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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Show or Hide answerAt what age should children start using simple sentences?
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Children differ in their learning strategies and developmental patterns. Therefore age “benchmarks (for example, "first words appear around 12 months") only represent a very general average. It is completely normal for children to develop a skill either a few months earlier or a few months later than the “benchmark” age. With that in mind, we can summarize the general pattern for how children learn to use simple sentences.

Question and answer Q&A baby

Simple sentences start appearing in children's speech when they are 30 to 36 months old. To some, this might seem quite late, considering that children's first words appear around 12 months of age. But before they can string words into sentences, children need to acquire some basic knowledge about their language's grammar. For example, we think of nouns and verbs as the building blocks of sentences ("cat"+"want"+"milk" = "The cat wants some milk"), but even very simple sentences often require the speaker to add other words ("the"/"some") and inflections ("want"->"wants"). Learning function words and inflections is not trivial because, unlike content words like "cat" and "milk", children cannot experience the meaning of "the", "some", and "-s". To make things even more complicated, the words need to be put in the right order and said aloud with a melody and emphasis that matches the intended meaning (compare "The CAT wants some milk" vs. "The cat wants some MILK"). Managing all of this, even for simple sentences, can be difficult for young children.

But even though children under 30 months do not yet produce full sentences, they do learn how to combine words in other ways. For example, soon after their first birthdays, many children begin to combine words with gestures such as pointing, showing, and nodding. The combination of a word and a gesture (for example, the word "milk" + a nod) says more than just the word or the gesture alone. In fact, some studies suggest that these early word-gesture combinations are linked to children’s development of two-word combinations just a few months later.

From around 18 months, children begin to use two-word sequences like "Bear. Trolley." to express sentence-like meanings (in this case: "The bear is in the trolley”). At first, the words in these sequences sound unconnected, like individual mini-sentences of their own. But as children get more practice, the pauses between words get shorter and the melody of each word seems more connected to the next one.

At 24 months, when children are at the heart of this "two-word stage", they often produce sequences of 2–3 words that sound like normal sentences, only with most of the function words and inflections left out ("There kitty!") At this stage, some children even consistently place the words in a specific order, for example, with "pivot" words ("more", "no", "again", "it", "here") only being used in the first position for some children ("more apple", "here apple") and the second position for others ("apple more", "apple here"). As children begin to use shorter pauses, more consistency in word order, and speech melodies that join the individual words together, they show evidence that their word sequences were planned as a single act: a sentence.

Even when children finally begin producing simple sentences around 30–36 months, they still have a lot to learn. Their ideas about how to combine words into longer sequences are not yet adult-like, and rely quite a bit on what they hear most often around them. Marking words with the correct inflections can be complicated, and it is not uncommon for children to make errors as they learn which inflections are regular (walk, walks, walked...) and which are irregular (am, is, was...). In the 2 years following the onset of simple sentences, children continue to make huge advances in their vocabulary size and use of grammatical marking (among other things). Their sentences become more elaborate with age and, by the time they are 4–5 years old, they have learned a lot of what they need to know to communicate fluently with others.

 

If you would like to learn more about language development please have a look at the website of Nijmegen's Baby Research Centre.

Marisa Casillas & Elma Hilbrink

References:

Clark, E. V. (2009). “Part II: Constructions and meanings”. In First language acquisition (pp. 149–278). Cambridge University Press.

Iverson, J. M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological science16(5), 367-371.

Show or Hide answerWhat is the similarity between learning a natural language and learning a programming language?
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Programming languages are usually taught to teenagers or adults, much like when learning a second language. This kind of learning is called explicit learning. In contrast, everyone’s first language was learned implicitly during childhood. Children do not receive explicit instructions on how to use language, but learn by observation and practice.  Part of what allows children to do this is the interactive nature of language:  people ask questions and answer them, tell others when they don’t understand and negotiate until they do understand (Levinson, 2014).  Programming languages, on the other hand, are passive: they carry out instructions and give error messages, but they don’t find the code interesting or boring and don’t ask the programmer questions. 

