Language Acquisition


Psychology 598-02


Martin Packer


Summer 2001

June 5 – July 12

Tuesday, Thursday 1:30 - 4:45

COLH 345


This course explores children’s learning of oral language. Language is often said to be what makes us human. It is perhaps the most complex, perplexing and complicated of human phenomena, yet children are able to grasp its core characteristics by the time they are a couple of years old. We still barely know how this happens.


Language stands at a point of intersection between the child's experience of the world and the culture into which the child is born.  Language is a public system of representation that defines the universal, but it is taken up as a personal means for expression of a particular life.  We will explore research and theory that comes mainly from what might be called “traditional” Anglo-American academic psychology, because a familiarity with this work is essential for a number of reasons.  It is important to be able to talk with people trained “traditionally.” But we will also explore what can loosely be called “alternative” theory and research, from continental philosophy and elsewhere (such as “2nd generation cognitive science”). But this dichotomy (traditional/alternative) is already dissolving, as psychology becomes more aware of cultural factors and effects, more diverse itself, and influenced by the work of people like Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Lacan and others.


Objectives of the Course:


This course should provide you with:


• general familiarity with the ways linguists approach the task of analyzing language.

• ability to recognize the names of some of the major figures in child language research: Noam Chomsky, Roger Brown, Lois Bloom, Katherine Nelson, Catherine Snow, Dan Slobin, Elizabeth Bates, Steven Pinker, George Lakoff, Michael Halliday, David Crystal, Elizabeth Bates, Brian MacWhinney, and others.

• familiarity with the general sequence of language development (prelinguistic communication; one word stage, telegraphic speech, etc.).

• some experience with empirical material (recordings; transcripts) as well as abstract descriptions (phrase structure grammars; formal semantics, etc.).

• familiarity with the various perspectives on the study of children’s language (nativist, cognitivist, interactionist, functional, etc.).

• awareness of the philosophical assumptions underlying these perspectives.

• a start exploring the implications of adopting different philosophical assumptions.



1. Introduction
2. Linguistics: Pragmatics
3. Linguistics: Morphology
4. Linguistics: Phonology
5. CLAN instructions
6. Black English
7. One-Word Utterances
8. Philosophical Problems
9. Precursors, Cognitive
10. Two-Word Utterances
11. Changing the Subject



Class 1: Introduction & Overview


Today we will discuss the organization of the class, and the responsibilities of the participants, both students and instructor.


One way of thinking about language acquisition is that when children learn language they have to crack a code. Language is a conventional system that is encoded in a variety of interrelated ways. Today we will consider the 4 levels of language: sound, word, sentence & utterance, and the four corresponding kinds of analysis: phonemics, morphology, syntactics, & pragmatics. In other words, we’ll be looking at the way language is complexly structured at a variety of levels, and exploring the basics of what linguists have discovered about this structure.


Without starting to attempt to explain how children learn language, we can describe in general terms what happens (for example, when one-word utterance appear, and so on). We will begin thinking about the way that children crack the complex code of language.


We will also watch a video from the “Language” series. You’ll see and hear Noam Chomsky and a variety of linguists influenced by his work, including Steve Pinker, Leila Gleitman, Dan Slobin and others.


Class 2: Phonology & Morphology

video: Language #1


This and the next two classes will be dedicated to unpacking in more detail the linguistic code at each of its levels. We need to know what language is before we can begin to consider how children come to be able to speak.


Today we’ll look at the way linguists have characterized the phonological level of language, and the morphological level.



Handouts on Phonology and Morphology

Brownlee (1998)


Class 3: Syntax


Today we look at the way linguists characterize the syntactic level of language. Noam Chomsky’s work had a tremendous impact on child language research, and continue to define a largely nativist view of language acquisition. The readings for today’s class include a piece by Steve Pinker, an outspoken Chomskian, as well as a chapter by Lakoff & Johnson, very critical of Chomsky’s approach to language.


We’ll view Part 2 of  the “Language” series where you’ll see Chomskians arguing that language is so complex it must be innate.


We’ll also conduct a live observation of a 20-month old child.



