Children’s effect on language


It seems that children can invent language, but adults cannot and they only invent ‘pidgins’. Languages once invented also are re-made by each generation’s learning of them. So it may be that languages carry the marks of how children think and communicate. A recent paper by Clay and others (citation below) investigates this idea.

They notice that the Nicaraguan Sign Language, in its development by deaf children, appeared to be driven by pre-adolescent children rather than older ones. “In its initial 10 to 15 years, NSL users developed an increasingly strong tendency to segment complex information into elements and express them in a linear fashion. Senghas et al. investigated how NSL signs and Spanish speakers’ gestures expressed a complex motion event, in which a shape’s manner and path of motion are shown simultaneously. They compared signs produced by successive cohorts of deaf NSL signers, who entered the special education school as young children (age 6 or younger) at different periods in the history of NSL…the second and third cohorts showed stronger tendencies to segment manner and path (of a movement) in two separate signs and linearly ordered the two elements.

However, just using an artificial language transmitted from one person to another in a chain also shows some segmentation and linear expression of originally complex words. This paper sets out to test whether young children, adolescents and adults differ in their tendency to make complex actions into segmented and linear language.

Subjects of different ages were asked to do pantomimes of video clips. The clips were of one of two objects going up or down a hill either with bounces or rotations. So there were three aspects of the motion (object, direction, manner) and the subjects were rated on how much they separated the aspects and mimicked them in a linear string as opposed to mimicking the total motion in one go.

Compared with adolescents and adults, young children (under 4) showed the strongest tendencies to segment and linearize the manner and path of a motion event that had been represented to them simultaneously. Moreover, the difference in the pantomime performance between the three age groups cannot be attributed to young children’s poor event perception or memory because the children performed very well in the event-recognition task and because the children’s performances in the pantomime task and the recognition task did not correlate. The results indicate that young children, but not adolescents and adults, have a bias to segment and linearize information in communication. ”

The authors suggest that it may be the limited processing capacity of young children that might limit them to dealing with one aspect at a time.

Here is the abstract:

Research on Nicaraguan Sign Language, created by deaf children, has suggested that young children use gestures to segment the semantic elements of events and linearize them in ways similar to those used in signed and spoken languages. However, it is unclear whether this is due to children’s learning processes or to a more general effect of iterative learning. We investigated whether typically developing children, without iterative learning, segment and linearize information. Gestures produced in the absence of speech to express a motion event were examined in 4-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and adults (all native English speakers). We compared the proportions of gestural expressions that segmented semantic elements into linear sequences and that encoded them simultaneously. Compared with adolescents and adults, children reshaped the holistic stimuli by segmenting and recombining their semantic features into linearized sequences. A control task on recognition memory ruled out the possibility that this was due to different event perception or memory. Young children spontaneously bring fundamental properties of language into their communication system.

Clay, Z., Pople, S., Hood, B., & Kita, S. (2014). Young Children Make Their Gestural Communication Systems More Language-Like: Segmentation and Linearization of Semantic Elements in Motion Events Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614533967

One thought on “Children’s effect on language

  1. stephanie hancock

    I find this really neat. when we think about language, sign language isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. when young children become more active in speaking they first start to just make sounds, then they babble, and then they start to say one to two words, and finally can make small sentence. When a young child is deaf, start off the same way. Children who are deaf make sounds, and can also babble. its not until they are a little older when they have to learn sign language.


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