A cross-linguistic comparison of the acquisition of why-questions by young children

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Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice. Oxford Handbooks Online. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search within my subject: Select Politics Urban Studies U. History Law Linguistics Literature. Music Neuroscience Philosophy Physical Sciences. Children's Acquisition of Compound Constructions. The Oxford Handbook of Compounding. Read More. Example of gesture phases including ongoing stroke and post-stroke hold.

A Preparation. B Stroke. C Stroke. D Post-stroke hold. E Post-stroke hold. TABLE 4. Third, we coded all ongoing strokes both in fluent and disfluent speech for function. Following Kendon , we distinguished between referential and pragmatic functions. Gestures with a referential function example in Figure 2 express semantic content through the depiction of referential properties e. Hallgren, for the identification of disfluencies, and gestures, the coding of gestures as ongoing vs. For all analyses, we make a a crosslinguistic comparison of competent adult native speakers of Dutch and Italian; b a developmental comparison of three Italian child groups and adult Italian speakers; c a developmental comparison between competent adult native speakers of Dutch and adult Dutch L2 learners of French.

For the statistical analyses we used the glmerMod package in R, version 0. All analyses were run on raw numbers, but for ease of exposition figures show mean proportions. Figure 4 presents the mean proportion of ongoing strokes occurring with disfluent and fluent speech, respectively, comparing adult native Dutch and Italian speakers Figure 4A , Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers 4B , and adult native Dutch speakers and adult Dutch learners of L2 French 4C. Table 6 presents the output from three GLMMs on the likelihood of gestures occurring with disfluent speech across groups, again, first examining adult native Dutch and Italian speakers; then Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers; and finally, adult native Dutch speakers and adult Dutch learners of L2 French.

A Adult native Dutch vs. Italian speakers. B Italian children aged 4, 6, and 9 vs. Italian adult speakers. C Adult native Dutch speakers vs. TABLE 6. Summary of Generalized Linear Mixed Models testing whether ongoing strokes occur with disfluent or fluent speech across groups. In addition, the results reveal a shift over the course of child development, with Italian adults Est. Furthermore, for L2 speakers there is an interaction with speech type such that L2 speakers are significantly more likely than L1 speakers to produce gestures with disfluent speech Est.

The following examples illustrate the main pattern of absence of gestures during disfluencies. The first is a referential gesture where both hands have a tight grip handshape moving rightward, as if holding something and moving it. The second gesture is a pragmatic gesture where the both hands are twisted at the wrist to reveal palms up. When she then becomes disfluent, starting with a filled pause followed by a long silence, she drops both hands to the lap.

The first is a pragmatic gesture the index and thumb held together to form a ring. The second is a referential gesture performed with an open hand palm facing leftward that is moved laterally to the right side to indicate the outside. He then becomes disfluent and drops his hands to the lap. In 5 , during the fluent part of speech, an Italian child produces a gesture representing the bow tie bringing both hands to the neck and outlining the shape of a bow tie.

During the disfluent stretch she drops her hands to the lap. In 6 , an adult L2 speaker launches a gesture preparation cf. Following this, during an exceptionally long unfilled pause 4 s ms , she does nothing. Only when speech resumes with structure does she produce a gesture with a referential function, outlining a big triangle. Figure 5 presents the mean proportion of holds across fluent and disfluent stretches of speech, respectively, comparing adult native Dutch and Italian speakers Figure 5A , Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers 5B , and adult native Dutch speakers and adult Dutch learners of L2 French 5C.

Table 7 presents the output from three GLMMs on the likelihood of holds occurring with disfluent speech across groups, again, first examining adult native Dutch and Italian speakers; then Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers; and finally, adult native Dutch speakers and adult Dutch learners of L2 French.

TABLE 7. Summary of Generalized Linear Mixed Models testing whether gestural holds occur mostly with disfluent vs. There were no differences between the native speakers of Dutch and Italian, and no developmental effects in the child-adult comparison. However, for L2 speakers there was an interaction with speech type such that L2 speakers were significantly more likely than L1 speakers to produce holds with fluent speech Est.