Parker & Riley 4

Pinker (2001): an outspoken nativist

Lakoff & Johnson (1999): a critique of the philosophy underlying Chomsky’s linguistics

CHAT manual (from the CHILDES web site)



Take a look at the web site of the Child Language Date Exchange System, housed at Carnegie-Mellon University:


Download the CHAT, CLAN, and Data  manuals. CHAT is the transcription system, CLAN is the analysis software, and the Data manual describes the different corpora of data archived at CHILDES, including Roger Brown’s transcripts of Adam, Eve, and Sarah.


(Note that you’ll need the free Acrobat Reader from to read these papers and the manuals.)


While you’re online, check out the Child Language Bulletin. Available as PDF at


Class 4: Semantics & Pragmatics


Semantics is the study of meaning: word meaning, and sentence meaning. In addition, when we talk it is to do something; to accomplish something practical. This seems obvious, yet study of pragmatics has lagged behind study of phonology, syntax or semantics. It is now, however, probably the most exciting part of linguistics. And it is very important for an understanding of children’s language.  Today we’ll explore both semantics and pragmatics, including speech act theory, notions of conversational implicature, and conversation analysis.



P&R 2, 3

Garvey (1984): this provides an introduction to children’s talk, in case you’re impatient to get to the pragmatics of child language.


Class 5: Telegraphic Utterances


The systematic study of children’s language began with a focus on grammar: only possible when children are combining words. Today we’ll explore in greater detail the program of developmental psycholinguistics that was inspired by the 1957 publication of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. We’ll begin with the work of Roger Brown at Harvard, and trace the lines of research from there.



Slobin (1988) : a first-person retrospective on Roger Brown’s project.

Schlesinger (1975) : good overview of research on early grammar.

= Antinucci & Paresi (1975): a proposal for a semantic analysis of early utterances.



Browse the Journal of Child Language in the Gumberg Library, and see if you can judge how the topics have changed over its 27 years of publication.


Class 6: Holographic Utterances


Next we take a step backwards from two-word to one-word utterances. This time of “holophrastic speech” is a distinct phase that has been looked at in a variety of ways.


We can look at the pragmatics of one-word utterances—how they are used; the social functions they serve; the semantics—what these words refer to; their phonology—for such words have a characteristic “baby talk” pronunciation; and, surprisingly, their syntax—their grammatical form and even their grammatical structure.



Halliday (1975) : a case-study of the “functional” roots of language.

Scollon (1979): how adults assist in the transition from 1- to 2-word speech.


Class 7: Cognitive Precursors to Language


What does cognition contribute to language? The views of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky are often contrasted. Today we’ll take a look.



Piaget (1937/1955): Piaget describes sensory-motor intelligence culminating in the capacity for representation.

= Piaget (1946/1962): a chapter in Piaget’s book on the “semiotic function.” More complex, but well worth looking at.

Vygotsky (1986): a review and critique of Piaget’s early writing on early childhood.

= Brown(1988) & Lucy (1988): two appraisals of the Piaget/Vygotsky debate, published in the Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.


Class 8. Social Precursors


What does social interaction contribute to language?

video: NOVA: Babytalk



Bruner (1983): explores the infant’s move from communication into language.

Lock (1999): a review of the preverbal stage.

Bates et al. (1979): a Piagetian approach to the interpersonal precursors to speech.


Class 9. Putting the Pieces Together


Can we tell a complete story on the basis of the aspects of children’s language we have now explored? Or is something missing?



CLAN manual (from the CHILDES web site): pages to be assigned.



Conduct an MLU analysis on the Brown corpus, using CLAN.


Class 10: Bringing in the Body


The suggestion has been made by a number of people that the body has been left out of standard linguistic approaches to language, and hence it is left out of the story of language acquisition.



Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962)

Hanks (1996a), (1996b)

= Ruthrof 1997): an ambition, if unsatisfying, attempt at a “bodily semantics.”

= Sudnow (1979): talk as embodied. Short, good.

= MacWhinney (n.d.): a “connectionist” approach that puts “perspective” at the center of language acquisition.



