child psychologist plays with words to explore how we
By: Bryn Nelson
On the television screen, a woman wearing a white head
scarf, blue gingham dress, and beige vest is kneeling in the
corner of a preschool playroom. A three-year-old blonde girl
in a pink hooded sweatshirt and purple shorts sits across
from her. They are both staring intently at the toy between
them, two brightly colored platforms connected by a
foot-high vertical spring. At the moment, the small upper
platform is swaying gently.
Do you know what this game is called? the woman asks
the girl. Its called gopping.
Gopping! says the girl.
Thats right, says the woman and she begins the
experiment. The woman, developmental psychologist Nameera
Akhtar, slips her right hand into a Pooh Bear hand puppet
and selects a clump of plastic grapes from the floor with
her left hand. Carefully, she balances the grapes on the
wobbly upper platform.
Pooh the grapes gopping, she says. Pooh the grapes
gopping! The Pooh Bear hand puppet whacks the spring, and
the plastic grapes clatter to the floor. In quick
succession, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, and Cookie Monster hand
puppets follow suit, toppling a plastic banana, an apple,
and a spoon.
Whats going to happen next? asks Akhtar, her Cookie
Monster hand puppet poised to send a plastic pizza slice
The girl pauses for a moment, lost in thought.
Um, Cookie Monster the pizza gopping, she says.
Akhtar continues to switch puppets. Big Bird hovers over
the grapes, and an instant later, Cookie Monster lurks near
Cookie Monster the apple gopped, the girl says. She
tells Akhtar shes hungry and looks back at her classmates,
uncertain about continuing the game.
OK, well snack in a minute, says Akhtar as she swiftly
pulls Pooh Bear back into action, menacing the pizza
Pooh Bear pizza gopping! says the girl excitedly.
Nameera Akhtars fascination with how children learn
language began about the same time her own son, Hamza, began
talking. She marveled at how quickly he and other toddlers
put words together into coherent phrases, then into complete
sentences. Eventually, Akhtar decided to study how children
begin their remarkable journey from babbling to speaking a
The University of California, Santa Cruz researcher uses
made-up verbs and scrambled word order to test toddlers
knowledge of where to put unfamiliar words in sentences. In
the fantasy world she creates for her young research
subjects, gopping describes a Cookie Monster hand puppet
launching a spoon off the wobbly spring-based platform.
Tamming happens when Mickey Mouse smacks the edge of a
rounded seesaw shaped like a covered cereal bowl and
catapults a plastic pizza slice across the carpeting.
Dacking denotes Pooh Bear pushing a bunch of plastic
grapes down a curved chute.
But the playfulness of Akhtars experiments contrasts
sharply with the long-standing and often contentious debate
among language researchers over how children learn to talk.
Are children born with a language organ that develops much
like a heart or lung, as noted linguist Noam Chomsky has
suggested? Or do they instead rely on hearing common
patterns in their native tongue to develop their language
ability? Dozens of experiments have supported both sides of
the debate, while still others have suggested an interplay
between a childs environment and his or her mental wiring.
The debate touches on everything from how a new language is
created to why adult immigrants struggle with a new language
while their children grasp it easily.
Language experts like Chomsky and Steve Pinker, both at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have proposed
that children arrive in the world with their language skills
already in place. This view is frequently called a nativist
approach. Nativists assert that hearing phrases and
sentences can trigger childrens instinctive ability to
place words in the correct order. When children hear a
sentence in their native language, they notice whether the
verb comes before or after its object and then flip a mental
switch to pattern their speech similarly. According to this
theory, the standard English sentence, The boy hit the
ball, becomes a mental guide telling the child to put verbs
like hit before objects like the ball. The child can
then use this guide to quickly construct similar sentences
such as, The boy pushed the car, or The girl chased the
In his book The Language Instinct, Pinker writes that at
around the age of eighteen months, toddlers vocabularies
expand by a new word every two hours, a rate they will
maintain through adolescence. Between the late twos and the
mid-threes, most children around the world have entered a
stage he calls All Hell Breaks Loose, in which their
language blooms so rapidly that it overwhelms the
researchers studying it. Pinker argues that nativist
theories best explain this grammar explosion.
How do they do it? he writes. Children of kthis age
are notably incompetent at most other activities ... So they
are not doing it by the sheer power of their acumen. Nor
could they be imitating what they hear, or else they would
never say goed or Dont giggle me. It is possible that the
basic organization of grammar is wired into the childs
brain, but they still must reconstruct the nuances of
English [or other languages].
But Akhtar isnt convinced by this explanation.
