Saturday, 4 November 2017

Things My Son Knows That I Don't

For part of my degree in linguistics, I had to do a course in phonetics. The phonetics professor, Ken, was a friendly chap with a good sense of humour. For two hours a week, he had to stand at the front of a class full of linguistics undergraduates sounding a selection of the 600 or so linguistic noises that are used in human languages. We had to write down the symbol and description of the sound he was making. This went on for a whole term. His wife died the year I studied with him, but he kept coming in: chanting his noises while we students frantically tried to listen for whether this particular non-velar alveolar fricative was voiced or unvoiced.

I've been thinking about Ken a lot in the last few weeks as I listen to my son, Finn Jr, produce a variety of pre-linguistic sounds - he's particularly good at uvular rolls.

There's a particular fact about first language acquisition that most linguists take for granted, but other parents look at you like you're mad if you mention it: every child is born knowing all the possible human linguistic sounds, but they forget the ones that they don't hear used around them. My four-and-a-half-month-old son currently has knowledge of all 600 or so phonemes - just like my old phonetics professor! But, over the next year, he will forget all but the 40 or so that are used in English.

The international phonetic alphabet. These symbols can be combined to transcribe the phonetics of any language.

You also probably think that I am barking mad - ascribing such knowledge to a babe in arms who can't sit up without the aid of a Bumbo - so here's a brief rundown of the argument.

Parents have insufficient knowledge to teach a baby how to make linguistic sounds. (This is the point where other parents of babies can get a bit offended).

The average parent may say "[m],[m]" to their child and be ecstatic when the infant says "mama" back. But at what point did the parent pass on knowledge of when to open and close the velum and whether or not to sound the vocal cords? The complexity of the child's linguistic behaviour is far beyond the ability of the parent to impart.   

I spent a term of my University education trying to learn the human linguistic sounds and I only just about managed to master the consonants (except the clicks) and I never learned to tell the difference between a rounded unvoiced vowel and an unrounded unvoiced vowel without looking at the shape of the lips. And I was being taught by an expert, remember. 

Despite how tricky the whole subject of phonetics is to learn: any baby can learn any language. That is to say, if you kidnapped Finn Jr (please don't, his mother would kill me) and had him raised by a Japanese-speaking or Swahili-speaking family: he would grow up speaking that language.

The nativist claim that infants are born with the knowledge of all phonemes and forget the ones that they don't hear is less fantastical than the belief that parents are somehow able to pass on knowledge that they don't possess.

But you try bringing up Ockham's Razor with the other mums and dads at messy play... 

Finn Jr voicing some of the 600 linguistic sounds he knows.



  1. Man walks into bar.
    Bartender: What'll you have?
    Man: IPA, please.
    Bartender: ˈwɒt(ə)l juː hæv

  2. I've only just seen this. I think it is my new favourite joke!