Take a look at Brian MacWhinney's home page, with a statement of his philosophy of language acquisition:


Class 11. From Epistemology to Ontology


One striking feature of both psychological and linguistic explanations of children’s language is how mentalist and epistemological they are. A typical statement, for example, is that “meaning is a mental event” (Berko Gleason, 1997 p. 124). Can we offer something better?



Egan (1997): oral language as the basis for children’s “mythic” understanding.

Fink (1995): chapter to be assigned.

= Kristeva (1984): influenced by Lacan and Freud.



outline your final paper


Class 12. Wrapping Up


We’ll look back at how far we’ve managed to come, evaluate the course, and each student will offer a brief descriptions of your paper topic.


Design Decisions:


This course structure may need modification as we proceed, but I have been guided by the following considerations:


• I’ve assigned less reading for the Thursday class than for the class on Tuesday, so you'll have the weekend to do the reading.

• Similarly, I’ve assigned homework only over the weekend.

• (Readings are due the day they are listed. For example, you should read the Piaget chapters before class #7.)

• I cannot find a textbook on child language that adequately acknowledges the theoretical frameworks that dominate the field, and the extent to which they shape the “data.” There are a couple of textbooks listed below (Berko Gleason; Owen) that you might find helpful for reference, but rather than assigning a text I’ve selected original papers.

• On the other hand, I don’t think we can manage without a textbook on linguistics. Linguistics for Non-Linguists, by Parker and Riley, is available at Amazon.Com for $41, deliverable in 24 hours. If you want to share or borrow a copy, that’s fine. Unfortunately the Gumberg Library doesn’t have a copy. And unfortunately I will be assigning less than half the chapters in this book. Any suggestions for a better way of handling this are welcomed!

• Although we’ll start by exploring the way linguists have analyzed language, I’ve added some topics from children’s language alongside this: your exploration of the CHILDES web site; a visit by a toddler in class #3; some introductory readings by Brownlee, Pinker, and Garvey.

• We’ll be retracing the history of child language research when we move from telegraphic to holographic utterances, to cognitive precursors, to social precursors. Children move in the opposite direction, of course, but I think this strategy will highlight the philosophical assumptions.

• And that is the sub-text to this course, of course: we’ll engage in a critique of the philosophical/theoretical presumptions that underlie research on child language. I’ve tried to start introducing elements of this critique as early as possible in the course, with Lakoff & Johnson (class #3). We could promote some of the other material too, such as the writing by Merleau-Ponty or Egan.

• I’m aware that there’s a lot of reading assigned. Think of it as a smorgasbord rather than an imposition. Take what you want, what you can digest. Don’t try to absorb everything.  The readings marked with a dagger--=-- are more difficult, advanced readings, and can be skipped.

• My intention is that each student will be able to pick one from a variety of pathways through this course. It should be possible for a doctoral student in the developmental program to participate in a manner that is different from a master student taking the course as a summer distraction. My expectations will of course be higher for the former. We can talk more about this as the course progresses.


Paper Topics:


Each student is expected to complete a paper by the end of the summer session. I will be happy to meet individually with students to help plan these papers. Possible paper topics include:


• Review a topic (such as negation, or metaphor) that continues to puzzle child language researchers.

• Collect speech data from a child and conduct a descriptive analysis of it.

• What is the role of interpretation in language acquisition research.

• Explain a major transition in the acquisition of language (e.g., from prelinguistic communication to the first words; or from one-word to two-word utterances).

• Critique Merleau-Ponty’s Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language.

• Pick a foreign language (e.g., Spanish, French, Russian, Hebrew) and review the literature on its acquisition.

• Put the body back into child language research.


Summary of Class Topics and Assignments


1. Introduction                                                        June 5

Overview of course

video: Language #1

The 4 levels of language

An overview of child language


2. Phonology & Morphology                        June 7

The first and second levels of language

video: Language #1



Handouts on phonology & morphology

Brownlee (1998)

3. Syntax                                                                   June 12

The third level of language

video: Language #2

Black English

Child Observation



Parker & Riley 4, Pinker (2001)

Lakoff & Johnson (1999)

CHAT manual


CHILDES web site

4. Semantics & Pragmatics                            June 14

The fourth level of language

video: Language #2





P&R 2, 3

Garvey (1984)