Computers. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_101106-N-8863V-113_Girl_Scouts_compete_in_the_Mission_Ocean_Challenge_during_the_USS_California_Science_Experience_at_Naval_Surface_Warfare.jpg

Because of this, it is sometimes difficult to think in a programming language, i.e., to formulate instructions comprehensively and unambiguously. The good news is that many programming languages use similar concepts and structures, since they all are based on the principles of computation. This means that it is often quite easy to learn a second programming language after learning the first. Learning a second natural language can take much more effort.  One thing is clear - it is becoming increasingly important to learn both kinds of language.

Answer by: Julia Udden, Harald Hammarström and Rick Jansen

 

Further Reading

The children who learned to use computers without teachers

Levinson, S. C. (2014). Pragmatics as the origin of recursion. In F. Lowenthal, & L. Lefebvre (Eds.), Language and recursion (pp. 3-13). Berlin: Springer. link

Show or Hide answerHow do people develop the different skills necessary for language acquisition, and in which order and why?
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Children usually start babbling at an age of two or three months – first they babble vowels, later consonants and finally, between an age of seven and eleven months, they produce word-like sounds. Babbling is basically used by children to explore how their speech apparatus works, how they can produce different sounds. Along with the production of word-like sounds comes the ability to extract words from a speech input. These are important steps towards the infant’s first words, which are usually produced at an age of around 12 months.

Simple one-word utterances are followed by two-word utterances during the second half of the children’s second year, in which one can already observe grammar. Children growing up learning a language like Dutch or German (subject-object-verb order in subordinate clauses, which are considered to have a stable order) or English (subject-verb-object order) produce their two-sentences in a subject-verb order, such as “I eat”, while learners of languages such as Arabic or Irish (languages with a verb–subject–object order) produce sentences like “eat I”.  From then on, there is a rapid acceleration in the infant’s vocabulary growth as sentences also contain more words and get more complex. Grammar is said to have developed by an age of four or five years and by then, children are basically considered linguistic adults. The age at which children acquire these skills may vary strongly from one infant to another and the order may also vary depending on the linguistic environment in which the children grow up. But by the age of four or five, all healthy children will have acquired language. The development of language correlates with different processes in the brain, such as the formation of connective pathways, the increase of metabolic activity in different areas of the brain and myelination (the production of myelin sheaths that form a layer around the axon of a neuron and are essential for proper functioning of the nervous system).

By Mariella Paul and Antje Meyer

Further reading:

Bates E, Thal D, Finlay BL, Clancy, B (1999) Early Language Development and its Neural Correlates, in I. Rapin & S. Segalowitz (Eds.), Handbook of Neuropsychology, Vol. 6, Child Neurology (2nd edition). Amsterdam: Elsevier. (link)

Show or Hide answerIs there a quick method to build my English vocabulary?
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Learning a new language is not easy, largely because of the heavy burden on memory. A universal “best practice” for everyone probably does not exist, but vocabulary memorization can become more efficient with the help of some good strategies.

The conventional method of building up a vocabulary from scratch is remembering the words in the target language by translating to one’s own language. This might be advantageous if the new language and the person’s mother tongue are related, such as Dutch and German, but proves too indirect for unrelated languages, as for English and Chinese for instance. The learning process becomes more efficient when the translation step is removed and the new words are directly linked to the actual objects and actions. Many highly skilled second language speakers frequently run into words whose exact translations do not even exist in their native language, demonstrating that those words were not learned by translation, but from context in the new language.

6.07

To skip the translation step early in the language learning process, it is helpful to visualize what it was like when these words were said in in the learner’s native language and link the response to the new words. The idea is to mimic how a child learns a new language. Another way to build a vocabulary quicker is by grouping things that are conceptually related and practicing them at the same time. For example, naming things and events related to transportation as one is getting home from work, or naming objects on the dinner table. The key is to make the new language making “direct sense” instead of trying to understand it through a familiar media such as the native language. In a bit more advanced stage of building a vocabulary, one can use a dictionary in the target language, such as Thesaurus in English, to find the meaning of new words, rather than a language-to-language dictionary.

