It was one thing to learn about these scaffolding techniques from Goldstein and Schwade—but it was another thing to actually see their power in action.
Ashley had that chance shortly after we returned from Cornell, when she met her best friends, Glenn and Bonnie Summer, and their twelve-month-old daughter Jenna, for a casual dinner in Westwood, a shopping area in West Los Angeles. Ashley thinks of Jenna as her niece, and she had brought a tiny, red Cornell sweatshirt for the baby. During dinner, Ashley also couldn’t help but try some of the scaffolding techniques on Jenna.
Every time Jenna looked at something, Ashley instantly labeled it for her. “Fan,” Ashley pronounced, when Jenna’s gaze landed on the ceiling fan that beat the air. “Phone,” she chimed, whenever Jenna’s ears led her eyes to the pizza joint’s wall-mounted telephone, ringing off the hook. Whenever Jenna babbled, Ashley immediately responded with a word or touch. Ashley clearly noticed the different babble stages in Jenna’s chatter.
Jenna turned to her mother and made the baby sign gesture “More,” tapping her fingertips together. She wanted another piece of the nectarine Bonnie had brought for her.
After giving the little girl the fruit, Bonnie complained: “It’s the one baby sign she knows—a friend of mine taught it to her—and now I can’t get Jenna to say ‘More.’ She used to try saying the word out loud, but now she only signs it. I hate it.”
Ashley felt a little guilty; she too was messing with Jenna’s language skills. But her guilt vanished when she realized that Jenna was babbling noticeably more than before. Jenna was looking straight at Ashley when she talked, using more consonant-vowel combinations, right on cue. Ash was ecstatic. There, in a Westwood dive, she and her niece had replicated Goldstein’s findings, even down to the same fifteen-minute time frame.
Emboldened, Ashley asked Jenna’s parents if she could try something. Jenna had about ten words in her spoken vocabulary—“milk,” “book,” “mama,” and “bye bye,” among others. But her parents had not yet been able to directly teach her a new word, on the spot. Since Goldstein’s experiment had worked so well, Ashley decided to try Schwade’s lesson on motionese. She took a small piece of the nectarine and danced it through the air, while saying, “Fr-uu-ii-t, Jen-na, fr-uu-ii-t.” Jenna looked wide-eyed.
“Now, you do it,” Ashley instructed Glenn and Bonnie.
“Froo-oooo-ooottt,” Glenn said, bobbing the next piece of nectarine up and down. His attempt sounded more like a Halloween ghost than parentese. Ashley coached him—a little more singsong, a little more rhythm in the hand movement. Glenn tried it a second time: “Fro-ooo-oo-ttt.” He set the nectarine chunk in front of Jenna.
“Oooot!!” piped Jenna, picking the piece up from the table.
Glenn started laughing, turned to Ashley and said, “I didn’t think it was going to work quite that fast.”
Ashley hadn’t expected so either. Jenna kept repeating her new word until the baggie was empty. Needless to say, Jenna’s parents were doing twice as much object-labeling and motionese by the time dinner was over. The next day, they used motionese to teach her “sock” and “shoe.” Since then, they’ve increased their responsiveness to Jenna’s babbles, and they’ve seen the difference.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Dr. Noam Chomsky altered the direction of social science with his theory of an innate Universal Grammar. He argued that what children hear and see and are taught, in combination, is just too fractured and pattern-defying to possibly explain how fast kids acquire language. The stream of input couldn’t account for the output coming from kids’ mouths. Chomsky highlighted the fact that young children can do far more than merely repeat sentences they’ve heard; without ever having been taught grammar, they can generate unique novel sentences with near-perfect grammar. Therefore, he deduced that infants must be born with “deep structure,” some underlying sense of syntax and grammar.
By the 1980s, Chomsky was the most quoted living scholar in all of academia, and remained at the top through the millennium.
However, in the intervening decades, each step of language acquisition has been partially decoded and, in turn, dramatically demystified. Rather than language arising from some innate template, each step of language learning seems to be a function of auditory and visual inputs, contingent responses, and intuitive scaffolding, all of which steer the child’s attention to the relevant pattern. Even Chomsky himself has been considering the import of the newly discovered mechanisms of language learning. In 2005, Chomsky and his colleagues wrote, somewhat cryptically: “Once [the faculty of language] is fractionated into component mechanisms (a crucial but difficult process) we enter a realm where specific mechanisms can be empirically interrogated at all levels…. We expect diverse answers as progress is made in this research program.”
This doesn’t rule out the possibility that some portion is still innate, but the portion left inexplicable—and therefore credited to innate grammar—is shrinking fast.