In the interest of space, we provide only two examples from learners to illustrate the occurrence of holds during disfluencies. When speech is resumed, the gesture is resumed and completed. She produces a referential gesture with the right hand open with palm facing downward moving laterally as if moving something aside.

During the first filled pause eh the gestural movement goes into a hold and the speaker suspends her two hands.

A Cross-linguistic Comparison of the Acquisition of Why-questions by Young ...

The hold continues during the subsequent disfluency until she abandons it, dropping her hands during the lengthy unfilled pause. Figure 6 presents the mean proportion of gestures with a pragmatic function across fluent and disfluent stretches of speech, respectively, comparing adult native Dutch and Italian speakers Figure 6A , Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers 6B , and adult native Dutch speakers and adult Dutch learners of L2 French 6C. Table 8 presents the output from three GLMMs on the likelihood of pragmatic gestures occurring with disfluent speech across groups, again, first examining adult native Dutch and Italian speakers; then Italian 4-, 6-, and 9-year-olds and adult Italian speakers; and finally, adult native Dutch speakers in L1 and in L2 French.

B Italian children aged four, six and nine vs. TABLE 8. Summary of Generalized Linear Mixed Models testing whether pragmatic gestures occur mostly with disfluent vs. The results indicate that in no group were pragmatic gestures more likely to occur with disfluent than fluent speech despite numerical trends in some groups.

However, there was a crosslinguistic difference in that Italian speakers were more likely to produce pragmatic gestures with fluent speech than adult Dutch speakers Est. There was also a developmental effect in that Italian 9-year-olds Est. Finally, adult L2 speakers were significantly more likely to produce pragmatic gestures with fluent L2 speech than L1 speech Est. Examples 8 and 9 illustrate the occurrence of pragmatic gestures during disfluencies. In 9 , an Italian 9-year-old hesitates and produces a gesture with a pragmatic function during the unfilled pause.

Once speech resumes, he continues to produce a referential gesture that represents the stretching out of the pastry with both hands. In 10 , an L2 speaker produces a string of gestures with pragmatic functions during a long disfluent stretch, tapping her fingers with both hands on the table. These gestures are accompanied by averted gaze and a thinking face cf. Goodwin and Goodwin, ; Gullberg, L2: ils sont. NS: ils se battent.

L2: oui oui. In the second unfilled pause, she produces a gesture with a referential function representing the act of fighting with both fists moving around each other in a circle cf.

Figure 2. The L2 speaker repeats this phrase but is not satisfied, so she repeats the gesture in a third unfilled pause, again with gaze shifted to the native speaker. Gullberg, , This study examined the putative compensatory role of gestures by investigating their distribution, temporal, and functional properties relative to speech disfluencies in speakers of two different languages Dutch and Italian , and with different degrees of linguistic expertise child and adult language learners.

The key findings can be summarized in four points. Adult L2 speakers are more likely than anyone else to gesture also during disfluent speech. Second, in all groups gestures tend to be held during disfluent speech, not to be ongoing strokes. Third, the small number of ongoing gestures during disfluency display both pragmatic and referential functions. Adult L2 learners are more likely than anyone else to produce referential gestures during disfluency. Fourth, there are no crosslinguistic differences in gestural behavior during disfluencies.

We only find a crosslinguistic difference in the production of pragmatic gestures during fluent stretches, with Italian adults producing more such gestures than Dutch adults and Italian children. The overwhelming tendency for gestures to occur with fluent rather than disfluent speech does not support the first prediction by the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis to the effect that, if gestures facilitate lexical retrieval, they should occur more frequently during speech disfluencies.

Instead, the results suggest a very tight link between fluent speech and gesture production, supporting the notion that speech and gesture form an integrated or co-orchestrated system in speech production e. The strikingly similar patterns found across speakers of different languages and across competent and learning language users alike support this notion quite forcefully. The finding that any gestural activity found during speech disfluencies is mostly held or suspended in all groups similarly further reinforces the view of an integrated speech-gesture system.