Employing a method called “Spaced Learning” may also be beneficial. Spaced Learning is a timed routine, in which new material (such as a set of new words in a studied language) is introduced, reviewed, and practiced in three timed blocks with two 10 minute breaks. It is important that distractor activities that are completely unrelated to the studied material, such as physical exercises, are performed during those breaks. It has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments that such repeated stimuli, separated by timed breaks, can initiate long-term connections between neurons in the brain and result in long-term memory encoding. These processes occur in minutes, and have been observed not only in humans, but also in other species.

It is inevitable to forget when we are learning new things and so is making mistakes. The more you use the words that you are learning, the better you will remember them.

Written by Sylvia Chen & Katerina Kucera

Further Reading:

Kelly P. & Whatson T. (2013). Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 7, 589. (link)

Show or Hide answerWhat is the connection between movement and language?
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Speaking requires planning and executing rapid sequences of movements. Several muscle systems are involved in the production of speech sounds. Not only the tongue, lips and jaw, but also the larynx and respiration muscles work together in coordination when we speak. As for any other movement, motor planning and sensorimotor control are essential for speaking. 

In children, a tight relation between fine motor skills and language proficiency has been demonstrated. That is why speech therapists encourage sensory rich activities like finger painting, water or sand play, and manipulations involving small objects (coloring, buttoning, etc.) in children with speech delays. Such activities help to form new neural connections that are necessary for planning movement sequences and controlling fine-grain movements. For the same reason hand exercises can be beneficial as a part of complex therapy for speech and language recovery after a stroke or brain damage, in cases when language problems are caused by impaired articulation or motor control. 

Hand8.05http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jbulwer.jpg

Another connection between movement and language lies in the domain of co-speech gestures. People often gesture when they speak and understanding the gestures is important in order to grasp the speaker’s intended message. Gesture may become essential to communicate at all in situations where verbal language use is constrained (for example in a noisy environment, or when speakers of different languages communicate). Usually people are remarkably fluent in extracting intended meaning from one’s hands and body movement. Interestingly, recent research demonstrates that similar brain areas are involved in constructing the meaning from linguistic and gestural input. Finally, the sign languages that deaf individuals use to communicate show that the language itself can be manifested in body movements, e.g. hands, arms, and facial expressions.

 Written by Irina Simanova & David Peeters

Further reading:  

Why a Long Island Speech Therapist Incorporates Movement and Sensory Activities into Speech Therapy Sessions (link)

McNeill, David (2012). How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution. New York, USA; United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. (link)

Show or Hide answerDo people who grow up speaking more than one language use more brain area for language processing? And, does the brain use more resources especially for languages of different structures?
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People who speak more than one language are generally referred to as being bilingual, but there are many ways in which a person can become bilingual. Some grow up learning two languages at the same time, others learn them sequentially so that the mother tongue is learned first and a second language is learned later. However, in both cases the person may be equally fluent in each of the two languages. As it turns out, it is more important for the brain how fluent the person is, than how or when the languages are learnt. Current brain research studies suggest that when a person is equally good in both languages the brain uses the same areas, with the same level of activation and for the same reasons in both languages.

bilingual sign

In many cases bilinguals are not equally good at both languages. If one compares the brain activation when a person uses his or her native and second language and is not equally fluent in both languages, the second language usually activates the same general language areas as the native language but these areas are more active in the second language. The less fluent language may also recruit areas not related directly to language but to cognitive control and attention. This means that when something is more difficult more brain resources are needed to process it.

