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The Psychology of Language

Author(s): S. Jay Samuels


Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 37, No. 2, Language Arts and Fine Arts (Apr.,
1967), pp. 109-119
Published by: American Educational Research Association
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CHAPTER I
The Psychology of Language
S. JAY SAMUELS*

In the three years since the previous REVIEW,we have witnessed continued
efforts by linguists to describe the knowledge which a native speaker has
about the structure of his language and by psychologists to describe how
that knowledge described by linguists is acquired and utilized. This period
has also been one of continued evaluation of theories of language acquisition, controversy regarding the relative contribution of heredity and learning to language acquisition, added understanding of developmental sequences in language learning, and application of findings from the
psychology of language to problems of school learning. An old survey
of theory and research literature has been reprinted (Osgood and Sebeock,
1965), two reviews of recent research literature have been prepared
(Diebold, 1964; Ervin-Tripp and Slobin, 1966), and a characterization
of the new field has been given in nontechnical language by one of its
founders (Miller, 1964).

Learning and Nativistic Theories of Language Acquisition


New theories concerning the nature of language and the modes of their
analysis (see especially Chomsky, 1965) have raised strong doubts whether
traditional associationistic, learning theoretic accounts of language are
tenable. Since these accounts are essentially all that psychologists have
offered in the past, many theorists have been under attack. Mowrer (1960),
for example, gave a typical analysis and suggested that the child receives
secondary reinforcement upon hearing himself make sounds which are
similar to the ones the rewarding parent makes. This accounts for the
child's progress from babbling to adult forms of communication. Lenneberg (1964b), however, demonstrated that infant vocalizations through
the first year of life are very different from adult speech sounds. Comparisons of sound spectographs of intants and mothers indicated that even
with training mothers seem incapable of imitating the sounds their children make. From these observations, Lenneberg questioned the assumption
that motivation for learning to speak originates through reinforcement
provided by the similarity of infant and adult speech sounds.
* The author has profited greatly from the comments of John Flavell, Terry Halwes, James
Jenkins, and Robert Shaw of the Center for Research in Human Learning at the University
of Minnesota.

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Another associationistic model was offered by Staats and Staats (1963).


They used a Markovianword-to-wordresponse probability model to explain
the learning of syntax. Through operant conditioning the child learns
associations between grammatical classes so that words in a particular
class tend to elicit words in the next grammatical class. For example,
words like give, throw, and push tend to elicit words like him, her and it.
Jenkins and Palermo (1964) attempted to explain syntax acquisition
by means of phrase structure and mediational processes. However, a comparison of Jenkins'position in 1964 with his 1966 position (Jenkins, 1966)
indicated a shift from a learning theory explanation to one in which
recognition is given to innate as well as learned factors in language
acquisition.

Braine (1963a,b) suggested that in learning English a child first learns


the temporal location of words in a sentence and associations between
pairs of morphemes. Bever, Fodor, and Weksel (1965) took issue with
this and other theoretic explanations of syntax acquisition. They claimed
that S-R learning theory cannot adequately explain how transformations
are learned, nor can it explain how syntax is learned in languages such as
Russian where word order has greater flexibility than in English. Miller
and Chomsky (1963) criticized Markovian models as being too simple to
explain complexities of adult speech and thus added a further difficulty
for Markovianmodels of language acquisition.
Liberman and others (1964) proposed a theory of speech perception
which states that neural surrogates of articulation mediate between the
acoustic stimulus and speech perception. In support of this theory, Prins
(1963) found that children who confused place of articulation during
speech production also had difficultyhearing differences between pairs of
words which differed in the place of articulation (e.g., pan, tan). The
theory was criticized by Lane (1965) and Lenneberg (1964b). Lenneberg
cited anecdotal evidence regarding a child who had never been able to
speak but who was able to understand spoken language perfectly.
Jakobson and Halle's (1956) influential hypothesis on how linguistic
sound systems develop in the child was modified by Miller and Ervin
(1964) to explain how children might acquire certain aspects of English
grammar. Jakobson postulated that the child acquires his sound system
by noting contrasts between acoustical features that are maximally different. Therefore, the earliest distinction is between a vowel and consonant.
The next contrast might be between a stop and nonstop (/p/ and /f/).
Miller and Ervin said that at various points in the grammatical system a
distinctive feature analysis might be used to mark contrasts between plural
and singular nouns, possessive and nonpossessive nouns, proper, mass,
count nouns and noun determiners,as well as other features of the system.
Chomsky (1965), Fodor (1966), Fodor and Katz (1964), Greenberg
(1963), and McNeill (1965) rejected purely associationistic accounts of
language acquisition. They advanced,instead, the argumentthat the child's
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OF LANGUAGE

