The Importance of Documenting Children’s Language

Clifton Pye

Email: pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

The signature trait of human language is its wonderful diversity of forms and meanings. This diversity defines the core induction problem of language acquisition and deserves to be at the heart of acquisition research. Investigators cannot make valid claims about the process of language acquisition without some idea of how the process unfolds across thousands of languages. Many investigators have advocated adding studies of children acquiring more languages but to little effect. The next 20 years will be our last chance to document a major part of the diversity in child language. It is past time to take steps to increase awareness of language diversity and its significance for the field.

A fundamental trait of being human is the ability to communicate our thoughts to other humans. We do this using any one or more of seven thousand of human languages, and have done so for as long as Homo sapiens has walked the earth. This ability is only possible because children have the ability to learn any of the thousands of languages they hear their parents speaking. Children don’t learn a language overnight, they take many years to achieve the fluency of adult speakers. Nevertheless, even a two-year-old, who struggles to put together two-word utterances has impressive language skills. They can follow many adult conversations; they know when adults are telling them not to do something; and they can tell adults what they want to eat.

Children’s achievements in language learning are all the more impressive because of the remarkable diversity of languages that children acquire. Evans and Levinson (2009: 446) observe that “The diversity of language is, from a biological point of view, its most remarkable property - there is no other animal whose communication system varies both in form and content. It presupposes an extraordinary plasticity and powerful learning abilities able to cope with variation at every level of the language system.”

Children’s ability to acquire this diversity of languages is the central fact of linguistic science. Their accomplishments establish a basic equality between all languages. Children can acquire any language despite whether it is written or spoken, oral or signed, spoken by hundreds or by billions of speakers. They acquire adult languages at roughly the same pace although not in the same way. Children show evidence that they understand the adult language before they produce their first words around the end of their first year. They produce long words in languages like Innuktitut (Allen, 2017) and Murrinhpatha (Forshaw, 2016) that have long words and short words in languages like English (Nelson, 1973) that have short words.

The differences in the ways that children acquire different languages are the main argument for documenting the acquisition of all languages. We cannot predict how children will produce long words in Innuktitut and Murrinhpatha by studying the words that children produce in English. Differences in sounds, stress, morphology, word order, meaning and discourse structure affect the structure of children’s utterances and the ways they construct meaning. Bowerman and Choi (2001) showed that children learning English used an in/on semantic contrast in locating objects, while children acquiring Korean used a tight/loose-fitting semantic contrast for similar locations. Language acquisition research reveals all of the ways that children construct their own sound systems and semantic contrasts from the fine details of the adult language.

Franz Boas (1911) made the original argument for the essential equality of all languages. No matter what their level of material culture might be it is possible to translate even the most complex ideas between languages. Languages may differ in their number of sounds, verb inflections or nouns, but they still have the means to express any idea. Children somehow manage to filter out the sounds that are used in the adult language and put them together with the meanings that are relevant to their language. The diversity of sounds and diversity of meanings makes their accomplishment a miracle. We can only appreciate the nature of this miracle by documenting how children acquire every human language, but information is only available for some 200 of the more than 7,000 languages that currently exist. We do not know how children recognize the unique linguistic features that occur in indigenous languages nor when children use them productively (Crystal, 2014; Pye, 2020).

Researchers have previously noted the paucity of documentation on the acquisition of the world’s languages (Ambridge and Lieven, 2011; Berman, 2014; Lieven and Stoll, 2013; Lust, 2006; Pye, 2017; Slobin, 1985; Stoll, 2016). David Crystal (2014) observed that over 40 years the Journal of Child Language only published papers on the acquisition of 20 languages spoken outside Europe. He added that “Given the presence of 6,000+ languages in the world, it seems we have still some way to go to put typological flesh on our hypotheses, with several language families having no representation at all in this.” Kelly, Forshaw, Nordlinger & Wigglesworth (2015: 286) observed that “There is a dawning realization that the field of child language needs data from the broadest typological array of languages and language-learning environments.”

Documenting the acquisition of indigenous languages while there are still children who are acquiring them requires a fundamental shift in the conceptual framework for doing language acquisition research. There is an urgent need to develop an approach to document the acquisition of indigenous languages as rapidly as possible, archiving the research and returning the products of this research to the indigenous communities. Current methods for language acquisition research are not equal to the task of documenting the acquisition of four thousand languages in even eighty years (50 new languages each year for the rest of this century).

The paucity of research on the acquisition of indigenous languages is evidence of a systemic gap in the practice of acquisition research in the sense that researchers lack a framework that motivates the study of indigenous languages on a scale required to document the acquisition of these languages before they go extinct. The absence of research on indigenous language acquisition restricts understanding of the significance of such research, which restricts the resources devoted to such research. The prospect of imminent language loss imposes a moral and scientific imperative to shift from intensive research on the acquisition of a few languages to comprehensively documenting the acquisition of the many endangered languages while the languages are still being acquired by children.

Time is of the essence if we are to have any hope of documenting how children acquire a majority of the world’s languages. To paraphrase Alfred Russel Wallace’s (1863) remark on the significance of biological diversity: future ages will look back upon us as so immersed in the analysis of child language as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of diversity which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every human language as worthy of study, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.


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