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What evidence is there that the ability to learn a language natively may decline after the first few years of life?

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Introduction

What evidence is there that the ability to learn a language natively may decline after the first few years of life? Children are very skilful linguists. Evidence defined in Chomsky's Innateness Hypothesis shows that a considerable amount of grammatical properties are innate. In other words, 'humans are predisposed to learn and use a language'. The contents of the innate language faculty is not specific to any language, so for example an English child brought up by Japanese parents would learn to speak Japanese. This therefore suggests a universal grammar, which allows a child to form and interpret sentences in any natural language. Studies have shown that newborns can discriminate between different languages. This is measured by sucking behaviour in infants under three months, and direction of gaze to aural stimulus in infants older than three months. Mehler et al (1988) investigated how infants discriminate between languages at birth. Four-day-old infants whose ambient language was French were divided in to two groups. Group A heard independent speakers of Russian then Russian whereas Group B heard independent speakers of Russian then French. The results showed that when the stimulus changed Group B's sucking rate increased significantly more from 20 to 35 sucks per minute whereas Group A's only rose from 20 to 25 sucks per minute. These results indicate that four-day-olds can detect a change from an unknown language to the ambient one. Mehler and Christophe (1995), and Nazzi, Bertoncini and Mehler (1998) ...read more.

Middle

Lenneberg claimed that lateralisation of the language faculty is normally completed by puberty thus making post-adolescent language acquisition difficult. There are some cases which help to support this theory. Genie was twenty months old and about to begin discovering language when doctors hinted that she was slightly slow and may be partially retarded. Her father took this to the extreme and viewed her as fully retarded so he decided to protect her by isolating and ill-treating her. Genie was discovered when she was thirteen years and seven months old. She had been confined in a small bedroom for over a decade without any human interaction or visual, tactile or auditory stimulation. She was found tied to a potty wearing a nappy and she had only ever been fed infant food. She was made to sleep in a sleeping bag, which restrained her arms and then placed in an over-sized crib with a cover made of metal screening. Genie was therefore unable to walk, chew, bite or swallow. When Genie did start to walk, she had a strange bunny-like style: she held her hands up in front of her like paws and moved in a halting way. She spat and sniffed constantly, was not toilet-trained and could not focus her eyes beyond 12 feet. Genie weighed just 59 pounds and was only 54 inches tall. She possessed very little language skills although she could babble like a baby and make high-pitched squeaks, and she understood a few words. ...read more.

Conclusion

After hearing aids had been fitted, she began to gain lexical knowledge and she scored above the twelfth grade level on a Word Association Test, but her sentences lacked grammatical properties. I.e. 'Orange bill car in'. This inability to master grammatical morphology, which is due to the long delay before hearing language, supports the critical learning period theory. Isabelle is another example which helps support the Critical Learning Hypothesis. Isabelle was six and a half when she was discovered. She had been in contact with her mother - a deaf mute, but her grandfather had isolated them, although she had not been mistreated. Isabelle had learnt to communicate with her mother through a series of gestures but she was still mentally and physically retarded. Doctors and psychologists used a systematic and skilful training programme to help Isabelle acquire normal language and intelligence abilities. She undertook the usual stages of learning characteristics of the years one to six within two years. In a little over two months after her first vocalisation she was putting sentences together. Nine months later she could identify words and sentences on the printed page, could write well, could add to ten and could retell a story after hearing it. Seven months beyond this point she had a vocabulary of 1500-2000 words and was asking complicated questions. Isabelle's case seems to challenge the idea that the first critical period ends at two years of age, unless due to her exposure to sign language she underwent the kind of brain development that is hypothesised to occur during that stage. Gemma Wilkinson ...read more.

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