Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Question About Language and Child Development

I've been pondering a question this morning largely out of ignorance, so I'm submitting this to you the reader. That is, if a child is born into a family from one linguistic culture but is immediately adopted into a family from another linguistic culture, should there be any effect on language development?

I've always assumed - really not even thinking much about it - that the human linguistic structural map is universal, a biological condition of being human. Particular languages are then simply plotted onto that map as a child's experience teaches her a certain vocabulary, grammatical structure, and cultural and social norms connected to that linguistic culture. So biological parenthood doesn't matter for language development. It does for genetic predispositions, perhaps for learning any language at all, but at least not in terms of the biological parents' culture and language. What does matter for language development is who the actual parents are, what language(s) they speak, where they're from, their culture, the experiences they go on to share with their child, etc.

Is this assumption wrong? Is it rather that cultural/ethnic background plays some role in shaping the pre-linguistic structure of language for any given individual? If so, then it could be the case that children from one culture raised in another might exhibit slower language development than the norm. If so, I imagine that this is not necessarily bad or good and actually may have many more benefits than drawbacks (such as a later ability to tack more easily between different interpretive frameworks). But this is all just guessing on my part.

To make this more concrete... friends of mine - English speakers living in the US who also speak a couple of other languages - adopted a child from Central America who has lagged in developing spoken English, the language spoken at home and by most people around him. He's not developmentally delayed in any other way. In fact, he's remarkably coordinated for a child of his age (around 2 1/2 years old). No one considers this a real problem at this point - kids all develop at different rates and there's nothing too far out of the norm for this little guy. The case just gives rise to this question.

Like I said, I haven't looked into this more carefully. There may be a simple answer or some renowned study of which I'm ignorant. Thoughts are welcome.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. How old was your friend's child when adopted?

My brother adopted a girl from Korea who was almost a year old at the time. She didn't have any language development issues (she's now 22).

Also, ran across this a few weeks ago which is pretty cool and shows that language development begins very early.

Peter said...

I've read a lot of Steven Pinker, whose area of study is early childhood language development. I'd look to him first for answers.

From what I remember, I'd guess that the earlier the child is immersed in the new language environment the more 'normal' the acquisition of that language will be. In other words, a child adopted into a new language culture at birth would be indistinguishable from a child born into that culture biolocially.

Of course, the brain is constantly rewiring and reinforcing connections for years after birth, and language circuits are among these. What the child hears determines the patterns of connections. That's one of the reasons it's notoriously difficult for English speakers to pick up Mandarin - our brains just aren't tuned to the subtle inflections of tone that Mandarin relies on (or so I've heard)

One thing that argues against the existence of a biological culturally determined predisposition to faster acquisition of the 'native' language is that there is more genetic diversity within groups (say, Tamils) than there is between groups (Tamils / Japanese)

So in the case of your friend's adopted child, I'd assume that the rate of language development would be the same here as if the child had been adopted into a Central American family.

I don't remember where I read it, but I also recall that children learn as much, if not more, from their peers than they do from their parents.

helmut said...

The little guy was adopted at birth. That's why I was interested in the question. The fact that humans in general have a form of language distinct from other animals is biological. But the particularities of a given human language are cultural. Language is a matter of experience. I guess the question is whether there's something inherited genetically about linguistic propensities like there may be with biophysical features that characterize a given culture. If so, this might explain delays in language development in a case such as my little friend's.

Anonymous said...

Here's an academic who's done some work in this area.

MT said...

The key point about language learning that I remember is that it has a critical period. Remember the news story of a decade or two ago about the girl who was raised by wolves to the age of 11? She couldn't be taught to speak, and scientists believed this was because she was too old, though social services at first believed her to be brain damaged. Patricia Kuhl used to be a big name in infant and child language learning. She's said true bilingualism is possible only when a child learns the two languages concurrently as his or her first, and that learning as an adult or simply beyond a critical period of plasticity is not the same. Regarding culture/environment, brain imagining researchers awhile back were comparing native speakers to native signers (sign-language users) and arguing that the latter employed a spatial grammar administered from a different brain area. I suppose a lack or impoverishment of whatever kind of stimulus normally activates this spatial area (being reared in darkness and free floating in space?) would delay or prevent acquisition of sign language in a deaf person. Likewise perhaps an impoverishment of the metaphors a child is to live by in his or her adoptive culture. But how different are the lives of infants around the world really, I mean in ways a child no older than 6, say, can appreciate? Not a lot, I reckon. The main thing must be to grow up around people who move around, look around, do things with their hands, feel and get angry--and speak as they do so. How Helen Keller ever learned to speak continues to amaze me.