All speakers, children and adults, competent or learners, either interrupt an ongoing gesture when speech is interrupted i. That is, when speech stops, so does gesture. This finding is in line with and extends previous studies e. These speaker-directed perspectives are complemented by findings on the functions of holds in interaction, which are relevant since the narratives analyzed here are interactive. When they linger after the turn, they have often been treated as cues to elicit a response from the interlocutor Bavelas, ; Sikveland and Ogden, ; Cibulka, , inter al.

Park-Doob , p.

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Similarly, Cibulka reports that holds can be deliberately inserted in repair sequences to indicate that an entire utterance is momentarily suspended. Such functional analyses of holds in interaction are not in contradiction to the current findings concerning the speech production process.

Kendon, Turning to gestural functions during disfluency, all groups produced not only referential but also pragmatic gestures in the small number of ongoing strokes found during disfluencies. Again, this result does not support the second prediction by the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis, according to which we should expect referential gestures during disfluencies activating lexical items.

As in the examples provided, the pragmatic gestures performed during disfluencies are not related to lexical content but rather to aspects of difficult interaction arising from the disfluencies both in adults and children cf. Graziano, a , b for similar findings on children. These gestures, often performed with a repeated oscillation of the open hand through wrist rotation or by tapping the fingers on a surface, provide a metalinguistic comment on the communication breakdowns, signaling that there is a problem in the speech production or that the speaker is engaging in a word search.

Stam and Tellier classify word searching gestures as production oriented. This certainly tallies with these findings. However, although these gestures clearly indicate a production difficulty, they equally clearly have the potential to serve an interactive function cf. Bavelas et al. Learners, both children and adults, overall revealed the same patterns as competent speakers, and there were no crosslinguistic differences in disfluencies.

These findings highlight that the integrated behavior is pervasive. That said, the adult L2 speakers differed most from other groups both in speech and gesture. Although they overall pattern in the same way as the other groups, L2 speakers are more likely than native speakers to produce ongoing and referential gestures with disfluent speech. Although this result seems to support the predictions by the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis, it is important to qualify the finding. First, it is not the dominant pattern even for L2 speakers.

Second, ongoing strokes in disfluency have both pragmatic and referential functions. The pragmatic functions do not relate to lexical content, so cannot support lexical retrieval. Third, and most importantly, when referential gestures are produced during disfluencies, they tend to occur in specific contexts, illustrated by example Here the L2 speaker seems to produce referential gestures strategically to elicit lexical help from the interlocutor — not from herself.

Figure 2 in silence, the L2 speaker certainly represents the concept she has trouble expressing, but she also uses the referential dimension of the gesture in combination with the direct gaze to the interlocutor with a pragmatic aim, namely to request help from the interlocutor, who does indeed provide a linguistic label for the gesture. Such sequences are relatively common in face-to-face interaction between L2 and native speakers cf. There is further support for the crucial interactive aspect of such behavior.

Holler et al. During non-fluent speech, native speakers tend to produce more referential gestures during tip-of-the-tongue states when facing interlocutors than when they cannot see them or when they speak to a recorder. Obviously, this is not to say that referential gestures are never produced instead of lexical items or never ease their production. But we do claim that this cannot be considered the main function of gestures, not even for L2 speakers. A further result from the L2 speakers is that they rather surprisingly produce more holds with fluent speech than anyone else.

One possible reason for this is that the L2 speakers under study really are beginners with low levels of proficiency. They are therefore highly disfluent. Examples 6 and 9 illustrate this quite clearly.

On the whole, then, L2 speakers display more of everything than the other groups — they are more disfluent than any other group, but their predominant pattern of no gesture or hold in disfluency is the same as for all. They also produce more ongoing strokes with referential functions in disfluencies than anyone else.

