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Tongue Twister

By Bryn David Nelson
Illustrated By John Sellers

A child psychologist plays with words to explore how we learn language.

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. “It’s called gopping.”

“Gopping!” says the girl.

“That’s 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.

“What’s going to happen next?” asks Akhtar, her Cookie Monster hand puppet poised to send a plastic pizza slice flying.

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 an apple.

“Cookie Monster the apple gopped,” the girl says. She tells Akhtar she’s hungry and looks back at her classmates, uncertain about continuing the game.

“OK, we’ll snack in a minute,” says Akhtar as she swiftly pulls Pooh Bear back into action, menacing the pizza slice.

“Pooh Bear pizza gopping!” says the girl excitedly.

Nameera Akhtar’s 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 language fluently.

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 Akhtar’s 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 child’s 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 children’s 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 duck.”

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 Don’t giggle me. It is possible that the basic organization of grammar is wired into the child’s brain, but they still must reconstruct the nuances of English [or other languages].”

But Akhtar isn’t convinced by this explanation.

“You’ll hear people say things like, ‘The kids can’t even tie their shoes, they can’t even do math, but they can do language, and language is so complex!’” she says. “But I think it’s a real leap to go from that to say, ‘Oh, it’s innate, it’s there, and it’s ready to be triggered by the environment.’”

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 children’s general understanding of word order is a gradual process in which they learn by example.

According to this theory, children remember where particular words they’ve heard appear in the speech of their parents and others. Upon hearing the sentence, “The boy hit the ball,” children learn that what’s 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.

Akhtar’s 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 children’s language learning.

“Sometimes I think the two sides don’t even understand each other,” she says, lamenting the poor communication among many constructivists and nativists on opposite ends of the debate.

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 acquisition view.

“Some people have called us the radical middle,” says Hirsh-Pasek. She rejects each language camp’s insistence that language must come either from the head or from the environment.

“A baby has to be born prepared to learn any language, and as long as they know which environmental signals to pay attention to they’ll be fine,” she says. “Unless we select out what things to pay attention to in the environment, there’s 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 didn’t know where to look for environmental cues, I’d 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 information.

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 mother’s 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? Where’s Big Bird?” asks a woman’s 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 woman’s 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 object—Big 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 environmental input.

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 Golinkoff’s experiments, thereby clouding their conclusions.

“Yes, they understand it with familiar verbs, and that’s amazing—that’s really neat,” she says. But she argues that infants’ understanding of word order may not extend to verbs they’ve never heard before, such as “gopping,” “tamming,” or “dacking.”

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 says.

In Akhtar’s 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 the end.

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 the grapes.”

Since Akhtar must enter a child’s world to conduct her research, her observation laboratory looks more like a child’s 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 Akhtar’s 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 doesn’t 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.

Montague’s 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 child’s active language-learning process.

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 Akhtar’s hands. The researchers have even fashioned some of their toys from a Styrofoam-like substance called Floam that has been popularized by the children’s television network Nickelodeon.

“I’ve had a lot of fun shopping with Nameera,” says Montague.

Akhtar was born in Massachusetts, where her parents completed their graduate degrees after immigrating from Pakistan in the early 1960s. Eventually, Akhtar’s family moved to Canada and settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Akhtar’s father practices forensic psychiatry in Halifax and her mother started an Islamic school for the city’s small Muslim community, serving as its principal until last year.

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 dresses.

“I just think it’s one of those things you do when you’re an adolescent—you know, searching and thinking about your identity,” she says. But she admits the decision was difficult. “Especially at that age, it’s 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 her family.

“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 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in psychology from Dalhousie.

Hamza joined Akhtar’s 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.

“He’s 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 he’s 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 Akhtar’s make-believe world when she exclaims, “Look! The goppy’s 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 Germany’s 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 she’s 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 what’s 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.

Akhtar’s work shows that children can focus on word order, says developmental psychologist and nativist proponent Paul Bloom from the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s promising and it’s 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 he’s putting the cart before the horse.

“Kids use the orders that they hear,” she says. “It’s not that they’re 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 children’s 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 child’s 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 she’s 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 haven’t heard before.

Bloom says he wonders if the children in Akhtar’s 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! That’s really neat!’”

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 children’s 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 children’s 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 child’s brain turned off after a certain age or does the child’s ability to focus on different aspects of language change over time?

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. Akhtar’s 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 don’t know,” says the girl. She’s 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 seesaw.

“What’s 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 doesn’t want to play anymore.

“That’s OK, you can watch me,” Akhtar says as she quickly slips her hand into the Cookie Monster hand puppet and continues the game.


WRITER Bryn Nelson
B.A., biology, Concordia College, Moorhead, MN; Ph.D., microbiology, University of Washington.
Internship: Newsday, Long Island.
B.A., MCD biology, UCSC, 1998.
Internship: Swanson Hydrology and Geomorphology (watershed impact illustrations).

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Text © 1999 Bryn David Nelson
Illustrations © 1999 John Sellers