Youll hear people say things like, The kids cant even
tie their shoes, they cant even do math, but they can do
language, and language is so complex! she says. But I
think its a real leap to go from that to say, Oh, its
innate, its there, and its ready to be triggered by the
Akhtar and other language researchers like Michael
Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany,
believe that children take a more active role in language
acquisition. Akhtar calls this view a constructivist
approach, in contrast to the more passive role assigned to
children by the nativists. Constructivists argue that
childrens general understanding of word order is a gradual
process in which they learn by example.
According to this theory, children remember where
particular words theyve heard appear in the speech of their
parents and others. Upon hearing the sentence, The boy hit
the ball, children learn that whats being hit always
appears after the word hit. They can then construct a
similar sentence like, The boy hit the car or The girl
hit the duck. When they hear other verbs like push or
chase consistently placed before the objects they act
upon, they begin to draw generalizations about speech
patterns and dramatically expand their language skills.
Akhtars recent experimental results, published in the
June 1999 issue of the Journal of Child Language, support
her belief that children are active rather than passive
participants throughout the language-learning process. But
she concedes that some elements of both constructivist and
nativist theories may be responsible for childrens language
Sometimes I think the two sides dont even understand
each other, she says, lamenting the poor communication
among many constructivists and nativists on opposite ends of
Developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek from Temple
University in Philadelphia agrees that the language debate
has become increasingly polarized.
My sense is that there are people who have dug their
heels in, she says. Hirsh-Pasek and her collaborator
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff from the University of Delaware
in Newark instead favor a middle of the road language
Some people have called us the radical middle, says
Hirsh-Pasek. She rejects each language camps insistence
that language must come either from the head or from the
A baby has to be born prepared to learn any language,
and as long as they know which environmental signals to pay
attention to theyll be fine, she says. Unless we select
out what things to pay attention to in the environment,
theres just so much stimuli it would be overwhelming.
Hirsh-Pasek compares the problem to learning a language
on a different planet.
If I went to Mars and I heard some weird tonal thing and
I didnt know where to look for environmental cues, Id
never get the task done in a lifetime, she says.
Fortunately, Hirsh-Pasek says, children have a vast array of
internal guides that can act like bloodhounds to sniff out
certain cues from less relevant environmental
But even the narrow middle ground in the language debate
is being staked out by researchers from different camps. For
example, nativists like Pinker point to a classic experiment
by Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff as supporting evidence that
infants language comprehension is somehow wired into their
brains. In the experiment, the developmental psychologists
studied how 17-month-old infants respond to different visual
and oral cues. Since children at this age are generally
unable to speak in more than one or two-word phrases, the
researchers studied their physical reactions.
At the start of one such experiment, an infant sits on
her mothers lap, attention focused on a light placed
between the two television screens in front of her. During a
warm-up period, the screens show readily identifiable
objects and accompanying narration.
See Big Bird? Wheres Big Bird? asks a womans voice,
and the infant gazes at the television showing Big Bird
smiling and waving back at her. Cookie Monster appears on
the other television screen, and the voice asks, Oh, see
Cookie Monster? The child turns her head in the other
direction and sees Cookie Monster waving at her.
Later on, one television shows Cookie Monster tickling
Big Bird. Their roles are reversed on the other television,
where Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster.
Hey! the womans voice says. Cookie Monster is
tickling Big Bird! Find Cookie Monster tickling Big Bird.
The girl again directs her gaze to the appropriate screen,
demonstrating her ability to distinguish the subject of the
sentence, Cookie Monster, from the objectBig Bird.
Based on their observations, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff
concluded that most of the infants were able to correctly
order complete sentences, even though none of them could yet
say these sentences. Pinker argues in The Language Instinct
that this experiment supports the nativist view of children
as genetically primed to understand differences in word
order, one of the elements required for language
acquisition. Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff agree that children
have to know how to pay attention to word order to begin the
learning process. But they view these word order primers
only as skeletal supports, to be fleshed out with
Akhtar has a different interpretation. She says common
words like tickling, hugging, and feeding may have
aided the infants understanding of word order in
Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoffs experiments, thereby clouding
Yes, they understand it with familiar verbs, and thats
amazingthats really neat, she says. But she argues that
infants understanding of word order may not extend to verbs
theyve never heard before, such as gopping, tamming, or
A toddler can usually surmise that Big Bird pushed the
car sounds right, says Akhtar. But can the same child tell
that Big Bird the car gopped sounds wrong? Not always, she
In Akhtars experiment, two- and three-year-old children
were much more likely to accept her mixed-up word order than
were four-year-olds. These results suggested to Akhtar that
the younger children were still in the process of learning
where to place new words in sentences. Instead of a mental
switch automatically ordering their sentences for them, they
were actively patterning their sentences based partly on
what they heard.