Many have asked us if languages with different structure are processed differently if they are spoken by the same person, as may be the case for a bilingual. Languages vary greatly in how they express the relations of words in a sentence (who did what to whom). Some languages like English, Dutch and Chinese change the position of words in a sentence (which we call ‘word order’) while other languages like Japanese and Korean include additional short words without meaning to express these relations (which we call ‘case particles’). If the two languages of the bilingual belong to different language families (like English and Japanese), it is conceivable that they are not processed similarly, even when the bilingual is equally fluent in both languages. Currently very few studies exist on this, but at least there is one study on native Chinese people and native Korean people who speak both English and Japanese as a second language. The study found that brain activations depended on how similar the grammars of the non-native language was to that of the native language. Using English as a second language activated the language system stronger for the Korean native group than for the Chinese native group, because English and Korean are more different. Using Japanese as a second language activated slightly more brain areas for Chinese native speakers than for Korean native speakers, also because the grammars of Chinese and Japanese differ more. An explanation may be that besides proficiency and age of acquisition, brain activations depend on the differences and similarities of the languages’ grammars. Sometimes reaching automaticity on the level of the brain may take longer than reaching a proficient behavioral performance, especially if the language has a very different structure from your native language. However, this remains an open question. It seems clear that whichever language is spoken, on the level of the brain the same regions underlie language processing.

Written by Annika Hulten & Diana Dimitrova

Further reading:

Abutalebi, J. (2008). Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychologica,128, 466-478.

Kotz, S. A. (2009). A critical review of ERP and fMRI evidence on L2 syntactic processing. Brain Language, 109, 68-74.

Jeong, H., Sugiura, M., Sassa, Y., Yokoyama, S., Horie, K., Sato, S., & Kawashima, R. (2007). Cross-linguistic influence on brain activation during second language processing: An fMRI study. Bilingualism Language and Cognition, 10(2), 175.

Show or Hide answerWhen should a child learn a second language?
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Children and adult language learning differ in a number of ways. Firstly, the brain of a child is still developing whereas the adult brain is fully mature.  The child’s is therefore more flexible and the neurons in the language system can adapt in accordance to both a native and a foreign language. This is why children are often able to learn a language without an accent in the speech and are able to distinguish the phonology of their second language better. Adults on the other hand, have a mature brain and are able to use their experience when learning. Adults are better and faster at learning by analogy, and at learning abstract rules and applying them. In addition to these differences in their brain capacity, children and adults typically also learn a second language in very different environments. Adults and teens learn a new language in a formal school setting, children learn by immersion e.g. in language day-care.

In order to answer when one should learn a second language, one should first determine what one wants to optimize: the end result or time devoted to learning.  As a rule of thumb, a language which is learned before the ages of 6-9 is typically learnt to a level where the speaker has no detectable accent and is very comfortable using it. However, this requires that a child spends a considerable amount of time hearing and using the novel language.  On the other hand, if a language is learnt later, speakers may have a slight accent in their pronunciation but may otherwise reach a very proficient native-like level.  Moreover, in proportion adults spend typically less time on the actual learning compared to small children learning a language. Of course adults can also learn a language through the environment in which case the time devoted to learning is similar to that of small children. Adults who learn this way typically nevertheless have an accent while otherwise reaching a good level. It should also be noted that while children are able to learn a language without an accent, both adults and children learn vocabulary equally well.

Especially for elderly learners the motivation to learn plays a crucial part in the quality of the outcome. In fact, even elderly people above 60 years can show good language learning results, which has been shown to also have a “protective” effect for memory diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Humans are naturally curious and people of all ages can be encouraged to learn languages and explore other cultures in doing so.

Written by Annika Hulten & Diana Dimitrova

Further reading:

Kuhl, P. K. (2010). Brain mechanisms in early language acquisition. Neuron, 67, 713-727. (link)

Rodríguez-Fornells, A., T. Cunillera, A. Mestres-Missé & R. de Diego-Balaguer (2009). Neurophysiological mechanisms involved in language learning in adults. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 364, 3711-3735. (link)

Show or Hide answerIs it true that people who are good at music can learn a language sooner?
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Yes. This has indeed been found. However, the answer is a bit different for children learning their mother tongue and individuals learning a foreign language.

What advantages have been found for children who attend music lessons? At age ten these children show a more mature brain response when processing grammar. At age six to nine they read better. At age four they remember words better and make better use of grammatical rules for word formation. On top of all that, infants aged around one year who were assigned to early active music experiences gesture more to communicate with others. So, the answer for children learning their native language seems to be yes: music lessons do indeed improve language use or its precursors.

