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

7 thoughts on “Cognitive Development, Part VIII: Language”

  1. Dan – I so enjoy this series. As I read this post I was struck by the idea of familial inheritance.

    My sister has 5 Border Collies. None have ever seen a sheep. All are dogs and can interbreed with any dog from Mastiff to Dachshund.

    But all the Collies exhibit Collie herding moves -given the right stimulus they start to herd. My Lab mix is a huntress. My German Shepherd guards. This surely can't be “genetic' and seems to me to be “familial” there appears to be a memory.

    I don't think that many will challenge this for Dogs, or Horses but we hate to think that we as humans may be a product of our tribal/family history. But I increasingly wonder if PC is blinding us to the possibility that in the Nature Nurture debate – nurture may extend back for generations?

    Are we as individualistic as we like to think that we are

  2. Rob,

    One role of genes is to constrain and guide learning.

    For instance, take two chimpanzees raised in zoos [1]. They know of neither flowers nor snakes, and react to them as mere novelties.

    Show one of these chimps a video of another chimpanzee panicking at the sight of a snake, and that domesticated chimp will likewise react with terror when he sees a serpent. Further, he does that so effectively that other chimps can also learn the fear of snakes from him.

    Now, show one of the zoo chimps a video of another chimpanzee freaking out after seeing a flower. This chimpanzee has learned a valuable lesson: some chimpanzees are crazy.

    Because of their genes, it is very easy to teach chimpanzees to be afraid of snakes but very hard to teach them to be afraid of flowers.

    It sounds like you are observing something simlar with your dogs. Something even closer, cytoplasmic inheritance [2], allow traits to be biologcially passed down without being genetically passed down.

    I agree with you on the mind-rattling effects of political correctness and scientific ignorance. I'll try to post on this later today.

    Excellent comment.


  3. Very interesting Dan –

    In Horse Racing very tough minded and shrewd people pay a fortune for breeding. Many great race horses were not physically all that great – but had a great spirit – somehow that is often passed on and their offspring as a group do very well.

    I think that what we are fumbling around is that a certain attitude can pass on through generations and that it can't all be cultural – though I am sure lots is – as the Chimp who has never seen he snake has no direct awareness before the stimulus.

    In my own family I see this as well. My wife and I always wishes that our son when very young would not make faces when he was photographed. Then one day we looked at a number of pics of her at the same age – same silly faces. James had never seen his mum do this but there he was. My great aunt was exceptionally eccentric and had a menagerie including a parrot. My sister is even more eccentric, has a huge menagerie and her favorite is a parrot!!

    Now Eugenics starts to pop up???

  4. Somehow this brings to mind Reggie White's great speech.

    …Why did God create us differently? Why did God make me black and you white? Why did God make the next guy Korean and the next guy Asian and the other guy Hispanic? Why did God create the Indians?

    Well, it's interesting to me to know why now. When you look at the black race, black people are very gifted in what we call worship and celebration. A lot of us like to dance, and if you go to black churches, you see people jumping up and down, because they really get into it.

    White people were blessed with the gift of structure and organization. You guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature and you know how to tap into money pretty much better than a lot of people do around the world.

    Hispanics are gifted in family structure. You can see a Hispanic person and they can put 20 or 30 people in one home. They were gifted in the family structure.

    When you look at the Asians, the Asian is very gifted in creation, creativity and inventions. If you go to Japan or any Asian country, they can turn a television into a watch. They're very creative. And you look at the Indians, they have been very gifted in the spirituality.

    When you put all of that together, guess what it makes. It forms a complete image of God. God made us different because he was trying to create himself. He was trying to form himself, and then we got kind of knuckleheaded and kind of pushed everything aside.

    You know, they say the dumbest animal in the world is a sheep. …

  5. Eugenics has been utterly discredited.

    I think that the Nazis, their treatment of the mentally ill, and racial groups, made it impossible to talk about group characteristics in humans. The response to the Nazis has been to assume that each person is inherently the same as another. In particular, that each person has the same potential.

    But if we are to have a health care system and an education system that works – i think that we are going to have to go back and explore why people cannot learn, eat well, be social etc.

    When we do, we will find many social reasons.

    Today we say it's all about income. But, we know that while income distribution is a huge factor, income on its own is not. We know that much of the chronic illness stems from lack of power. We know that many families are not sufficiently attached to their young children. We know that families and workplaces that create to much stress – drive too much cortisol and hence a trajectory of systemic breakdown.

    Much of the research is out there – Marmot on power issues in the bureaucracy, McKown on why access to alopathic medicine is not th be all and end all, Hart and Risley on how family culture drives all forms of development and so on – but we stay fixed on remediation at School, on seeking access to more Dr's and Drugs.

    We ignore the social history of the individual and claim Eugenics when this is raised.

  6. I don't really know very much about Eugenics, but you pick a bull based upon traits. You blow it, your herd sucks. Becoming El Toro takes a little more than getting lucky at a beer joint.

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