, and related concepts.

In contrast, Piaget developed a series of development stages, and his second stage, the preoperational, dealt with symbolic function and intuitive thought, which spans the years during which linguistic development is most prevalent.

Charles J.Fillmore was a foremost interactionist who, in 1968, established rudimentary principles of case grammar; he focused on the existence of a level beneath deep structure, which was inclusive of semantic concepts that were universally applicable and that designated relationships between nouns and verbs.

Piaget’s contribution to this was a cognitive one that predated Filmore’s work (1963), and he had asserted that the developments of thought and language were parallel processes.Similarly, Vygotsky’s contribution also predated Filmore’s work and established the social supplement to Piaget’s contribution, and he contended that the development of language was through social interaction and construction.

John Searle established a critical contribution to early pragmatics only a year after Fillmore’s work with semantics, which was Speech Act theory, and he argued that language development was practical by way of personal interaction.Critical supplements to structure succeeded Searle’s work as late as the 1980s.

In 1983, Jerome Bruner addressed structure by function, bolstered Vygotsky’s assessment of social interaction and construction in relation to the development of language, and four years later, Bates and MacWhinney added that function (as opposed to abstract grammar) generated linguistic structure.These contributions paved the way toward contemporary understandings of syntax, pragmatics, semantics, and several other veins of the communication sciences within speech-language pathology.


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