How is language generated and developed in the child’s brain?
Chomsky talks about the well-known LAD (Language Acquisition Device), according to which the process takes place in a completely natural manner, and is a result of a series of neurological developments that take place in the central lobes of our brain. Chomsky called it magic device for he did not know what else to call it. According to this author, the process occurs naturally as a result of a series of neurological processes. The actual, precise and detailed way in which our brain cells do this is still a mystery for linguists and neurologists alike.
It is still unknown when these processes are developed, when they get established and how they work. Researchers in this respect are still trying to come to a conclusive outcome in this field.
However, the idea of human language as the only possible amongst living beings so that the line between rational/irrational would define what proper language was, is now considered obsolete. Human language is just one of the many possible languages in our universe. The codes with which certain animals establish communication or send alert signals or ask other animals for help, (the bird’s calls, the wolf’s howling) or even other type of communication such as the musical score or the mathematical theorems are as important types of languages as the human language is. In fact, an interesting study could be the establishment of the starting point for the bird call to be an inspiration for certain movements in famous classical symphonies such as Vivaldi’s The Spring.
Just as we cannot determine how exactly the human language is established in our brain, we cannot establish how any of these other type of languages is formed and established.
How are first and then second languages developed in a young brain?
At about 18 months of age, children begin to combine words to create compositional utterances. These utterances are either isolated words or segments of words that a parent (mother or father) will recognize and understand.
The limitations that restrict children’s speech to a fraction of the necessary units for a fully elaborated sentence seem nonetheless constrained by the rules of grammar.
There are two very illustrative ways in which this happens:
1) The word order
2) The extension of syntactic rules to the irregularities
a) Word order
In an impressive manner, infants in the first year are able to distinguish between meanings of reversible sentences using only word order as a clue. In a book called Bilingualism in Development, Ellen Bialystok shows that several comprehension tests carried out with children of this age have demonstrated these apparently precocious abilities:
Infants are seated in front of two monitors, each depicting one direction of action between two agents (cat chases dog; dog chases cat), while a tape is played that describes only one of the scenes (“the cat is chasing the dog”).
These infants look significantly longer at the scene that matches the description than at the one that reverses the direction of action. So, as we can see, in babies whose mother tongue is English, the concept of word order can be already present in a syntactic way by the time they are 18 months old.
Within the first concept, children not only understand the difference between meanings in one scene and in the other. They also acquire a morphological system that includes, as the most important elements, the following three:
- The plural morpheme (babies can differentiate between the concept of “one thing” and the concept of “more than one thing”)
- The verbal form ending in -ing (babies know the difference between an action that is taking place now and an action already completed)
- The correct use of the article (babies recognize if the conversation is about a known subject or an unknown subject)
b) Extension of syntactic rules to the irregularities
At the same time, an extension of syntactic rules to the cases of irregular forms takes place. The result, -both in Spanish and in English- is examples such as the following:
She’s goed (gone) lots of times
I cutted (cut) my finger on a broken glass
She’s my bestest (best) friend
Ayer hací los deberes muy pronto
He escribido un montón hoy
Es el más mejor de la clase
Formal aspects and functional aspects crash because the child does not understand why these exceptions take place and he/she still applies them in every case. What he is demonstrating, really, is that he has learnt, from very early on, the essential point of each system of rules, even if he still does not know about the existence of exceptions.
Is Code Switching “allowed” when teaching a second language?
Through reciprocal language teaching, students switch languages at predetermined points pairing students who want to learn each other's languages. Thus the students alternate between the two languages and exchange the roles of student and teacher.
A similar system may also be used by the teacher who uses code switching by starting the lesson in the first language and then moving into the second and back to the mother tongue. This makes the lesson as communicative as possible and is similar to the 'New Concurrent Approach', which gets teachers to balance the use of languages within each lesson at certain key points, such as during important concepts, when students loose attention, during revisions or when students are praised and/or told off. On this basis, switching may be used as an effective teaching strategy for second language learning.
These concepts would suggest that a use of code switching in the classroom would provide for a bilingual norm whereby code switching is seen to be acceptable method of communication. Students then would feel comfortable switching languages within normal conversations providing for a bilingual society.
Interference may occur in this instance by monolingual speakers who attempt to use a second language for a social reason such as solidarity or bilingual speakers attempting to integrate the second language into the first to be understood by monolingual speakers.
It may be concluded then, that when code switching is to compensate for a language difficulty it may be viewed as interference and when it is used a socio-linguistic tool it should not.