Distinguished Lecture Series

Professor Ellen Markman

"Insights On Language Acquisition"

by Allison Thompson, Assistant Teacher - Center AM
The Bing Times - June 1995

Professor Ellen Markman presented at Bing Nursery School on Wednesday, May 31 for the annual Distinguished Lecture Series. A nationally renowned developmental psychologist, Markman boasts a twenty year history at Stanford University and is currently the Chair of the Department of Psychology. With her outstanding talents for articulation and delivery, she riveted the teachers and parents who attended her lecture on The Development of Language and Communication in young children.

Ellen Markman emphasized her interest in how young children come to understand word meanings. She distinguished the "older" children, of at least three years of age, as already having language available to learn new language. Infants and younger children, however, cannot rely on previous language experiences and thus have a more complicated challenge. It is a profound accomplishment that children learn 10,000 - 16, 000 words before they reach six years of age, and this remarkable number translates into a rate of approximately eight to nine words per day, or one word for every waking hour.

Previous to Markman's research, the widely accepted theory in language acquisition was that infants learned new words by associating a physical gesture with an auditory definition and then waiting for a reoccurrence to confirm their hypothesis. Professor Markman questioned this level of inductive reasoning in young children, as it would require them to retract labels when associations conflicted, and argued for pre-existing constraints on the types of hypotheses children use in their language development.

An anecdote she used to illustrate this point refers to the common practice of saying, "Don't touch. It's hot," when indicating the kitchen stove. Even though children see the physical acknowledgment and simultaneously hear the word "hot", they are still able to learn the word "stove" for the inanimate object.

Ellen Markman's argument proposes three main assumptions in children's language acquisition: The Whole Object Assumption, the Taxonomic Assumption, and the Assumption of Mutual Exclusivity. The Whole Object Assumption indicates that children will automatically associate a novel term with an entire object rather than a part of that object. This basic practice prevails unless there is significant evidence to reject the hypothesis.

The Taxonomic Assumption, which refers to categorization, postulates that children will extend a new label to something of the same kind rather than something which is thematically related to the known object. This hypothesis is paradoxical to the current standards in cognitive theory, as children are recognized for not classifying by taxonomic relations. However, with language, children consistently choose relations such as "cat" with "dog" rather than selecting the word "bone" to pair with "dog".

The third assumption refers to the Mutual Exclusivity of Words. Mutual Exclusivity not only helps children avoid redundant hypotheses, but it also assists a valid rejection of the Whole Object Assumption. For example, if a child assuredly knows the word for an entire object is "cup" then he or she can later learn the word "handle" for a part of a cup. In essence, this assumption gives children the liberty to consider both the situation and context in making an informed decision.

Professor Markman's studies at Bing Nursery School have addressed these three assumptions and have laid the foundation for contemporary theory in language acquisition. The resulting data indicate that three-year-old children do assign a novel term to a part of a familiar object, yet they associate that same novel term with the whole when the object is unfamiliar. Furthermore, as Markman skillfully refined the research procedure for 30- and 24- month old children, she has consistently proven that her hypothesis is solid throughout all of these stages of language development.

What is most striking about Ellen Markman's professional work is her outstanding ability to translate highly intellectual theory into experimentally sophisticated, yet practical studies. With her gift for understanding children, Professor Markman has insightfully studied language comprehension, rather than language production in children. She relies on abounding levels of competency in all children and believes they are naturally capable of making accurate inferences to master language.

As Professor Markman ended the evening, she reminded us as parents and as teachers that children do have an innate ability to learn language. Crediting all of the heroic efforts we contribute towards enhancing language acquisition, she focused once again on the child and all of the cognitive capabilities for critical thinking that he or she brings to the situation. She encouraged us to continue providing children with opportunities for learning language, and in following their interests, to "seize the moment" within the activity. As Markman asserts, this very organic method for learning is most beneficial to children.

Allowing children the opportunities to develop naturally, through their inherent curiosity, is also an integral philosophical component at Bing Nursery School. We are very honored to have Ellen Markman, a leading theorist in language acquisition, researching within our school. We appreciate the many benefits for our intellectual growth and teaching development that result from such an academically stimulating environment. Beyond this remarkable lecture, we offer sincere gratitude for Professor Markman's contributions in supporting the teachers and administrators at Bing in our efforts to provide the best possible learning environment for children.