The universal structure of babbling

How Language Comes to Children

MIT Press: 1999. 257pp $27.50, £19.50
Learning by rote: but the skill of language acquisition is innate. Credit: RICHARD GREENHILL

The ideas of famous authors, no matter how subtle, rich and complex, often circulate condensed in very short sentences. From Noam Chomsky, who tops, among the living, the sheer number of quotations in other authors' works, we have two such sentences here. They have been received, in the course of almost five decades, with admiring consent by some linguists, with disgust by others, and with perplexity by many non-linguists. The first is: “Learning our mother language is not something that we do; it's something that happens to us.” The second says: “The scientific value of the expression ‘learning one's mother language’ is the same as that of the expression: ‘The sun rises in the morning’. That is: zero!”

The title of a book by Bénédicte de Boysson-Bardies on language acquisition, How Language Comes to Children, has indeed an unmistakable Chomskyan flavour. Generative grammar is the name for the line of enquiry opened by Chomsky since the mid-1950s, and it is this line that looms large in the entire book, just as it has in the original experimental research for which the author is known. The core idea of this approach, or at any rate the thesis that has been most frequently singled out for praise or for blame, is (to put it very bluntly) that language is innate. The author's declared aim is to make the ideas, methods and results of a universalistic, innatist approach to language acquisition accessible to a wider public.

Steven Pinker's masterful The Language Instinct(Harper, 1994), now available in several foreign translations, has quickly become a scientific best seller. I can bear witness to its success in conquering the assent of many uninitiated readers, including some who were initially hostile to Chomsky's ideas. In the domain of popularization and persuasion, therefore, Pinker has surpassed the master.

At the price of being more than a bit unfair, one cannot help comparing de Boysson-Bardies' book to Pinker's. Both stem from the same scientific roots, are similar in scope and ambition, and, sure enough, quotations from Pinker are abundant. While Pinker has painted in vivid colours a vast landscape, de Boysson-Bardies is poised to draw accurate sepia sketches of fascinating corners of that landscape. The baby's own perspective is constantly emphasized. Digging out a wealth of little-known historical antecedents, inserting pearls of quotations from a variety of unexpected sources, and exploring the habits of child-rearing in distant cultures, this book manages to exhibit all the essential facts relevant to language acquisition, from the last months of gestation to birth, then to the first weeks, months and years of life. The neurological correlates of the various language stages have also been closely tracked.

De Boysson-Bardies has taken great care to untangle the universal components, common to babies the world over, from a variety of interesting specificities, proper to the different languages. For instance, the patterns of spontaneous vocalizations, characteristic of the babbling of babies reared in a strictly mono-lingual environment in France, are compared with those of American, Algerian, Cantonese and Japanese babies, who are likewise linguistically confined. Interesting analogies are, thus, revealed between the profiles of babbling and the phonological and prosodic patterns of the corresponding adult language. Contrary to a still dominant tradition, babbling is here vindicated as preparatory to, and continuous with, the profiles of the first words produced by the child many months later.

In an appendix, the author reconstructs a timetable of language development. An intelligent use of charts, lists, histograms and sketches of experimental designs helps the reader to become familiar with the core of the investigative techniques through which “the Sherlock Holmeses” of early language acquisition can ask precise questions of their little subjects, and be rewarded sometimes with loud and clear answers.

Alas, here and there, mostly when she covers her own work and that of her collaborators, de Boysson-Bardies gets carried away, indulging in details that are inordinately minute for a book of this size and ambition. Teachers and students of psycholinguistics, developmental psychology and infant cognition may well treasure all such details, but not every reader can be expected to enjoy them. True enough, behind our close encounters with endearing Léo, Emilie, Sean, Marc, Timmy, Marie and their mothers, there is always some big, universal question. For instance: are the systematically distorted words that the child produces stored in memory as being the same as the adult's words that the child perceives and recognizes? How general are the child's linguistic learning strategies? Is it really the case that, to a cold scientific eye, learning English is exactly the same as learning Cantonese?

Chomsky likes to suggest that, to an intelligent Martian, all human languages and dialects look structurally the same, in spite of certifiable superficial differences. This remark makes linguists of a different persuasion draw their revolvers. De Boysson-Bardies is determined to have a closer look at real data from cross-linguistic developmental studies, charting more precise frontiers of sameness and difference between languages than the Martian would. She is adamant in arguing that, in this domain, clear-cut and simple answers are mostly untrue. We are, therefore, duly exposed to subtle differences between languages, and between individual strategies of language acquisition within the same language.

Inside the genetically determined envelope of what is linguistically possible, the child has leeway to choose his or her personal avenue to the mother tongue. In the author's own words: “Children's styles or modes of accessing language show themselves to be incredibly different. How can this be explained on the basis of common mechanisms?” Two-hundred-odd pages of clear prose built on an enviable expertise make it very clear that this is not a rhetorical question. Boysson-Bardies' snapshots of language acquisition are all taken from Mount Universal. The core message is simple: only when looking down from that peak can we really follow the fine interweaving of the innate and the acquired components of the child's linguistic capabilities.

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Piattelli-Palmarini, M. The universal structure of babbling. Nature 400, 829–830 (1999).

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