5. Telegraphic Utterances                              June 19

The stage of two-word utterances

video: Language #3



Slobin (1988)

Schlesinger (1975)

= Antinucci & Paresi (1975)


browse Journal of Child Language

6. Holophrastic Utterances                          June 21

The stage of one-word utterances

video: Childhood [panpapes]




Halliday (1975)

Scollon (1979)


7. Cognitive Precursors                                     June 26

What does cognition contribute to language?

video: Childhood [play]



Piaget (1937/1955),

Vygotsky (1986)

= Piaget (1946/1962)

= Brown (1988)

= Lucy (1988)

8. Social Precursors                                             June 28

What does social interaction contribute to language?

video: NOVA: Babytalk



Bruner (1983)

Lock (1999)

Bates et al. (1979)

9. Putting the Pieces Together                     July 3

Can we tell a complete story?



CLAN manual


Conduct MLU analysis on Brown corpus

10. Bringing in the Body                                 July 5

What’s missing from the story?


Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962)

Hanks (1996a), (1996b)

= Ruthrof (1997), = Sudnow (1979),

= MacWhinney (n.d.)


Look at MacWhinney home page

11. From Epistemology to Ontology          July 10

What happens to the child?


Egan (1997)

Fink (1995)

= Kristeva 91984)


outline your final paper

12. Wrapping Up                                                 July 12


course evaluations

student paper abstracts


The Following Readings are Available on the Web:


The first two articles are from a special issue of the Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition titled “Comparing Piaget & Vygotsky”, available at

(Note that this is a PDF file, and will require Acrobat Reader):

Brown, T. (1988). Why Vygotsky? The role of social interaction in constructing knowledge. The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 10(4), 111-117.

Lucy, J. A. (1988). The role of language in the development of representation: A comparison of the views of Piaget and Vygotsky. The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 10(4), 99-104.

Lock, A. (1999). Preverbal Communication.

(You’ll find other interesting writing by the “Virtual Faculty” if you go up a step in this URL.)

MacWhinney, B. (n.d.). Perspective-taking and grammar,

CHAT manual:

CLAN manual:

Pinker (2001) Words and rules. Eye on Psi Chi, 5 (3), 14-19.  Available at


The Following Materials are on Reserve in Gumberg:


Antinucci, F., & Parisi, D. (1975). Early semantic development in child language. In E. H. Lenneberg & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Foundations of language development: A multidisciplinary approach, (Vol. 1, pp. 189-201). New York: Basic Books. [xerox]


Bates, E., Camaioni, L., & Volterra, V. (1979). The acquisition of performatives prior to speech. In E. Ochs & B. B. Schieffelin (Eds.), Developmental pragmatics, (pp. 111-129). New York: Academic Press. [book]


Bruner, J. S. (1983). From communication to talking, in Child's talk: Learning to use language : Norton. [xerox]


Brownlee, S. (1998, June 15). Baby Talk. Reprinted from U.S. News & World Report. [xerox]


Egan, K. (1997). Mythic understanding.  In The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [book]


Fink, B. (1995). The Lacanian subject: Between language and jouissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Garvey, C. (1984).  The nature of talk. Ch. 1 in Children's talk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [xerox]


Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean. In E. H. Lenneberg & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Foundations of language development: A multidisciplinary approach, (Vol. 1, pp. 239-265). New York: Basic Books. [xerox]


Hanks, W. F. (1996a). Three phenomenologies of language. Ch. 6 in Language and communicative practices. Boulder: Westview Press. [xerox]


Hanks, W. F. (1996b).  Saturation by context. Ch. 7 in Language and communicative practices. Boulder: Westview Press. [xerox]


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Chomsky's philosophy and cognitive linguistics. Ch. 22 in Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought, (pp. 469-512). New York: Basic Books.  [book]


Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/1962). The body as expression, and speech, Phenomenology of perception, (pp. 174-199). New York: The Humanities Press.  [book]


Piaget, J. (1937/1955). The construction of reality in the child: London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. [?]