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This is presumably a reflection of the fact that they may have a communicative intention ready in their first language which they cannot express lexically in the second language. Their referential gesture can thus reflect a lexical notion in the L1 when they decide to use the gesture to elicit help from an interlocutor.

But if the word is not known in the L2, then no amount of gesturing can activate it. It is important to acknowledge that the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis makes predictions specifically concerning lexical difficulties in the domain of spatial language, assuming that referential gestures will crossmodally prime spatial vocabulary.

The current analyses have not taken the specifics of lexical information into account, but rather applied a global analysis to all intra-clausal disfluencies. Partly, this is because we have conducted a corpus analysis on naturalistically occurring disfluencies in narrative corpora. In such contexts, it is not always easy to know whether the sought word is spatial or not, nor whether the resolution is even related to the original lexical problem cf.

Seyfeddinipur, for similar comments. However, it seems unlikely that the overwhelmingly clear patterns found in the four corpora analyzed would change for spatial language specifically. That said, an experimental study could be undertaken inducing disfluency and targeting specific semantic domains to see whether the type of analysis performed here would yield similar results.

Both differences may have affected overall gesture rate, for example, and although gesture rate was not of interest per se in this study, it may have influenced the sample size. The current results provide no or little support for the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis proposing that ongoing referential gestures in disfluencies help speech production. But what about the ongoing pragmatic, or rather non-referential, gestures? Following other authors, we have suggested that these gestures comment on the break-downs in interactive settings. Stam and Tellier, Admittedly, many findings are linked to the study of populations with psychiatric conditions, but they open potential new avenues of exploration.

The findings constitute an important challenge for gesture theories assuming a mainly lexical compensatory role for referential gestures. Moreover, the observation that gestures that do accompany disfluencies have both pragmatic and referential functions raises further important challenges for gesture theories which have hitherto been based on subsets of gestures referential and solely on adult, competent, fluent speakers. The findings are also challenging for theories of language acquisition that tend to view gestures mainly as a lexical crutch.

Perhaps most importantly, the findings are a challenge for mono-modal theories of language who look only to written forms of spoken or signed language, ignoring gestures as irrelevant. The data strongly suggest that when speech stops, so does gesture across languages, across age, and across types of learners. Speech disfluency is generally mirrored by gesture disfluency. To us, this suggests that gesture production is part and parcel of language production, and therefore worthy of linguistic theorizing more broadly. This study was carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the Regional Ethical Review Board at Lund University with written informed consent from all subjects note that the data were collected while the authors were employed in the Netherlands and Italy, but that the Swedish board has reviewed the protocol.

All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All authors listed have made a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication. The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. We thank two reviewers for very helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript; research assistants Josine Greidanus for help with statistical analysis and Dutch transcription, Nicolas Femia, Frida Spledido, and Wanda Jakobsen for reliability coding.

We also express our thanks to Prof. Amneris Roselli and Mrs. Alibali, M. Gesture and the process of speech production: we think, therefore, we gesture. Baayen, R. Analyzing Linguistic Data. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Bates, E. Google Scholar. Bavelas, J. Gestures as part of speech: methodological implications.

Interactive gestures. Beattie, G. Contextual probability and word frequency as determinants of pauses and errors in spontaneous speech. Speech 22, — One obvious reason is the lack of a formal academy for the English language - English speakers are rather laissez-faire certainly laissez-faire enough to use French to describe English speakers' attitudes towards English - but there are several other reasons too.

Formed out of a melting pot of European languages - a dab of Latin and Greek here, a pinch of Celtic and French there, a fair old chunk of German, and a few handfuls of Norse - English has a long and complicated history. Some spelling irregularities in English reflect the original etymology of the words. The unpronounced b in doubt and debt harks back to their Latin roots, dubitare and debitum , while the pronunciation of ce- as "se-" in centre , certain , and celebrity is due to the influence of French and send and sell are not "cend" and "cell" because they are Germanic in origin.