Music

However, when it comes to learning a foreign language, the music advantage seems to be more restricted to hearing and producing the basic sounds which make up a language. For example, it has been found that among adults or children without music training, those who have more musical talent are also better at perceiving and producing non-native linguistic sounds like Chinese tones.  Furthermore, individuals with music training are better at discriminating and learning foreign speech sounds, while they are also better at detecting mistakes in the way foreign speech is pronounced. There is evidence showing that the musician’s brain encodes speech sounds more efficiently and that parts of the brain that are dedicated to sound processing have a different structure in musicians compared to non-musicians. To summarize, people who are good at music are better in learning to perceive and to produce foreign speech sounds.

Might it be that more intelligent children stay in music classes while the others drop out, thereby explaining these results? This is unlikely: studies where children were randomly placed in music or painting classes have found better language abilities after music training. However, a word of caution is in order. It is not clear what it is about music that improves language use. Is it the training of long concentration during music lessons? Is it the training of complex, structured sound patterns during music listening? Yes, music classes make people good at music and somewhat good at language. But it is not exactly clear why that is.

 Written by Richard Kunert, Salomi Asaridou & Tineke Snijders

Further reading:

Asaridou, S. S., & McQueen, J. M. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: Evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 321. (link)

Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11, 599–605. (link)

Patel, A. D. (in press). Can nonlinguistic musical training change the way the brain processes speech? The expanded opera hypothesis. Hearing Research. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.heares.2013.08.011 (link)

Show or Hide answerIs there a gene, or genes, that make some people better speakers, or learners?
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Human children have a unique, and highly mysterious, ability to acquire proficient speech and language skills without the need to be formally taught. After only a few years, a typical infant has assembled a huge vocabulary of words, can use grammatical rules to combine them into a potentially limitless number of meaningful utterances, communicates these with rapid and precise coordination of the speech muscles, and is similarly adept at decoding the utterances of others. It has long been suspected that the answers to this puzzle may lie somewhere in our genetic makeup. Importantly, the human genome does not contain the information (the sets of words and rules) for any specific languages themselves; we all need exposure to a language in order to learn it. A child growing up surrounded by Dutch speakers becomes fluent in Dutch, while the same child growing up in Japan would learn to speak Japanese. Rather, our genes help to build brain circuits that are well-tuned to soak up language from the social environment.

2.15Genes

For many years, it was only possible to speculate about potential genetic contributions to language acquisition. With the rise of new molecular techniques, scientists have now started to identify and study individual genes that are important. So far, most research has focused on searching for causative genes in children and adults who have problems with speech and/or language development that cannot be explained by another cause (like deafness or intellectual disability). It is clear that there is not just one single factor at play, instead an orchestra of genes and their interactions are responsible. Some genes have greater effects than others. For example, one gene with a large effect is FOXP2, the first gene implicated in an inherited speech and language disorder. If a child carries a disruptive mutation in this gene, it is enough to cause serious problems with learning to make sequences of speech sounds, problems that persist throughout life. In contrast to the rare severe mutations of FOXP2, more commonly occurring variants seen in other genes, such as CNTNAP2, ATP2C2, or CMIP have more subtle effects, increasing risk of language difficulties in small but significant ways.

While quite a lot is known about genetic variants that lead to language problems, there is less insight into genetic effects that make certain people in the general population better at acquiring language(s). Some of the genes involved in language impairments, like CNTNAP2, are also known to have effects on language development and function in people without disorders, yet further studies are required to uncover the genes and variants that might give some people a linguistic advantage. An exciting new step for this research will be to exploit the latest genomic techniques to look at the other extreme of the spectrum, people who have unusual talents in acquiring or using language.

Written by Katerina Kucera & Simon Fisher

Further reading:

The Language Fossils Buried in Every Cell of Your Body (link)

Graham S.A., Fisher, S.E. (2013). Decoding the genetics of speech and language. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 43-51. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
Questions and Answers

whiet question mark on MPG green 124pt, stroke 2pt

This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos