Language Sampling

Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

Economic realities prevent researchers from documenting the speech of large numbers of children. Language acquisition studies glean their results from samples of speaker populations with the tradeoff between size and expense. Larger data sets enable statistical methods to detect more subtle interactions between independent and dependent variables. Sample sizes can be increased by recording language data from more children and/or recording more language data from each child, but such increases come with a cost. All research on language acquisition has to confront the sampling problem at some point in order to generalize its results to larger populations.

Acquisition studies control their subject samples for age, gender, ethnicity, social class, vocabulary, and grammatical development, but often omit the most critical variable - language. The omission of the language control changes language acquisition research into research on language processing. Its results do not generalize to children acquiring other languages because the basic linguistic features are not controlled.

Just as it's necessary to control the effects of age and lexical development on language processing, it is also necessary to control the nature of the linguistic features that children acquire. These features have to be studied in every language in order to understand the human potential for language. Language acquisition research should begin with an analysis of the adequacy of the language(s) being sampled.

The division between analytic and synthetic languages is one language variable that has not been controlled in any acquisition study. Languages like English, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Chinese are analytic languages because they have little to no inflection. Analytic languages rely on syntactic relations between words in order to build sentences. Synthetic languages like Mam (Maya), Navajo (Athabascan), Mohawk (Iroquoian) and Inuktitut (Inuit) rely more upon morphological constructions than syntactic constructions. As a result of this difference, words in synthetic languages have more sounds, morphemes and syllables than words in analytic languages.

Vocabulary size is a leading variable in language development. It affects the development of phonology, morphology and syntax. Acquisition studies that do not control the analytic/synthetic division will be fundamentally flawed. Unfortunately, the analytic/synthetic division is far from the only difference between languages. Acquisition research that does not control the sample of languages will produce misleading results.

Jan. 9, 2018

Page last modified 1/9/18

© 2018 Clifton Pye