All languages change over time, but English had a particularly dramatic set of changes to the sound of its vowels in the middle ages known as the Great Vowel Shift. The early and middle phases of the Great Vowel Shift coincided with the invention of the printing press, which helped to freeze the English spelling system at that point; then, the sounds changed but the spellings didn't, meaning that Modern English spells many words the way they were pronounced years ago. This means that the Shakespeare's plays were originally pronounced very differently from modern English, but the spelling is almost exactly the same.

Moreover, the challenge of making the sounds of English match the spelling of English is harder because of the sheer number of vowels. Depending on their dialect, English speakers can have as many as 22 separate vowel sounds, but only the letters a , i , u , e , o , and y to represent them; it's no wonder that so many competing combinations of letters were created. Deep orthography makes learning to read more difficult, as a native speaker and as a second language learner.

Despite this, many people are resistant to spelling reform because the benefits may not make up for the loss of linguistic history. The English may love regularity when it comes to queuing and tea, but not when it comes to orthography. 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. 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. Segalowitz Eds. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Homophones are words that sound the same but have two or more distinct meanings. This phenomenon occurs in all spoken languages. These words sound the same, even though they differ in several letters when written down therefore called heterographic homophones.

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Such words are sometimes called homographic homophones. Words with very similar sounds but different meanings also exist between languages. One might think that homophones would create serious problems for the hearer or listener. How can one possibly know what a speaker means when she says a sentence like "I hate the mouse"? Indeed, many studies have shown that listeners are a little slower to understand ambiguous words than unambiguous ones.

However, in most cases, it is evident from the context what the intended meaning is. The above sentence might for example appear in the contexts of "I don't mind most of my daughter's pets, but I hate the mouse" or "I love my new computer, but I hate the mouse". People normally figure out the intended meaning so quickly, that they don't even perceive the alternative. Why do homophones exist? It seems much less confusing to have separate sounds for separate concepts.

Linguists take sound change as an important factor that can lead to the existence of homophones. Also language contact creates homophones. Some changes over time thus create new homophones, whereas other changes undo the homophonic status of a word. Finally, a particularly nice characteristic of homophones is that they are often used in puns or as stylistic elements in literary texts.

By David Peeters and Antje S. Cutler, A. Voornaam is not really a homophone: Lexical prosody and lexical access in Dutch. Language and speech , 44 2 , Rodd, J. Making sense of semantic ambiguity: Semantic competition in lexical access. Journal of Memory and Language , 46 2 , Tabossi, P. Accessing lexical ambiguity in different types of sentential contexts. Journal of Memory and Language , 27 3 , This condition was first described in the 's and referred to as 'congenital word blindness', because it was thought to result from problems with processing of visual symbols.

Over the years it has become clear that visual deficits are not the core feature for most people with dyslexia. In many cases, it seems that subtle underlying difficulties with aspects of language could be contributing. To learn to read, a child needs to understand the way that words are made up by their individual units phonemes , and must become adept at matching those phonemes to arbitrary written symbols graphemes.

Although the overall language proficiency of people with dyslexia usually appears normal, they often perform poorly on tests that involve manipulations of phonemes and processing of phonology, even when this does not involve any reading or writing. Since dyslexia is defined as a failure to read, without being explained by an obvious known cause, it is possible that this is not one single syndrome, but instead represents a cluster of different disorders, involving distinct mechanisms.

However, it has proved hard to clearly separate dyslexia out into subtypes. Studies have uncovered quite a few convincing behavioural markers not only phonological deficits that tend to be associated with the reading problems, and there is a lot of debate about how these features fit together into a coherent account.

To give just one example, many people with dyslexia are less accurate when asked to rapidly name a visually-presented series of objects or colours. Some researchers now believe that dyslexia results from the convergence of several different cognitive deficits, co-occurring in the same person. It is well established that dyslexia clusters in families and that inherited factors must play a substantial role in susceptibility. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the genetic basis is complex and heterogeneous, involving multiple different genes of small effect size, interacting with the environment.

The neurobiological mechanisms that go awry in dyslexia are largely unknown.

