Wednesday, April 6, 2011

- Look, kid! Tulips! - No, Dad, it's three lips!

11. The Infinite Gift--How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World by Charles Yang

What do you get when a linguist has a child? Plenty of fun research material!
Charles Yang's incredibly accessible, yet not at all dumbed-down book on language acquisition and learning talks about the ways in which the concept of a universal grammar seems very plausible considering how children learn to speak languages that surround them: most of the time, the so-called errors children make would actually be perfectly grammatical in some other language. And this is what the title refers to: an entertaining notion that children need to unlearn all other grammars first before they stick to the one they hear in the language spoken by their caretakers.

Because the groundwork for perfect grammar skills is laid out in the brain by the age of four or five, the book talks about various developmental stages where certain grammatical aspects are learned. Yang discusses not only the common errors that English-speaking children make when they are testing out their grammatical abilities and vocabulary skills, but also in which ways children always get grammar right, from the get-go.

The most intriguing bits for me personally were the segments where Yang explains how certain grammatical aspects are tested on children to see, what is the age when that aspect is acquired in grammatical knowledge. You cannot give a three-year-old a multiple choice sheet, asking to identify the correctly formed sentence, nor you can really ask a small children whether a sentence is correct or not because they are prone to say "yes" to any authority (or the other option: spout out nonsense and laugh hysterically). Lots of tests included Jabba the Hut and Kermit the Frog puppets.

Toward the end, Yang quickly throws some criticism toward educators and therapists: apparently, language acquisition linguists have not been consulted among when a child's language skills have been assessed by schools until fairly recently, which means that often, when a child seems to have language-related problems, the therapists have not been equipped with enough information about regional varieties in spoken language, or the ways in which usually children acquire languages. Their template is usually to look at what is the desired produced language form, and if the child is not using that by an age determined by whichever authority, then there's a problem. In Yang's opinion, all children deviate from the norm when they are learning a grammar--at one point or another. Also, because a "dominant" grammar of a language is used as the bench mark, this sort of testing makes children from "certain social and economic strata particularly susceptible to misdiagnosis" (173), mostly because of the regional variety or dialect issue.

Not only is the book extremely informative, Yang's writing style was entertaining and occasionally tongue in cheek, which made reading this book a breeze.

If you're ever concerned about your kid's odd sentences, check this book out. Maybe your child just needs to unlearn some German grammar before tackling English.

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