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Module 12: Complementary Cognitive Processes – Language


Module Overview

Our third module on complementary cognitive processes will involve a brief investigation of language and how it relates to learning (or is learned). We will first set a foundation for what language is and its structure. Then we will discuss how language is learned over childhood. Our discussion will end with learning another language, whether spoken or visual.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Describe language and its structure.
  • Clarify how we learn language focusing on developments across childhood.


12.1. Language and Its Structure


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define language.
  • Define linguistics and the four aspects of language it is concerned with.
  • List and define the two elements of speech.
  • Describe factors on how we interpret the meaning of words and sentences.


12.1.1. What is Language?

Language can be defined as all the socially shared rules for what words mean, how to make new words, how to put them together, and what combinations work best in specific situations. This leads to a systematic and meaningful arrangement of symbols that allow us to convey our thoughts to others. Speech, in contrast, is the verbal means of communicating and includes our voice, how we articulate words, and fluency.

The scientific study of language is called linguistics. Linguists are concerned with four main aspects of language. First, phonology is the study of how sounds are used to construct meaning in a language. Semantics is the study of the meaning of language. Syntax is the study of the structure of language and includes grammar. Finally, pragmatics is the study of how language is used.


12.1.2. Elements of Speech

Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound that affects the meaning of speech. For instance, the word, “bad,” contains three phonemes – /b/, /a/, and /d/. If we change the first phoneme from a /b/ to a /s/ we get the word “sad.” We could also replace the /b/ with a /m/ to make “mad,” a /f/ to make “fad,” a /d/ to make “dad,” a /h/ to make “had,” and a /l/ to make “lad.” Alternatively, we could change the /d/ at the end to a /y/ to make “bay,” a /t/ to make “bat,” a /r/ to make “bar,” a /g/ to make “bag,” or a /n/ to make “ban.”

Morphemes are the combination of phonemes in meaningful ways to form words. They have clear meaning and grammatical functions. For instance, “mother” has five phonemes, one morpheme, and two syllables. If the morpheme was the word “mom” it would still contain one morpheme but three phonemes and one syllable now. What if the woman has a son and he and his wife have a baby? The mother is now called a “grandmother” which has several phonemes, three syllables, and two morphemes (grand and mother). If we were talking about a whole lot of women whose children had babies, we would call them “grandmothers” which consists of three morphemes. Why? “Grand” and “mother” are the first two but the ‘s’ on mother has the grammatical function to indicate more than one and so is a morpheme as well.


12.1.3. Words and Sentences

Several peculiarities of language are worth mentioning here. The word frequency effect states that people respond quicker to words that occur more often in everyday language than they do to words that occur less often. For instance, saying, ‘The door is open’ will yield a quicker response than saying ‘The door is ajar.’ The less frequently used word is ajar.

Lexical ambiguity is when words have more than one meaning. For instance, consider the meaning of the word ‘grade.’ We might think of a grade that we earn in a class. But grade can also mean to evaluate work (i.e. I have to grade papers today), to slant or incline (i.e. The road grades steeply for the next 3 miles), it can be a class of objects with about the same rank or quality (i.e. Having all soldiers of grade E-3 or lower pull kitchen duty), or to arrange or sort (i.e. The machine grades 1,000 eggs every hour).

Language involves more than just understanding the meaning of words arranged in sentences, but also includes understanding the meaning of sentences arranged in stories and how sentences in different parts of stories relate to one another. We must go beyond the information stated in the text using a process called inference so that we can determine what the text means. We make several different types of inferences. Instrument inferences are inferences about tools or methods. For example, I sent an email to my boss. The fact that a computer was used is inferred. You cannot send an email on paper.