learning of language involves innate mechanisms operating on information


about the structure of language which the child gets from listening to the
speech of adults. Lenneberg (1964a, 1966) detailed the reasons for considering language development as an innately determined program of
behavior. First, linguistic universals such as phonetic systems and syntax
are common to all languages. Second, historical investigations of languages
reveal that although spoken languages change, at no time does one find
evidence of human speech which can be described as aphonemic or ungrammatical. Third, specific language disability-characterized by delayed speech onset, poor articulation, and marked reading and second
language learning disability-in which general intelligence remains unaffected appears to be inherited. Fourth, the developmental schedule of
language acquisition follows a fixed sequence so that even if the entire
schedule is retarded, the order of attainment of linguistic skills remains
fixed. Finally, comparisons of children learning non-Indo-Europeanlanguages with children learning English indicate a high degree of concordance between milestones of speech and motor development.
Empirical Findings in Developmental

Psycholinguistics

Brown (1966) and Brown and Bellugi (1964) described three processes
in the acquisition of syntax. In imitation and reduction, the child imitates
what the parent says but systematicallyreduces the length of the utterance.
The constraint on length seems to be related to the child's limited memory
span. Adults stress high-information-carryingwords in speaking, such as
nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and these are retained in imitation. Words
which communicatelittle information, such as inflections, auxiliary verbs,
articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, are not stressed and are not
retained in imitation. Thus, the child is helped in focusing his efforts on
learning the essential features of the utterance.
A second process is imitation and expansion. Here the mother imitates
the child's utterance but expands and corrects it. For example, the child
says, "There go one"; the mother says, "There goes one." The child may
then imitate the mother's corrected version of his sentence. Although the
adult often speaks ungrammatically, in expanding, the parent uses simple,
short, grammatical sentences, the kind the child will use in a year.
Although McNeill (1966) suggested that the slower rate of linguistic
development of lower class children may result from the fact that lower
class parents expand their child's speech less often than do middle class
parents, there is no evidence that expansions are necessary for learning
grammar. Cazden (1965) did not find expansion training superior to
other forms of verbal feedback in improving the language of culturally
deprived children.
The third process involves the induction of the underlying structure
of the language. Certain errors (foots, digged) reflect the child's attempt

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to induce regularities from the speech of adults. Menyuk (1964) emphasized that novel sentenceswhich childrengenerateindicate their use of rules.
According to Bellugi (1965) the best (and classic) indicator of linguistic development is sentence length. Bellugi divided early language
acquisition into three stages. In Stage One, sentences averaged two morphemes in length by approximatelythe second birthday. Braine (1963b)
and Miller and Ervin (1964) described the child's first grammatical twoword sentences. The initial word is called a pivot and consists of a small
class of frequently used words (e.g., see, that) whose position has been
learned. The class of words immediatelyfollowing (e.g., pretty, baby, arm)
is called an open class and consists of the child's entire vocabulary minus
some pivots. This same construction predominates in early speech of
Russian, German, Japanese, and Polish children (Slobin, 1967). Weir
(1962) and Slobin (1965) noted that English- and Russian-speakingchildren "practice" speaking by holding the pivot constant and substituting
words from the open class. Development of syntax, in part, consists of
setting up new classes of pivots using words which previously were in the
open class. Bellugi (1965) found that during the first stage of linguistic
development the child asks questions by means of rising intonation (see
hole?) and the use of wh-words (who that? why? why not?). At this stage
the child can neither produce nor respond appropriatelyto questions which
refer to the object of the verb (e.g., what did you hit?).
Bellugi (1965) found that children at Stage Two had a mean age of 29
months and produced sentences of an average length of 2.6 morphemes.
Pronouns, articles, modifiers, as well as some inflections were present.
Questions were introduced by wh-words (why not? who is it? what me
fold?) with pronouns present. With regard to comprehension, children
answered appropriatelyto most questions, including wh-object questions
(what do you hear? hear a duck.). Miller and Ervin (1964) noted that
mistakes during this period could be attributedto omissions (I'll turn ----water off), overgeneralizations(foots, digged), and use of doubly marked
forms (mine's).
At Stage Three, children had a mean age of 31 months and an average
utterance length of 3.6 morphemes (Bellugi, 1965). They were using