The four-year-olds just thought I was crazy, she says.
Most would consistently correct her improper English word
order, putting dacking, tamming, and gopping in the
middle of the sentences instead of at the beginning or at
But many of the younger children thought sentences like
Cookie Monster the spoon gopping, or Tammed Mickey Mouse
the pizza sounded just as reasonable as Pooh Bear dacking
Since Akhtar must enter a childs world to conduct her
research, her observation laboratory looks more like a
childs playroom than a research facility. A toddler-sized
wooden table and chairs sit in a corner by a cabinet filled
with toys and a blue couch occupied by squeezable Elmo, Big
Bird, and Cookie Monster dolls. Playful photographs grace a
gray fabric wall: among them are a baby in a white bunny
outfit, a sleeping hedgehog-toddler on a bed of leaves, and
a geranium-baby peering from a blue polka-dotted flowerpot.
The only hints of a research laboratory here are a
microphone mounted on the same gray fabric wall and a large
two-way mirror disguising an adjoining camera room.
Lisa Montague, a developmental psychology graduate
student in Akhtars laboratory, sits cross-legged near
another cabinet full of toys.
A lot of the experiments we do seem like games to the
children, she says. She demonstrates an ongoing study with
the aid of a bright yellow hand puppet named Sally the Slug.
This experiment tests how parent-child interactions
influence the way children learn plural forms of words.
Sally doesnt know what these words are, says Montague.
Can you help her out? The researchers let parents and
toddlers play with a carefully chosen set of toys twice over
the course of six months and record their dialogue. Later,
the toddlers knowledge is tested with the help of Sally the
Slug and a picture book depicting plural forms of the toys
and other objects. Montague retrieves the special bag of
toys from the cabinet and dumps them onto the floor: boxes
and brushes and horses, elephants and cats and hats, babies
and bears and dogs, firemen and sheep and mice.
Montagues preliminary results suggest that if adults use
a particular plural form more often than others, children
will have an earlier mastery of that word ending. Akhtar
views these results as a nice fit to her theory that social
interactions are important for a childs active
Akhtar often goes to hardware stores and pet stores to
collect unusual toys or make new ones for her research, says
Montague. Dog toys work especially well as unfamiliar
nameless objects that the researchers provide with new
made-up names. Assorted hardware clamps, tools, and pipes
also find new life in Akhtars hands. The researchers have
even fashioned some of their toys from a Styrofoam-like
substance called Floam that has been popularized by the
childrens television network Nickelodeon.
Ive had a lot of fun shopping with Nameera, says
Akhtar was born in Massachusetts, where her parents
completed their graduate degrees after immigrating from
Pakistan in the early 1960s. Eventually, Akhtars family
moved to Canada and settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Akhtars father practices forensic psychiatry in Halifax and
her mother started an Islamic school for the citys small
Muslim community, serving as its principal until last
Half a lifetime ago, when she was seventeen, Akhtar
decided to embrace her Pakistani Muslim heritage and began
wearing the traditional head scarves and full-length
I just think its one of those things you do when youre
an adolescentyou know, searching and thinking about your
identity, she says. But she admits the decision was
difficult. Especially at that age, its kind of hard to be
different from everybody else, she says. When she attended
Dalhousie University in Halifax, she was the only student
dressed in traditional Muslim attire.
But her family provided a constant source of
encouragement. After she gave birth to her son, Hamza,
during her junior year at the university, she decided to
complete the rest of her education there in order to be near
I raised him on my own, so I really wanted to be around
my family so he would have that environment to grow up in,
she says. She went on to earn her bachelors, masters, and
doctoral degrees in psychology from Dalhousie.
Hamza joined Akhtars academic world early in life. He
attended classes with her when he was three years old, came
to her lab on weekends when he was a bit older, and began
filming her interactions with toddlers when he was just
seven or eight. Now the 13-year-old helps make toys for some
of her experiments.
Hes much more creative than I am, Akhtar says.
Reaching to the side of her office desk, she produces three
nameless objects he created specifically for her research.
I really rely on him because hes so good at it, she says.
One toy resembles a cross between an inchworm and a candy
cane. Another looks vaguely like a green hammerhead
constructed of Floam. The third toy, a rectangular blue
object with two hooks, might have been a key chain holder in
a previous life. All three stare out of dime-store eyes. Any
of them could be a prop in Akhtars make-believe world when
she exclaims, Look! The goppys meeking the toma!
Akhtar landed the perfect job four years ago as an
assistant professor in the psychology department at UC Santa
Cruz. Before that, she studied at Emory University in
Atlanta with Michael Tomasello, who has since moved on to
Germanys Max Planck Institute. Many scientists in the field
have long recognized Tomasello as a strong voice on the
constructivist side of the language debate, which argues
that children learn primarily from their environment.