Causal interferences are inferences in which events in one sentence are caused by events in another sentence. John studied hard. He earned an A on the exam. This infers that through studying, John earned a good grade. What if we said, “John walked to school that morning instead of taking the bus. He earned an A on the exam.” This inference is much more difficult to make as walking to school does not directly lead to higher grades. It could be he used the time to quiz himself or it could mean nothing at all. This is sort of like the idea that correlation does not infer causation. Any two variables can be related to one another but it does not necessarily mean that one caused the other.

Anaphoric inferences are inferences connecting an object or person in one sentence to an object or person in another sentence. Doug is trying to save some money. He took the bus to work this morning. The ‘He’ mentioned in the second sentence refers back to Doug in the first sentence.

12.2. Learning a Language


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe progress made in the learning of language in infancy.
  • Describe progress made in the learning of language in the preschool years.
  • Describe progress made in the learning of language in middle childhood.
  • Clarify how learning theory explains the acquisition of language.
  • Describe the language acquisition device and universal grammar.


12.2.1. Infancy

In very early childhood, language development reflects an infant’s desire to communicate with the world. Unfortunately, communicating in a more adult manner takes some time to occur, and infants first display what is called prelinguistic communication, or the type of communication that occurs before language is possible. This includes sounds, facial expressions, gestures, and imitation. Children are also able to understand language before they can produce it. For example, they can follow a parent’s command before they can hold a meaningful conversation or ask ‘why’ the million times they will do so in childhood. The earliest form of language they demonstrate is called babbling, or speechlike but meaningless sounds. Starting around 2-3 months of age and continuing to around one year of age, it proceeds from simple, or saying ba ba ba ba, to complex, or saying ba da ma fa.

Babbling ends as first words are spoken around 10-14 months of age, though early vocabulary is quite small and reaching up to about 400 words at 16-24 months. Children use holophrases or one word meant to represent a whole phrase such as saying ‘Up’ instead of ‘Pick me up.’ The word is often accompanied by a gesture such as lifting the arms up. First sentences are spoken around 18 months of age as vocabulary expands and children move from holophrases to telegraphic speech or when a sentence is created with the fewest number of words necessary to convey the same meaning, such as if the child says, ‘I read book’ and not ‘I read the book’ (Brown & Bellugi, 1964).

Parents are motivated to communicate with their infants in a unique way too. Using simple sentences and repetition the parent may say to the child, “You are so cute. Yes you are. Yes you are pretty baby.” This is called motherese or can be defined as infant-directed speech.


12.2.2. Preschool Years

Children continue to make great gains in language during the preschool years and by age 3 can use plurals, possessive forms of nouns, past tense, and can ask and answer complex questions. In terms of vocabulary, by the age of 6 or about first grade they have a vocabulary of about 15,000 words (Anglin, Miller, & Wakefield, 1995). This rapid increase in vocabulary occurs courtesy of what is called fast mapping or when children ascertain the meaning of a word from how it is used in a sentence (its context), what word it is contrasted with, and previous knowledge of words and word categories. Thus, the child can hypothesize the meaning of the word and then tests the hypothesis by immediately using it and seeing what response he/she gets for doing so. This feedback helps them determine if their hypothesis was accurate or not. How does fast mapping demonstrate learning? Do you see any of the learning models referenced in its description?


12.2.3. Middle Childhood

A child’s vocabulary grows to almost 60,000 words by the end of fifth grade. They also begin to use passive voice and conditional sentences with greater frequency. Children can tell stories, give directions, and stick to a topic when involved in a conversation.


12.2.4. Acquiring Language

Consider the learning models we have discussed so far in this book and which might be useful for learning language. First, we can learn a language quite simply but observing a model such as our parents. Though through this method we would expect a child’s grammar to be generally good, they do make many mistakes still. Though they hear their parents say that they went to the store, the child may still say, ‘I goed to the store,’ using the past tense of ‘go’ in much the same fashion as they might with the word ‘play’ (i.e. saying I played with my toys today). They could also mistakenly say ‘I eated’ my food instead of ate. I will explain why this might happen in the next section.

