Language Origins Research


I received both my BA and MA in Linguistics from California State University, Fullerton.  While still an undergrad there, I became interested in the origins of language.  The Historical Linguistics classes I took didn't take things far enough.  Most historical linguists will tell you that, beyond about five or six thousand years in the past, no real information is obtainable about earlier language forms.  There are good, solid reasons for this assertion.  All living languages change continually.  In fact, the definition of a "dead" language, like Latin or Classical Greek, is that they do not change.  But the reason why language changes is intriguing, and is one of the reasons why I became interested in language origins: children change language.  And what's more, if we wanted to ressurect a dead language, all that would be required would be to assemble a group of people who were fluent in that language, and for them to have children, exposing these children to this "dead" language.  Once the children have assimilated it as their native language, it is no longer a dead language because it has begun to change.  This is what the Israelis did with Hebrew.  Prior to the founding of the state of Israel, Hewbrew was a dead language.  It is now very much a living language again. 

Sure, we adults can affect things like usage, like the 40+ year trend in the USA to demasculate English, for example.  But we don't have much effect on the fundamental structures.  That occurs as children acquire language, and it occurs because children don't so much learn language as they reinvent it.
  Parents don't teach their children language -- they expose them to it, and the kids take over for themselves.  Early on, children acquire an intuitive feel for the grammar of their native tongue and begin applying it to their speech.  An immediately noticeable result of this is the way they will regularize the grammar.  This is especially evident in English with our large assortment of irregular verbs, each of which has tenses that must be learned on a case-by-case basis.  Thus, it is common to hear a child say, "I taked it," or "I drawed a picture."  They intuitively apply the grammatical rules they have assimilated, but must be taught the exceptions.

This knowledge caused me to begin to ask questions.  I soon learned I was by no means the first to ask them, and that much research had already been conducted on the subject of language acquisition in children.  All developly normal children pass through what is known as the Language Acquisition Stage (LAS) during their second or third year of life.  They transcend from using simple, one or two word sentences, with a vocabulary of fifty to maybe one hundred words, to using sentences with full-blown grammar with a rapidly expanding vocabulary from a couple hundred words or more, a vocabulary that grows by the day.  The LAS lasts only for a brief period of time, usually about six months, and once they have passed through it, they have acquired their native language.  Interestingly enough, there is also what I call the Language Acquisition Window (LAW), which stays open for much longer -- until puberty, in fact.  The LAW is an ability that all developly normal children share, but it is an ability that is put to use only if exposure occurs.  So, what this means is that all that is required for a child to learn an additional language -- and speak it like a native to boot -- is to be put into an environment where it is spoken.  The child will acquire it naturally, without much need for instruction of any kind, and will speak the language with little, if any accent.

To prove this to myself, and to my wife, who is a native of Taiwan and speaks three languages herself (Taiwanese, Chinese, and English), I suggested that we ship off our daughter to her relatives in Taiwan, and let her stay there for several months.  My daughter was nine years old, and I was concerned that she would miss out on acquiring a second language "the easy way", since Chinese was seldom spoken around the house (alas, I'm still learning Chinese; to me it is a difficult language).  So that's what we did.  When we sent our daughter to Taiwan, I told her grandmother and aunts and uncles that they were not to speak English to her.  Chinese only.  The old sink-or-swim approach.  But I knew she could do it, and she didn't let me down.  Four months later, I recall us driving back from the airport.  My daughter had been quiet.  I figured it was probably jet lag and she was tired.  But suddenly she said to me, "You know, it feels really strange thinking in English again."  When I heard that, I thought to myself, YES!  Success.  She is bilingual because we took the time and went to the trouble to immerse her in a community of language speakers other than her own for a short period of time.  When I look around at all the "bilingual education" crap going on in the schools nowadays, I feel sorry for those kids.  The educators who supposedly know it all don't know the first thing about language acquisition.  They are more concerned with fleecing their own nests, and they do this by keeping the foreign language speaking kids segregated from the mainstream language users.  Shame on them. 

So anyway, right about the time I was researching language acquisition in children, I took a class called, innocently enough, the Philosophy of Biology at CSUF.  What the class was actually about was evolutionary theory, with special emphasis being paid to Darwanism and the Modern Synthesis.  This gave me just the sort of background and perspective I needed for my continued research into how language was acquired.  About this same time, I learned about Noam Chomsky's famous assertion that humans have a "language organ," and read Stephen Pinker's book, The Language Instinct.  Then I discovered the research and publications by Philip Lieberman and Jeffrey Laitman, and I was thoroughly hooked.  My research became more directed then toward the Biological Origins of Language and how language evolved.  Language is, without question, an instinct that all humans possess.  It is, in point of fact, that which makes us human more so than any other single trait.  The topic was not a particulary easy one to research.  At the time I was engaged in it, publications were few on the topic of language evolution.  Things are much different now, I'm happy to report.  But back when I was conducting the bulk of my research, which dated from the mid-1990s to 2002, very little information was available.  Thus, this situation required that I acquire an in-depth understanding of the subjects that were all peripherally related to my main topic.  As a result, I studied at length writings on evolutionary theory, primate biology and behavior, paleoanthropology, human variation and anatomy, population diversity, and more.  This gave me the necessary grounding I would require for my thesis, which was to be on this topic. 

But as I began to assemble my notes and prepare my thesis, something in the data I'd acquired began to "speak" to me, appropriately enough, I suppose.  I began noticing similarities and coincidences -- items that addressed concerns I was having in related areas as well.  With a flash of insight, I finally hit upon what it was, and at that moment, I knew I had the topic for my thesis. 

So, what is the topic, you ask?  Hehe.  I am of mixed feelings about revealing it here.  My thesis was not widely distributed, and both my advisors felt I should flesh it out into a book.  Need to do that one of these days soon.  But until I do, I hesitate revealing that which I uncovered, which is new research, and yet so obvious that folks will immediately recognize the truth there.  Have no fear, once the manuscript has been accepted by a publisher, I will comment further on this subject.


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