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Indigenous children's language: Acquisition, preservation and evolution of language in minority contexts

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Kelly, B. F., Kidd, E., & Wigglesworth, G. (2015). Indigenous children's language: Acquisition, preservation and evolution of language in minority contexts. First Language, 35(4-5), 279-285. doi:10.1177/0142723715618056.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002E-24B6-D
A comprehensive theory of language acquisition must explain how human infants can learn any one of the world’s 7000 or so languages. As such, an important part of understanding how languages are learned is to investigate acquisition across a range of diverse languages and sociocultural contexts. To this end, cross-linguistic and cross-cultural language research has been pervasive in the field of first language acquisition since the early 1980s. In groundbreaking work, Slobin (1985) noted that the study of acquisition in cross-linguistic perspective can be used to reveal both developmental universals and language-specific acquisition patterns. Since this observation there have been several waves of cross-linguistic first language acquisition research, and more recently we have seen a rise in research investigating lesser-known languages. This special issue brings together work on several such languages, spoken in minority contexts. It is the first collection of language development research dedicated to the acquisition of under-studied or little-known languages and by extension, different cultures. Why lesser-known languages, and why minority contexts? First and foremost, acquisition theories need data from different languages, language families and cultural groups across the broadest typological array possible, and yet many theories of acquisition have been developed through analyses of English and other major world languages. Thus they are likely to be skewed by sampling bias. Languages of European origin constitute a small percentage of the total number of languages spoken worldwide. The Ethnologue (2015) lists 7102 languages spoken across the world. Of these, only 286 languages are languages of European origin, a mere 4% of the total number of languages spoken across the planet, and representing approximately only 26% of the total number of language speakers alive today. Compare this to the languages of the Pacific. The Ethnologue lists 1313 languages spoken in the Pacific, constituting 18.5% of the world’s languages. Of these, very few have been described, and even fewer have child language data available. Lieven and Stoll (2010) note that only around 70–80 languages have been the focus of acquisition studies (around 1% of the world’s languages). This somewhat alarming statistic suggests that the time is now ripe for researchers working on lesser-known languages to contribute to the field’s knowledge about how children learn a range of very different languages across differing cultures, and in doing so, for this research to make a contribution to language acquisition theory. The potential benefits are many. First, decades of descriptive work in linguistic typology have culminated in strong challenges to the existence of a Universal Grammar (Evans & Levinson, 2009), a long-held axiom of formal language acquisition theory. To be sure, cross-linguistic work in acquisition has long fuelled this debate (e.g. MacWhinney & Bates, 1989), but only as we collect a greater number of data points will we move closer toward a better understanding of the initial state of the human capacity for language and the types of social and cultural contexts in which language is successfully transmitted. A focus on linguistic diversity enables the investigation and postulation of universals in language acquisition, if and in whatever form they exist. In doing so, we can determine the sorts of things that are evident in child-directed speech, in children’s language production and in adult language, teasing out the threads at the intersection of language, culture and cognition. The study and dissemination of research into lesser-known, under-described languages with small communities significantly contributes to this aim because it not only reflects the diversity of languages present in the world, but provides a better representation of the social and economic conditions under which the majority of the world’s population acquire language (Heinrich, Heins, & Norenzayan, 2010). Related to this point, the study of smaller languages has taken on intense urgency in the past few decades due to the rapid extinction of these languages (Evans, 2010). The Language Documentation movement has toiled tirelessly in the pursuit of documenting languages before they disappear, an effort to which child language researchers have much to offer. Many children acquire smaller and minority languages in rich multilingual environments, where the influence of dominant languages affects acquisition (e.g., Stoll, Zakharko, Moran, Schikowski, & Bickel, 2015). Understanding the acquisition process where systems compete and may be in flux due to language contact, while no small task, will help us understand the social and economic conditions which favour successful preservation of minority languages, which could ultimately equip communities with the tools to stem the flow of language loss. With these points in mind we now turn to the articles in this special issue.