Seminar in Language Development
T 4:10 - 6 pm in 405 Schermerhorn
Professor: Ann Senghas
Office: 415G Milbank
Office hours: TBA
Hoff, Language Development, 2nd Ed. Brooks/Cole,
(Available at Labyrinth
bookstore, 526 West 112th Street)
articles from the research literature (On reserve in the library)
of the Course
Language is central to the
human experience. It arises in all cultures, and can be learned
effortlessly by any child. In fact, children can't resist it
-- deprive them of language, and they will invent their own. Oddly,
we lose this ability to learn language as we age, even though other mental
skills improve. The structure of languages, and the way they are
learned, reflect the intricate organizational power of the mind of the
This is a seminar on the acquisition
of a first language by children. We will discuss the acquisition
of the sounds of language, the meaning of language, and the structure
of phrases and sentences. Although much of the literature on language
development involves the acquisition of English, we will also examine,
wherever possible, the acquisition of other spoken languages, as well
as the acquisition of sign languages. We will discuss both the process
of acquisition and the competing theoretical explanations of that process.
Particular emphasis will be placed on discovering the mechanisms children
possess that enable them to learn language, and the resulting impact of
those mechanisms on languages themselves.
The first three classes will provide a foundation in linguistic
structure, and will consist of an explanatory session led by the instructor
followed by group exercises. During the six weeks that follow, we will
discuss the topics listed below. All members of the seminar will
read the chapter and articles listed, and will post a proposed discussion
question or reaction to the class bulletin board by the Friday preceding
class. Each meeting will be led by two or three members of the seminar,
who will begin with a brief summary of the articles assigned, and then
present to the group a set of questions (drawn from the postings to the
bulletin board) designed to facilitate a discussion of the central issues
in the readings. They will then post a summary of the class discussion
to the bulletin board before the next class meeting. Each member is expected
to take at least one turn as discussion leader.
the final four weeks of class, we will turn to current controversies in
the field of language development. At each meeting, we will hear
presentations on two of the controversial topics listed below. Note
that each topic in the list is followed by an article from the primary
research literature. The article presents either an early perspective
of the topic, or one view in a polarized debate. For each topic,
two co-presenters are responsible for seeking out other readings from
the current literature that complement the assigned reading. They
will then give a presentation of the controversy to the group, and take
questions from the group. Each member is expected to take a turn
as a co-presenter. Copies of the additional readings should be given
to the instructor BEFORE the class meeting that is a week prior to the
relevant meeting, so they can be made available to the rest of the group.
Student-initiated topics will be enthusiastically considered in lieu of
the suggested topics; a few additional alternatives are suggested at the
bottom of the syllabus.
research papers will provide students with an opportunity to discuss their
chosen controversial topic in more detail. Abstracts and proposed bibliographies
will be due early in the semester. The reference articles should
be selected from primary published scientific sources. First drafts
are due a week before the in-class presentation. You will then have
an opportunity to revise your papers before turning in the final draft
by the last week of class. The format of the papers should follow
the guidelines of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological
Association. Note that while the in-class presentations are
collaborative, research papers should be written independently.
Grades will be based on the facilitation of the group
discussion (20%), the presentation of a current controversial topic (20%),
weekly class participation and preparation (20%), the abstract and first
draft (10%) and the final version of the paper (30%).
Hoff, Chapter 1.
Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. (1998)
An Introduction to Language, sixth edition. New
York: Harcourt Brace. 105-156.
Pinker, S. (1994) The Language
Instinct. New York: Morrow. 262-296.
SELECTION OF CLASS DISCUSSION LEADERS
FOR WEEKS 5-9
Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. (1998)
An Introduction to Language, sixth edition. New
York: Harcourt Brace. 253-314.
the sounds of language
Eimas, P. D., Siqueland, E. R.,
Jusczyk, P., Vigorito, J. (1971) Speech perception in infants. Science,
Petitto, L. A., Marentette, P.
F. (1991) Babbling in the manual mode: evidence for the ontogeny of
language. Science, 251, 1493-6.
Werker, J. F., and Polka, L. (1993).
Developmental changes in speech perception: New challenges and new directions.
Journal of Phonetics, 21, 83-101.
Hoff, Chapter 4
Markman, E., (1990) Constraints children place on word meanings.
Gleitman, L. R., & Gleitman, H. (1992) A picture is worth
a thousand words, but that’s the problem: The role of syntax in
vocabulary acquisition. Current Directions in Psychological
Science, 1,1, 31-35.
