Segments in this Video

Remarkable Skill of Language (00:54)


A child's acquisition of language requires explanation. It is perhaps the most difficult intellectual feat anyone performs, but is apparently effortless.

Creativity of Language Use (02:30)

Most sentences we use, we are uttering for the first time, and we aren't conscious of the process by which we come up with them, or understand others' words.

Sounds and Words (02:34)

With a limited repertoire of vocal sounds, we can say an unlimited range of things. The host describes how our vocal chords and mouth produce these sounds.

Honey Dance and Language (03:27)

The honey dance of the bee is sometimes regarded as language because of the strong correlation between communication and action in response, but falls badly short. Real language involves infinite variety and conversation.

Language as Natural (03:15)

The versatility of children's language contrasts with their limited experience hearing it, and early utterances are very different from what a child hears from its mother. Chomsky argues that children innately know language.

Plato and Chomsky (03:10)

The idea of innate knowledge is a tradition extending from Plato to Wordsworth. Earlier linguists drew on this tradition; Chomsky revived the tradition and put it in context of modern psychological and biological thought.

Behaviorism and Language (01:18)

People used to think language was acquired by instilling habits through training, Chomsky says. Behaviorists excluded the concept of mind and concentrated on observable conduct of animals in response to stimuli.

Predisposition to Note Phonetic Contrasts (02:48)

Before a baby learns to speak, there are signs of reciprocity between mother and child, however, and sensitivity to human speech. It pays attention to phonetic contrasts before it learns to speak.

Baby's Sounds (02:34)

An infant's early vocal sounds are produced by an open airway, and so are vowels. Early babbling involves the same consonant repeated. At the next stage, it introduces recognizable alterations to babble, and rudimentary word use.

Difficulties with Language Imitation (02:43)

It seems a child using words must be imitating what it hears. But how does it know the sounds it hears are composed of words, where one word begins and another ends, and what different words mean?

Native and Social Aids to Language Acquisition (01:44)

A child picks words out of its parents' sound stream by a native ability to guess what sort of thing would count as a word, based on rhythm, and because its mother engages it in conversation before it can talk.

Linguistic Deprivation (02:55)

The case of Genie, tied by her parents and deprived of communication through age 13, shows the effects of linguistic deprivation. Chomsky recognizes the role of environment in allowing expression of native ability

Universal Grammar (01:29)

Chomsky is noncommittal about how linguistic capability is built. He holds that there is a universal grammar that covers all known languages. He notes the idiosyncrasy of Children's early speech.

Similarity Between Languages (01:52)

Chomsky and other linguists have noted that all natural languages are suspiciously alike, with common principles of organization and content.

Structure Beneath Sentences (01:32)

Only by reference to an abstract structure lying beneath the surface of a sentence and representing its meaning can we recognize alternative meanings of an ambiguous sentence.

Turning Declaration Into Question (03:28)

For Chomsky, we must operate on deep structures to turn a declaration into a question; such a structure is like algebra. At this level, languages may be structurally different, but at a deeper level, all have the same structure.

Concept of Universal Grammar (01:41)

Universal grammar is comparable to a Constitution, which sets rules for what can happen; or to the visual system's ability to recognize people as people.

Educated Guesses About Language (02:21)

Universal grammar allows a child to make guesses. Children overgeneralize, applying regular rules to irregular verbs, for instance.

Answers Bring New Questions (01:39)

Children learn on their own to discriminate in their application of linguistic rules, despite being impervious to correction, a mystery that Chomsky cannot explain. His discoveries have raised new questions like this.

Structured Capacity and Social Support (01:11)

Before a child's first words and sentences, a structured capability for acquiring language interacts with social supports. Then, the child suddenly makes the language his own.

Credits: Doing What Comes Naturally: Childhood Language Acquisition (00:49)

Credits: Doing What Comes Naturally: Childhood Language Acquisition

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Doing What Comes Naturally: Childhood Language Acquisition

Part of the Series : Born Talking: A Personal Inquiry into Language
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Born with no apparent knowledge of language, humans generally attain a basic mastery of their mother tongue in the course of only a few years. How do they do it? In this program, Dr. Jonathan Miller builds a case for Noam Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar and deflates misconceptions about childhood language acquisition while raising some very intriguing questions of his own. Dr. Miller’s systematic investigation of a child’s structured capability for acquiring language and the elaborate social supports that facilitate language acquisition results in a clear and engaging exposition of a captivating topic. (47 minutes)

Length: 47 minutes

Item#: BVL11354

Copyright date: ©1990

Closed Captioned

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