“It’s not what you tell your children, it’s how often you say it.” A Look at Language Acquisition with Michael Ramscar
By Michelle Kellebrew, Teacher
One of the hardest questions to answer in accounting for how children learn language is how they recover from childhood grammatical mistakes, for example, saying “goed” for went or “mouses” for mice. Parents may be familiar with the experience of correcting such errors only to see them resurface hours or perhaps minutes later. Problems like these have led many researchers to conclude that important parts of language are not learned but genetically based and that recovering from such errors relies on the timing of an innate blueprint.
Not so, says Michael Ramscar, PhD. Ramscar, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University, trained in philosophy at Kings College, London, completed a graduate degree in computer science and earned a doctorate in cognitive science from the University of Edinburgh. He explained his theory on children’s language acquisition at Bing on Set-up Day in September 2003.
Ramscar takes a computational approach to these problems, trying to figure out how the software of the brain solves them. “This point of view offers up an intriguing yet simple explanation,” says Ramscar. “The story starts with a fundamental law of human learning — no gain without pain.” To put this in scientific terms, human learning follows a power law. The gain that results from practice decreases as our expertise increases. In other words, when we start out learning something, we get high rewards from each lesson, but as we become more and more expert, we may find ourselves having to practice to stay right where we are. This simple law, says Ramscar, characterizes an enormous range of human learning from the strengthening of synaptic connections in the brain to playing the piano. For example, think of your first piano lessons and the rapid progress you initially made. Over time, the progress from each successive lesson diminishes until finally —when you get to the level of a concert pianist — it takes constant practice to simply stay in place. According to Ramscar, all human learning is like this.
Given that learning depends on trials, not time, Ramscar has been exploring the idea that childhood grammatical errors arise when children learn different grammar rules at different rates. “A child is exposed all the time to the regular aspects of grammar, whereas their exposure to a lot of irregular forms is comparatively much less frequent,” he says. What this means is that a child will get a lot of practice at regular forms of grammar and become an expert at them, while still being a novice at irregular forms. A child might say “mouses” instead of “mice.” Perhaps the child believes the plural really is “mouses.” Or perhaps the child has heard that the plural is “mice,” but this knowledge is drowned out by the more frequently learned regular rules, in this case, the over-learned temptation to add an “s” to mark plurality.
This last idea offers an intriguing hypothesis to test, says Ramscar. At this point, “comes the hard and important part for parents and scientists to understand,” he says. To put the hypothesis simply, saying “mouses” leads surprisingly but inevitably to increasing the likelihood that the next time the child will produce the correct response “mice.” Repeated articulation of “mouses” eventually leads to “mice” because the little-used and correct pathway gets activated each time. “From the point of view of the brain, any activation on a representation that is not over-learned will lead to learning,” Ramscar says. Therefore, whether or not the child actually does say “mice” depends on how many previous experiences he/she has had trying to say the plural form of “mouse.”
What can parents and educators do to further aid children in mastering this grammatical process? Ramscar states there are several things. First and foremost, encourage them to talk. The more experiences they have with the spoken word, the more likely they are to master it. When the child does make a grammatical error, be careful in your correction. Correct by being a good role model and repeating the word in its correct form. For example, if the child says, “Look at the three mouses,” reply with the correct form, “Yes, there are three mice in that picture,” rather than pointing out the error. Lastly, Ramscar says to have faith in the process — with each exposure the child will gain information and eventually master it.