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A prominent theory posits disruptions of a process in early development, a process in which brain cells move towards their final locations, known as neuronal migration. Indirect supporting evidence for this hypothesis comes from studies of post-mortem brain material in humans and investigations of functions of some candidate genes in rats. But there are still many open questions that need to be answered before we can fully understand the causal mechanisms that lead to this elusive syndrome.

Carrion-Castillo, A. Molecular genetics of dyslexia: an overview. Dyslexia , 19 , — Demonet, J. Developmental dyslexia. Lancet , 63 , — link. Fisher, S. Genes, cognition and dyslexia: learning to read the genome. Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, When we tell people we investigate the sign languages of deaf people, or when people see us signing, they often ask us whether sign language is universal. The answer is that nearly every country is home to at least one national sign language which does not follow the structure of the dominant spoken language used in that country.

Chinese Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands, for example, also have distinct vocabularies, deploy different fingerspelling systems, and have their own set of grammatical rules. At the same time, a Chinese and Dutch deaf person, who do not have any shared language, manage to bridge this language gap with relative ease when meeting for the first time. This kind of ad hoc communication is also known as cross-signing. In collaboration with the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies - iSLanDS , we are conducting a study of how cross-signing emerges among signers of varying countries for the first time.

The recordings include signers from countries such as South Korea, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia. This linguistic creativity often capitalizes on the depictive properties of visual signs e. Cross-signing is distinct from International Sign, which is used at international deaf meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf WFD congress or the Deaflympics. International Sign is strongly influenced by signs from American Sign Language and is usually used to present in front of international deaf audiences who are familiar with its lexicon.

Cross-signing, on the other hand, emerges in interaction among signers without knowledge of each other's native sign languages. Information on differences and commonalities between different sign languages, and between spoken and signed languages by the World Federation of the Deaf: link. Mesch, J. Perspectives on the Concept and Definition of International Sign. World Federation of the Deaf. Supalla, T. The grammar of International Sign: A new look at pidgin languages.

Emory and J. Reilly Eds. Our bodies constantly communicate in various ways. In the context of social interactions, our body expresses attitudes and emotions influenced by the dynamics of the interaction, interpersonal relations and personality see also answer to the question " What is body language? These bodily messages are often considered to be transmitted unwittingly. Because of this, it would be difficult to teach a universal shorthand suitable for expressing the kind of things considered to be body language; however, at least within one culture, there seems to be a great deal of commonality in how individuals express attitudes and emotions through their body.

Another form of bodily communication is the use of co-speech gesture. Co-speech gestures are movements of the hands, arms, and occasionally other body parts that interlocutors produce while talking. Because speech and gesture are so tightly intertwined, co-speech gestures are only very rarely fully interpretable in the absence of speech. As such, co-speech gestures do not help communication much if interlocutors do not speak the same language.

What people often tend to resort to when trying to communicate without a shared language are pantomimic gestures, or pantomimes. These gestures are highly iconic in nature like some iconic co-speech gestures are , meaning that they map onto structures in the world around us. Even when produced while speaking, these gestures are designed to be understandable in the absence of speech. Without a shared spoken language, they are therefore more informative than co-speech gestures. An important distinction has to be made between these pantomimic gestures that can communicate information in the absence of speech and sign languages.

In contrast to pantomimes, sign languages of deaf communities are fully-fledged languages consisting of conventionalised meanings of individual manual forms and movements which equate to the components that constitute spoken language. There is not one universal sign language: different communities have different sign languages Dutch, German, British, French or Turkish sign languages being a small number of examples. Kendon, A. Gesture: Visible action as utterance. McNeill, D. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago University press.

Language appears to be unique in the natural world, a defining feature of the human condition. Although other species have complex communication systems of their own, even our closest living primate relatives do not speak, in part because they lack sufficient voluntary control of their vocalizations. After years of intensive tuition, some chimpanzees and bonobos have been able to acquire a rudimentary sign language. But still the skills of these exceptional cases have not come close to those of a typical human toddler, who will spontaneously use the generative power of language to express thoughts and ideas about present, past and future.

