Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thoughts on learning

My favorite class (the one I just had the midterm for) is child language acquisition. There's more we don't know about this than what we do know at this time, but research is making leaps and bounds.

What's interesting is that there are primarily two camp: one believes that languages is innate and doesn't have to be "learned," the other believes that there's nothing in the brain pre-wired just for language and that kids are more active in the process in figuring language out.

Our teacher is strongly in the latter camp, which of course influences the class. Of course I am also on that side now, not only because of the structure of the class, but really because the research strongly supports that theory (IMHO).

The main problem I see between these two theoretical viewpoints is the claims they are making. The innate people say that language is far too complex and variable a thing for very young children to learn as quickly as they do, therefore there must be something inborn in them to facilitate this. Kids can't pick up algebra by 5, and yet they can produce incredibly complex grammar by that age. The cognitive people say that kids have lots of abilities that help them learn and it isn't too hard a task, given the skills and other non-language specific aptitudes they have.

The issue is that it seems like the burden of proof is on the cognitive side, since it seems difficult to prove that something is impossible (like "learning" a language). Happily, it seems like there are many great researchers up to the task who have discovered some surprising things about "facts" linguists have taken for granted for quite some time. This field is still relatively in its infancy (no pun intended, I swear!) and with technological advances, I think we'll be learning a great deal about this in the future.

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