Saffran, J. R., Aslin,
R.N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month old
infants. Science, 274, 1926-1928.
PAPER & PRESENTATION TOPICS
Complex words and phrases:
Hoff, Chapter 5
Bloom, L. (1973) Why not pivot grammar? In Ferguson, C. A. and Slobin,
D. I. (eds.) Studies of Child Language Development, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Slobin, D. (1973) Cognitive prerequisites for the development
of grammar. In Ferguson, C. A. and Slobin, D. I. (eds.) Studies of
Child Language Development, New York: Holt, Rinehart and
Crain, S. (1991) Language acquisition in the absence of experience.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences,
Later structural acquisition:
The case of derivational morphology
Hoff, Chapter 5
Gordon, P. (1985) Level-ordering in lexical development.
Pinker, S. (1991) Rules of Language. Science, 253, 530-535.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words and Rules, 189-210.
PAPER ABSTRACTS DUE
Critical periods in acquisition
Hoff, Chapter 2
Newport, E. L.
(1990) Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive
Curtiss, S. (1977) Genie: A
psycholinguistic study of a modern day “wild child.”
New York: Academic Press.
Marler, P. (1991) The
instinct to learn. In S. Carey & R. Gelman (Eds.), The Epigenesis
of Mind: Essays on Biology and Cognition, Erlbaum.
The development of communicative
competence: Learning to use language
Hoff, Chapter 6
Clancy, P. (1986) The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese.
In B. B. Schieffelin & E. Ochs (Eds.), Language socialization
across cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213-250.
Ochs, E. (1988) Talking to children in Western Samoa. Language
in Society, 11, 77-104.
11-14: Student Research Presentations (2 topics per week)
FIRST DRAFTS OF PAPERS DUE ONE
WEEK BEFORE PRESENTATION
Language development and deafness
Supalla, S. J. (1991) Manually
coded English: The modality question in signed language development.
In P. Siple & S. D. Fischer (Eds.), Theoretical Issues in Sign
Language Research, Volume 2: Psychology. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 85-109.
Goldin-Meadow, S., &
Mylander, C. (1990) Beyond the input given: The child's role
in the acquisition of language. Language, 66:2.
origins and language change
Bickerton, D. (1984)
The language bioprogram hypothesis. Behavioral and Brian Sciences, 7, 173.
communication and the implications for human language
Marler, P., & Tenaza,
R. (1977). Signalling behavior of apes with special reference to vocalization.
In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.) How Animals Communicate, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 965-1033.
learning of language by artificial devices
Rumelhart, D. E., &
McClelland, J. L. (1986) On learning the past tenses of English verbs.
In Parallel Distributed Processing, volume 2,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Newport, E. L., Gleitman,
H., and Gleitman, L. (1977) Mother, I’d rather do it myself:
Some effects and non-effects of maternal speech style. In C.
E. Snow & C. A. Ferguson (Eds.), Talking to children: Language
input and acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Brown, R., & Hanlon,
C. (1970) Derivational complexity and order of acquisition in child
speech. In J. Hayes (Ed.), Cognition and the development
of language, New
York: Wiley, 11-54.
Bellugi, U., Marks, S.,
Bihrle, A., & Sabo, H. (1993) Dissociation between language
and cognitive functions in Williams Syndrome In D. Bishop and
K. Mogford (Eds.) Language Development in Exceptional Children. Hove, England: Erlbaum.
Gopnik, M., & Crago, M. B.
(1991) Familial aggregation of a developmental language disorder.
Cognition, 39, 1-50.
Skinner, B. F. (1959) Verbal Learning.
Chomsky, N. (1959)
Review of B. F. Skinner, Verbal learning. Language, 35:
effect of language on thought
Whorf, B. (1956) Language, Thought,
and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
FINAL VERSION OF PAPERS
DUE BY THE LAST WEEK OF CLASS
• Gesture and early
• Natural selection
and linguistic form
• Second language
learning and bilingualism
• The language of
education and the Ebonics debate
• Syntactic and semantic
• Mental verbs and
theory of mind
• Statistical learning
• Prelinguistic “language”
• Learning language
with a cochlear implant
• Language acquisition
among other special populations: (autism, blindness, dyslexia,
Down Syndrome, etc.)
is scheduled a on a day on which you will be unable to attend because
of a religious observance, please speak to the instructor, preferably
early in the semester, so we can make alternative arrangements.
Also, if anyone requires accommodation for a specific disability, please
notify the Office for Disability Services, and speak to the instructor
at the close of the first class meeting.