It is certain that genes are important for explaining this enigma. But, there is actually no such thing as a "language gene" or "gene for language", as in a special gene with the designated job of providing us with the unique skills in question. Genes do not specify cognitive or behavioural outputs; they contain the information for building proteins which carry out functions inside cells of the body. Some of these proteins have significant effects on the properties of brain cells, for example by influencing how they divide, grow and make connections with other brain cells that in turn are responsible for how the brain operates, including producing and understanding language.

So, it is feasible that evolutionary changes in certain genes had impacts on the wiring of human brain circuits, and thereby played roles in the emergence of spoken language.

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Crucially, this might have depended on alterations in multiple genes, not just a single magic bullet, and there is no reason to think that the genes themselves should have appeared "out of the blue" in our species. There is strong biological evidence that human linguistic capacities rely on modifications of genetic pathways that have a much deeper evolutionary history. A compelling argument comes from studies of FOXP2 a gene that has often been misrepresented in the media as the mythical "language gene". It is true that FOXP2 is relevant for language — its role in human language was originally discovered because rare mutations that disrupt it cause a severe speech and language disorder.

But FOXP2 is not unique to humans. Quite the opposite, versions of this gene are found in remarkably similar forms in a great many vertebrate species including primates, rodents, birds, reptiles and fish and it seems to be active in corresponding parts of the brain in these different animals.

For example, songbirds have their own version of FOXP2 which helps them learn to sing. In-depth studies of versions of the gene in multiple species indicate it plays roles in the ways that brain cells wire together. Intriguingly, while it has been around for many millions of years in evolutionary history, without changing very much, there have been at least two small but interesting alterations of FOXP2 that occurred on the branch that led to humans, after we split off from chimpanzees and bonobos. Scientists are now studying those changes to find out how they might have impacted the development of human brain circuits, as one piece of the jigsaw of our language origins.

Revisiting Fox and the Origins of Language link. Fisher S. Nature Reviews Genetics , 7, Culture, genes, and the human revolution. Science, , Learning a new language is not easy, largely because of the heavy burden on memory. 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.

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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. 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. 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. 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. Kelly P. Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 7 , A basic assumption of language change is that if two linguistic groups are isolated from each other, then their languages will become more different over time.

This is the case in many parts of the world where aspects of language have been borrowed into many different languages. However, before global communication was possible, borrowing was restricted to languages in the same geographic area. This might cause languages in the same area to become more similar to each other. This is similar to different biological species sharing similar traits, such as birds, bats and some dinosaurs evolving wings. In this case, languages that were even on opposite sides of the world might change to become more similar.

Researchers have noticed some features in words across languages which seem to make a direct link between a word's sound and its meaning this is known as sound-symbolism. Telling the difference between these effects and the similarities caused by borrowing is difficult because their effects can be similar. One of the goals of evolutionary linguistics is to find ways of teasing these effects apart. This question strikes at the heart of linguistic research, because it involves asking whether there are limits on what languages can be like.

Some of the first modern linguistic theories suggested that there were limits on how different languages could be because of biological constraints. More recently, field linguists have been documenting many languages that show a huge diversity in their sounds, words and rules.

It may be the case that for every way in which languages become more similar, there is another way in which they become more different at the same time. Can you tell the difference between languages? Dingemanse, M. Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items.

PLoS One. Dunn, M. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, , When researchers talk about "maternal language", they talk about child-directed language. Modern research on the way in which caregivers talk to children started in the late seventies. Scholars who study language acquisition were interested in understanding how language learning is influenced by the way caregivers talk to their children.

Since the main caregivers were usually mothers, most first studies focused on maternal language often called Motherese , which was usually described as having higher tones, a wider tonal range and a simpler vocabulary. However, we now understand that the ways in which mothers modify their speech for their children are extremely variable.