auxiliaries, noun and verb inflections, the regular past, and were not
limited to simple sentences. In constructing yes/no interrogatives, question intonations with inverted auxiliaries operate (I am silly. Am I silly?).
In asking wh-questions, the inverted auxiliary was not used (what the
words are doing?). The child was able to comprehend more complex
questions than in Stage Two. By age three, Russian- (Slobin, 1965) and
English-speaking children (Menyuk, 1963, 1964; McNeill, 1965) were
using all of the basic syntactic structures used by adults.
Conflicting reports of children's ability to comprehend, spontaneously
produce, and imitate sentences stem from differences in age of subjects
and length of sentences used. Fraser, Bellugi, and Brown (1963) used

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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LANGUAGE

three-year-oldchildren and sentences which had an average length of 4.0


morphemes. They found that the ability of the children to imitate was
superior to their ability to comprehend, and their ability to comprehend
was superior to their ability to spontaneously produce sentences. Ervin
(1964) used two-year-oldchildren and sentences which were, on the average, longer than those used by Fraser, Bellugi, and Brown. Ervin found
that imitation, production, and comprehension were equivalent. Menyuk
(1963) found that sentence length was not a potent variable when meaningful sentences were used, i.e., when the material to be rememberedengaged
the child's language processing apparatus. But there was a significant
correlationbetween the length of a string of nonsense words and the ability
to imitate it.

Language Theory and Language Behavior


To determinewhether learning a miniature language might be described
by a finite state Markov process, Braine (1965) presented a set of structured pseudo-sentences to subjects and measured retention of these sentences. In support of his explanation of how languages are initially acquired, Braine (1963a,b) found that positions of items within the sentences
were learned. He concluded, however, that what is learned cannot be
represented by a finite state grammar because it requires the assumption
that the subject invents some of its rules. Gough and Segal (1965) agreed
that a finite state grammar cannot describe what is learned. They claimed
it is inadequate, not because it requires the assumption of rule invention
(since any grammatical description of what is learned must make this
assumption), but because the finite state model poorly represents what
the subject does, in fact, invent.
Interest in Markov models of language has led to work on orders of
approximation to English. Coleman (1965) had subjects rank sentences
as to degree of grammaticalnessand then memorize the sentences. Level
one sentenceswere generatedby randomlyselecting words. Each succeeding
level had words with increasing degrees of grammatical constraints. He
found that not only sentences could be appropriately ranked, but there
was a significant correlation between degree of grammaticalnessand ease
of serial learning.
Testing the psychological reality of linguistic formulations of language
structure has constituted one important aspect of psychological research.
Several investigators tested the reality of phrase structure either by requiring subjects to locate the position where clicks are heard in a sentence
or by noting where errors occur in sentence recall. Fodor and Bever (1965)
found that although a click was located within a phrase, subjects reported
hearing it at the nearest phrase boundary. Johnson (1965a,b; 1966)
observed that the probability of an error in sentence recall was higher
between phrases than within a phrase.
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Clifton, Kurcz, and Jenkins (1965) used generalization of a motor response as an indicator of sentence similarity. They found that response
generalization occurred more frequently for sentences analyzed as being
closely related grammatically than for sentences not so closely related.
This work was elaborated for eight sentence types by Clifton and Odom
(1966), who showed that syntactic variables had similar systematic effects
in generalization, recall, and judged similarity.
The relationship between the syntactical form of a sentence and speed
of comprehensionwas investigated by Gough (1965) and Slobin (1966).
Both found that comprehensionlatency ran from shorter to greater in the
order: simple declarative, passive, negative, negative-passive. However,
by making sentences nonreversible (i.e., "Bill hit the door," as opposed to
"Bill hit Mary") so that it was clear which noun was subject and which
was object, Slobin found that reaction time was about as fast for passive
as for simple declarative and for negative-passive as for negative. The
interaction, in the Gough and Slobin studies, between a semantic component (true-false) and a syntactic component (affirmative-negative)emphasized the importanceof both factors in comprehension.
Other investigations focused on the role of syntactic variables on sentence recall. Mehler (1963) demonstratedthat when subjects were asked
to recall sentences upon which grammatical transformations had been
performed, they recalled simple declarative sentences best. Savin and
Perchonock (1965) investigated the amount of memory storage capacity
used in memorizing sentences of different syntactical form and found that
the least amount was used by simple declarative sentences while negatives
and passives required larger amounts. In both papers the authors suggested that in learning a sentence for recall, the semantic content of the
sentence is encoded in the simple declarative form plus a tag, the tag
indicating the original syntactical structure of the sentence.
Marks and Miller (1964) and Miller (1964) found that subjects could
recall meaningful sentences better than anomalous but syntactically correct
sentences, and syntactically correct sentences better than scrambled forms
of these sentences. They concluded that semantic and syntactic factors are
separate variables in verbal recall. Mehler and Miller (1964) studied
transfer effects in the learning of lists of sentences. They used a design in
which the subject learned list A, then list B, and was tested on list A. If
the interpolated list (B) was semantically similar to list A, the recall of
the semantic content of list A was facilitated. If list B was syntactically
dissimilar, it interfered with the recall of the syntactic structure of A.
They proposed a two-stage hypothesis for sentence learning. In Stage One
the semantic component is learned and in Stage Two the syntactical form