Piaget, J. (1945/1962). Transition from sensory-motor schemas to conceptual schemas. Ch. 8 in Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, (pp. 214-244). (C.Gattegno F. M. Hodgson, Trans.). New York: Norton. [book]


Schlesinger, I. M. (1975). Grammatical development: The first steps. In E. H. Lenneberg & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Foundations of language development: A multidisciplinary approach, (Vol. 1, pp. 203-222). New York: Academic Press.  [xerox]


Scollon, R. (1979). A real early stage: An unzippered condensation of a dissertation on child language. In E. Ochs & B. B. Schieffelin (Eds.), Developmental pragmatics (pp. 215-227). New York: Academic Press. [book]


Vygotsky, L. (1986). Piaget's theory of the child's speech and thought. Ch. 2 in Thought and language, (pp. 12-57). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [book]


Slobin, D. I. (1988). From the Garden of Eden to the Tower of Babel. In F. Kessel (Ed.), The development of language and language researchers: Essays in honor of Roger Brown, (pp. 9-22). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. [xerox]


Other Library Resources: These are not Required Reading


Aitchison, J. (1999). Linguistics. (5 ed.). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Bates, E. Intentions, conventions, and symbols. In E. Bates (Ed.), The emergence of symbols: Cognition and Communication in infancy (pp. 33-68). New York: Academic Press.

Berko Gleason, J. (1997). The development of language. (4 ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, L. (1998). Language acquisition in its developmental context. In D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology. Volume 2: Cognition, Perception and Language, (5 ed., pp. 309-370). New York: Wiley.

Braine, M. D. S. (1994). Is nativism sufficient. Journal of Child Language, 21, 9-31.

Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. Mouton: The Hague.

Chomsky, N. (1959). Review of "Verbal behavior" by B. F. Skinner. Language, 35, 26-58.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dillard, J. L. (1973/1972). Black English: Its history and usage in the United States. New York: Vintage Books.

Francis, H. (1979). What does the child mean? A critique of the 'functional' approach to language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 6, 201-210.

Golinkoff, R. M. (1981). The case for semantic relations: Evidence from the verbal and nonverbal domains. Journal of Child Language, 8, 413-437.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean. London: Edward Arnold.

Howe, C. (1976). The meanings of two-word utterances in the speech of young children. Journal of Child Language, 3, 29-47.

Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lust, B. (2000). Requirements for paradigm shift. Journal of Child Language, 27, 744-749.

Lyons, J. (1995). Linguistic semantics: An introduction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

MacWhinney, B. (1998). Models of the emergence of language. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 199-227.

Maratsos, M. (1998). The acquisition of grammar. In D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology. Volume 2: Cognition, Perception and Language, (5 ed., pp. 421-466). New York: Wiley.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964/1973). Consciousness and the acquisition of language. (Hugh Silverman, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Ochs, E. (1979). Introduction: What child language can contribute to pragmatics. In E. Ochs & B. Schieffelin (Eds.), Developmental pragmatics (pp. 1-17). New York: Academic Press.

Owens, R. E. J. (2001). Language development: An introduction. (5 ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Ruthrof, H. (1997). Semantics and the body: Meaning from Frege to the postmodern. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Scollon, R. (1976). Conversations with a one year old: A case study of the developmental foundation of syntax: The University Press of Hawaii.

Sudnow, D. (1979). Talk's body: A meditation between two keyboards. New York: Knopf.

Woodward, A. L., & Markman, E. M. (1998). Early word meaning. In D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology. Volume 2: Cognition, Perception and Language, (5 ed., pp. 371-420). New York: Wiley.


Other Web Resources:


"Child Language Development"

This page is designed as a guideline for parents to follow their child's normal language development.  A simple timeline.


More milestones:


A simple overview of children’s language


Glossary wizard of grammatical terms:


Utrecht Lexicon of linguistics:


Grammars of many languages (Creole, Danish, Dakota...):


The anatomy of vowel production. Point and click to hear sound, and see tongue position (requires Shockwave)


...and the articulation of consonants (Shockwave):


San Diego State Language Acquisition Resources (still under construction, it seems)—Elizabeth Bates is director:


The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, at the University of Minnesota (Mainly 2nd language instruction)


The History of the StanfordChild Language Research Forum:


The Child Language Research Center (CLRC), University of Iowa

(concerned with developmental language disorders):