For example, some mothers use a wider tone range than usual, but many mothers use nearly the same tone range they use with adults. Because of this, it is impossible to define a universal maternal language. Some recent studies also show that we do more than just modify our speech for children: we also modify our hand gestures and demonstrative actions, usually making them slower, bigger, and closer to the child.

In sum, child-directed language seems to be only one aspect of a broader communicative phenomenon between caregivers and children. Fernald, A. A cross-language study of prosodic modifications in mothers' and fathers' speech to preverbal infants. Journal of Child Language , 16, — Rowe, M. Child-directed speech: relation to socioeconomic status, knowledge of child development and child vocabulary skill.

Journal of Child Language , 35 , — Our current understanding of the human brain holds that it is an information processor, comparable to a computer that enables us to cope with an extremely challenging environment. Such methods allow researchers to take a snap-shot of what someone is actually seeing though his or her own eyes. With regards to language, recent studies have shown promising results as well. More invasive recordings have also demonstrated that we can extract information about speech sounds people are hearing and producing. This body of research suggests that it may be possible in the not-too-distant future to develop a neural prosthetic that would allow people to generate speech in a computer by just thinking about speaking.

When discussing voiceless communication, however, the application of BCI is still particularly challenging for a few reasons. First, human communication is substantially more than simply speaking and listening, and there are a whole host of other signals that we use to communicate e. Secondly, while BCIs to date have focused on extracting information from the brain e. Cochlear implants represent one approach where we have been able to directly present incoming auditory information to auditory nerve cells in the ear in order to help congenitally deaf individuals hear.

Such stimulation, however, still does not amount to directly stimulating the brain in the full richness needed for everyday communication. NeuroImage, 83, Cerebral Cortex, doi Human cortical sensorimotor network underlying feedback control of vocal pitch. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , , Categorical speech representation in human superior temporal gyrus. Nature neuroscience , 13 , Functional organization of human sensorimotor cortex for speech articulation. Nature , , The terms "surface layer" and "deep layer" refer to different levels that information goes through in the language production system.

For example, imagine that you see a dog chasing a mailman. When you encode this information, you create a representation that includes three pieces of information: a dog, a mailman, and the action chasing. This information exists in the mind of the speaker as a "deep" structure. If you want to express this information linguistically, you can, for example, produce a sentence like "The dog is chasing the mailman.

You can also produce a sentence like "The mailman is being chased by a dog" to describe the same event -- here, the order in which you mention the two characters the "surface" layer is different from the first sentence, but both sentences are derived from the same "deep" representation. Linguists propose that you can perform movement operations to transform the information encoded in the "deep" layer into the "surface" layer, and refer to these movement operations as linguistic rules.

Linguistic rules are part of the grammar of a language and must be learned by speakers in order to produce grammatically correct sentences. Rules exist for different types of utterances. Other examples of rules, or movement operations between "deep" and "surface" layers, include declarative sentences You have a dog and their corresponding interrogative sentences Do you have a dog?

Here, the movement operations include switching the order of the first two words of the sentence. Chomsky, N. Syntactic Structures. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press. There are actually two questions hidden in this one. For a clear answer we can best treat them separately:.

Still, why should this be accompanied with an actual cry? Research has since shown that pain cries also have communicative functions in the animal kingdom: for example to alarm others that there is danger, to call for help, or to prompt caring behavior. That last function already starts in the first seconds of our life, when we cry and our mothers caringly take us in their arms. Human babies, and in fact the young of many mammals, are born with a small repertoire of instinctive cries. The pain cry in this repertoire is clearly recognizable: it has a sudden start, a high intensity and a relatively short duration.

Which brings us to the second part of our question. Let us first take a more critical look at the question. Do we never shout anything different? In reality there is a lot of variation. Language helps us share experiences which are never exactly the same and yet can be categorised as similar.

Almost, but not quite, since each language will use its own inventory of sounds to describe a cry of pain. Each of us is born with a repertoire of instinctive cries and then learns a language in addition to it.