Cognitive Development, Part VIII: Language

The eighth chapter of Flavell, Miller, & Miller’s Cognitive Development, entitled “Language,” ties into my prior learning more than any other section of the book. One of the two first books I read to understand how biology effects behavior was Pinker (2002), so I was even familiar with some of the specific findings. In fact, in one case I am a step-ahead of the authors!

Having made it this far through my reactions, you are aware that I believe that group ancestry is not given the weight it deserves – or any attention at all – in academic research. Summing up unfortunate the consensus, the authors write that “No one believes that children are prepared by evolution to learn English or Japanese; whatever biological pretuning there may be must work for any language that the child happens to encounter…” (316). Well, maybe. The genes ASPM and Microcephalin occur more often among tonal language speakers than nontonal language speakers (Dediu & Ladd, 2007). Further, one of these genes (ASPM) effects brain size (Mekel-Bobrov et al, 2005) and is not just a product of evolution, but is undergoing evolution right now (Evans, 2005). While we cannot say conclusively that a gene undergoing rapid evolution that effects the brain and is non-randomly distributed so that it is common among tonal language speakers and uncommon among atonal language speakers, it’s surely a good bet. With this sort of finding, we may be coming to the day where the emergence of differences between groups (such as babies no longer sounding the same all over the world, see Boysson-Bardies, 1999) to something more than culture.


Add to all this the recent findings that ability to listen to multiple sound-sources at once is largely genetically determined (Morell, 2007)…

Another topic that I paid attention to in the chapter, but one I know much less about and unrelated to the first, is how new findings relate to the Piagetian notion of assimilation and accommodation. For instance, take the finding that a third of the first 75 words learned by infants were used too broadly (Rescorla, 1980). My understanding of Piaget’s process is that concepts should expand outward by assimilation until they are cleaved in accommodation. By this logic, most if not all words should be overextended. I can see two counter-arguments: either our measurement techniques are not fine enough to detect the true rate of verbalization, or else (as the authors imply on pages 315-316) language occurs separately from the rest of cognition. The authors statement on page 312 that no Piagetian framework has been found for grammar supports the latter explanation, as does the fact that language, unlike most skills, is learned best younger and worst older (Johnson & Newport, 1989) and as does the finding that overextension is more performance based than knowledge based (Hoek, Ingram, & Gibson, 1986).

I wonder if future high-level textbooks on child cognitive development will even include a chapter on language. Language is so different from everything, and learning language so different from every other sort of learning, that linguistic cognition may not be “cognition” at all. (Of course, this begs the question what other forms of thinking should not be so-called?)

My conclusion ties into how I began this chapter. My recognition of the possible role of diversity in ancestry in explaining the observed diversity of traits owes a lot to the man who introduced me to neo-nativism generally. While Pinker (2007) disagreed with the notion, he outlined in a clear and reasonable way what population-level genetic diversity would mean and how we would begin testing it. Because linguistic scientists are blessed with a tremendous amount of data (both the fact that even babies love to listen to words and naturally love to babble (Locke, 1983), as well as the new CHILDS Database (MacWhinney, 1995), I believe they have been less theory-bound than many other social scientists. Linguists have been at the front of the effort to incorporate the second half of variables – those that are genetic or innate – into social science research. We are all the luckier for their work.


Cognitive Development, a tdaxp series
1. Introduction
2. Infant Perception
3. Infant Cognition
4. Representation and Concepts
5. Reasoning and Problem Solving
6. Social Cognition
7. Memory
8. Language
9. Questions and Problems
10. Bibliography