When the child makes a mistake, the parent can correct them using prompts and offer reinforcers such as verbal praise (PR) when they use the correct form of the past tense. Teachers will do much the same in the classroom. Such strategies are in keeping with the principles of operant conditioning.


12.2.5. Universal Grammar and the Language Acquisition Device

Language is universal, such that all cultures have some form of language and it develops the same way no matter what the culture. The similarity in how language develops across cultures was of special interest to Noam Chomsky (1928-). He proposed an innate mechanism in the brain called the language acquisition device (LAD). To Chomsky, language development is the same as learning to walk. In both cases, we have an innate inclination to develop it as shown by the fact that children learn to place a subject in front of a verb before ever stepping into school. This occurs because the brain has the neural circuitry already in place, or prewired, to learn grammatical structures. In the case of walking, children exhibit the stepping reflex before their leg muscles are strong enough to support walking (see Module 3 for a discussion of reflexes).

This neural circuitry ties in with what he called a universal grammar, or a mechanism that allows children to identify many of the basic features of language. This is true of all languages and helps a child to determine the correct sequence of words to make a sentence meaningful. For instance, the child will understand that saying, “John hit Mikey,” has a different meaning than saying, “Mikey hit John.” The statement has important ramifications for one of the two individuals and potential punishment.

In fact, Chomsky (1986) proposed the concept of transformation rules which helps us explain the example at the end of Section 12.2.4. These transformation rules help us to convert a simple sentence into other voices such as past, future, conditional, or passive tenses. So, though the child says, ‘I am going to the store,’ he can also say, ‘I will go to the store’ (future tense), ‘I went to the store’ (past tense), ‘I will go to the store if you ask me to’ (conditional tense), or ‘I will not go the store (negative). It explains the child saying ‘I goed’ instead of ‘I went’ as the normal rule for converting present into past tense was applied, but ‘go’ is an irregular verb, much like ‘eat.’

12.3. Learning Another Language


Section Learning Objectives

  • Discuss why learning a second language may be important.
  • Discuss how you can go about learning ASL.


12.3.1. Spoken Languages

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) learning a second language is called second language acquisition and can occur at any time during life. They suggest that when thinking about learning a second language, you consider what language is spoken at home, how often you can practice the second language, how motivated you are to do so, and why you need to know this second language. Maybe you are planning a trip overseas or have an exchange student coming to live with you. Or your job has required you to learn a second language, such as Spanish, so that you can interact with your Hispanic clients more effectively. To learn a language, they suggest you have a good model, or someone who speaks the language reasonably well. For more on ASHA, visit: https://www.asha.org/.


12.3.2. Visual Languages

Note that sign language is a language, though visual in nature, with its own set of rules of grammar and syntax. According to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), “The shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements, all play important parts in conveying information.” Signing involves the processing of linguistic information not through the ears, but the eyes. Sign language varies across countries and the version practiced in the U.S. is called American Sign Language or ASL. In terms of learning ASL, NAD says, “To learn enough signs for basic communication and to sign them comfortably, can take a year or more. Some people pick up signs more slowly than others, and if that is the case with you, don’t be discouraged. Everyone learns sign language at their own speed. Be patient and you will succeed in learning the language. The rewards will be well worth the effort!” Learning ASL can be done through classes, practicing signs with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and through apps (yeah, there is an app for that too). For more on learning ASL, please visit:



Module Recap

Module 12 covered how human beings go about learning a language and dealt with language and its structure, the acquisition of language from infancy to middle childhood, and learning a second language, whether another spoken language like Spanish or French, or sign language used by the deaf and hard of hearing. Our coverage of complementary cognitive processes has so far covered sensation and perception, attention and memory, and now language.

We will conclude Part VI, and this book, by examining cognition (reasoning, problem-solving, and intelligence) and its link to learning. We will also discuss challenges to learning, in the form of intellectual and learning disabilities.

2nd edition


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