Children are born into a world full of noises and sounds of all sorts (music, car engines, slamming doors, whistling, coughing, crying, conversation, and so on). Somehow, they have to take the part that is speech, break it down into its smaller parts (words, prefixes, suffixes, etc.), determine what they mean, and figure out how to reassemble them in new ways.
Doing this involves mastering a system of sounds, words, structure and meaning whose intricacy typically defeats even the most gifted adult learners. Yet children get the job done before they learn to tie their shoes. How do they do it?
There's still no real solution to this puzzle, although bits and pieces of the answer are starting to emerge. And as this happens, it's becoming clear that certain widely held ideas about how language learning works are probably dead-ends.
The job of this chapter is to try to sort out the difference between the ideas that make sense and those that don't. We'll start by looking at the popular idea that children learn language by imitating their parents.
Why it's not imitation
Ask the average person how a child learns language and you'll probably be told “by imitating adults.” On the face of it, that makes a lot of sense. The adults in a child's life speak a particular language, and the child ends up speaking that language too.
Imitation of some sort probably is involved in certain aspects of language acquisition. Take words, for example.