is acquired.

A series of studies by Rosenberg (1965) focused on the effect of grammatical and associative habits on incidental recall. When subjects were
required to recall adjective-noun, noun-adjective, adjective-adjective, and
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LANGUAGE
THE

noun-noun word pairs, recall was superior for adjective-noun and nounadjective pairs. In a second study where adjective-noun pairs which
varied in word-associationstrength had to be recalled, he found that word
pairs which had stronger associations were recalled better. Rosenberg
concluded that associative habits contributed to the greater ease of recall
of meaningful adjective-nounpairs.

Psychology

of Language

and School

Learning

Coleman (1964) demonstratedthat comprehensionof prose is improved


when nominalizations,passives, and adjectivalizationsare changed to their
active-verb counterparts. Ruddell (1963) found that comprehension was
significantly greater for passages utilizing high-frequency patterns of oral
language structure than for passages utilizing low-frequency patterns.
Variables such as sentence length, sentence complexity, and the ratio
between number of pronouns and conjunctions in a passage were found
by Bormuth (1966) to have a high correlation with difficulty of comprehension. Samuels (1966) had elementary school children and college
students read paragraphs equated for semantic content, word length, word
frequency and syntax, but differing in that words in one paragraph had
high associative relationships (green-grass) while words in the other
paragraph had low associative relationship (green-house). He found that
reading speed and recall were significantly better for the high associative
paragraphs.
Gibson, Osser, and Pick (1963) found that as children gained in reading skill, they perceived letter-soundcorrespondencesin units larger than
the individual letter. Gibson (1965) modified Jakobson and Halle's (1956)
method for determining phonemic contrasts and did a distinctive feature
analysis of English upper-case letters. She found that children tended to
confuse letters having similar distinctive features. Pick (1965) found the
most relevant discrimination training to be practice which provided experience with the distinctive differences which distinguished letter-like
forms.
Scherer and Wertheimer (1964) compared college students who were
taught German by a method which early emphasized listening comprehension and speaking with students who were taught by a method which
early emphasized writing and translating. They found that students who
had been taught by the method which emphasized listening and speaking
excelled in speaking but did not do as well in writing or translating from
German to English. Mace (1966) found that speaking training should
precede listening training for the most effective acquisition by elementary
school children of listening comprehensionin French.
Gaarder's (1965) recent review of bilingualism questioned the commonly held belief that bilingualism per se has a harmful effect on verbal
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intelligence. Carroll (1965) claimed that when an individual has approximately equal proficiency in two languages, there is no good evidence that
such bilingualism retards intellectual development. Furthermore, according to Carroll, reports of scholastic retardation associated with bilingualism may usually be explained by the fact that the bilingual had been
instructed in a language he had not adequately mastered.

A Few Concluding

Comments

Although findings from psycholinguistic investigations, in general, lend


support to theoretical formulations of linguistic structure, the controversy
continues over the specific contributions of innate factors to the acquisition of language. Finally, although studies in psycholinguistics have potentially important implications for education, they have had little impact
so far.

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April
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April 1967

THE
OF LANGUAGE
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THE PSYCHOLOGY
PSYCHOLOGY
OF

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