Although Akhtar shares many ideas with Tomasello on how
children learn languages, she says shes tired of being
labeled as an extreme constructivist.
Like Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, who believe that both
social interactions and genetic programming may help
children acquire language, Akhtar hopes researchers can find
some common ground between the two extremes. Most
developmental psychologists and linguists agree that
children are prepared to learn language in some way, but
many differ over whats included in this preparation, she
says. Part of the fun of her research is trying to figure
out how much kids know at different ages.
The real story is that kids vary a lot, she says.
Akhtars work shows that children can focus on word
order, says developmental psychologist and nativist
proponent Paul Bloom from the University of Arizona in
Tucson. Its promising and its quite exciting, he says.
But he questions whether Akhtar has shown that children are
bias-free in how they expect word order to work.
If kids are so flexible they can learn verbs in every
which way, how come English has verbs all going the same
way, all in the same pattern? he asks.
But Akhtar says hes putting the cart before the
Kids use the orders that they hear, she says. Its not
that theyre so flexible that they put the verb wherever
they want. For English speakers, that means children
generally use a subject-verb-object word order like The boy
kicked the can.
But Akhtar also says childrens understanding of language
is more complex than just parroting everything they hear.
Instead, children gain a general understanding of words and
their connections within patterned speech from their
parents. This understanding eventually reaches the point
where children can automatically identify new words as
nouns, adjectives, or verbs and put them in their correct
places in sentences.
Bloom agrees that the context of a new word in a sentence
is important for a childs learning process. But he argues
that toddlers have a much greater understanding of sentence
structure than Akhtar is willing to admit. He also contends
that Akhtar may be tapping into social differences instead
of language differences.
Kids are smart creatures, he says. If they hear
something in a novel form, they might be savvy enough to
figure out the game and respond accordingly. Some children
may use the weird word order to prolong the fun or to please
the researcher, he says.
But Akhtar says shes played the same mixed-up order
games with the kids using a familiar verb like push. Even
the two-year-olds refuse to use it improperly, suggesting
the effect is unique for words they havent heard
Bloom says he wonders if the children in Akhtars study
would use a weird word order in different social settings.
What would really impress me is if you say to a boy,
Gopping the bird the duck. Then if you show him the same
[action] on the playground, and he says, Gopping
the boy the ball, then I would say, Wow! Thats really
Akhtar hopes eventually to expand her experiments to
answer that question. In the meantime, her recent studies
have given her and others in the field plenty to think
about. One of the broader questions she and other
researchers have pondered is how new languages are created.
In places like Hawaii and New Orleans, speakers of mutually
unintelligible tongues first resorted to a crude mixed
language, or pidgin. But their children were subsequently
able to develop a brand-new language, or creole,
incorporating parts of each original language. Did the
foundations for the new language come from the childrens
genetic building blocks, as many nativists believe? Or did
their creation arise by mixing parts of their parents
native speech, as many constructivists believe? Akhtar says
no one really knows whether the childrens creole language
arose from elements heard in their parents speech, from
their own genes, or both.
Likewise, no one can yet say why adult immigrants
struggle with a new language while their children grasp it
easily. Are language-learning programs in a childs brain
turned off after a certain age or does the childs ability
to focus on different aspects of language change over
What can be said, however, is that Akhtar has elicited
extraordinary responses from children who are in the midst
of learning new words, and that she thoroughly enjoys
working with them. In another videotaped experiment, she
plays with a four-year-old blonde girl in a pink-and-white
Hunchback of Notre Dame T-shirt and shorts. Akhtars Big
Bird hand puppet whacks the edge of the rounded seesaw and a
plastic hot dog catapults into the air.
What happened? asks Akhtar.
I dont know, says the girl. Shes more interested in
the nose of a Tigger hand puppet. Now she spies a paper clip
and puts it on the seesaw.
Big Bird the paper clip tamming, says Akhtar. Big Bird
the paper clip tamming! Whack. In a flash, she swaps Big
Bird with Winnie the Pooh and positions him near the
Whats going to happen? asks Akhtar.
The girl thinks for a while, tapping her head and looking
at the ceiling.
Pooh Bear was hitting the tam, she says finally.
Akhtar laughs. The girl laughs too, but now she says she
doesnt want to play anymore.
Thats OK, you can watch me, Akhtar says as she quickly
slips her hand into the Cookie Monster hand puppet and
continues the game.
- B.A., biology,
Concordia College, Moorhead, MN; Ph.D., microbiology, University
Internship: Newsday, Long Island.
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1999 Bryn Nelson