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A logical problem

Converging on a target language

The lack of any certainty about the child learner’a experience leads to what is known as ‘the logical problem of language acquisition’.

No child knows what language he or she is learning or when he or she has heard everything he or she needs to hear in order to have learnt the language. Taking English as just one of six or seven thousand odd languages in the world, the learner has no guidance, no ‘privileged information’ as it is called by learnability theorists, on where his or her target language lies with respect to all the possible variations, like how many syllables there might be. Might there be one more, that he or she has yet to hear?

All languages allow syllables with a vowel as what is known as the ‘nucleus’. Some languages allow no syllables other than one vocalic nucleus and one consonant. This is known as the ‘unmarked’ case, with cases of more complex structure representing progressively higher degrees of markedness. English, as well as allowing words like strength, with three sounds before the nucleus and three after it, also allows L as the nucleus of an unstressed syllabie in words like little. The child learning English, with its high level of markedness in syllable structure, has to work out that these complex sequences are sequences, and not complex consonants.

Against this background, it is relevant that there is a much discussed language, Tashlhiyt, spoken in North Africa, sometimes called ‘Berber’ to the great dislike of the speakers. Tashlhiyt allows any consonant to constitute the nucleus of a syllable. It thus allows sentences consisting entirely of consonants like P, T, K, and S, and not a single vowel. Like Arabic, Tashlhiyt has three vowels. It has been the subject of various experiments. Now in English a syllable can end in CT as in pict, duct, tact, but only after short vowels. In “I walked there yesterday” and “He talked the talk” thee is the same seauence of sounds after a tense or long vowel. So the T sound of the ED can’t be part of the word, but might, from the learner’s perspective, be a separate self-standing element, as, in a sense, it is. But Tashlhiyt goes a number of steps further in allowing words and even complete sentences without a single vowel. It may be world-unique in this respect. This is one sort of uniqueness.

Robert Dixon reports a game in the Australian language, Arrernte, with an initial consonant and nucleus in one part of the syllable and a final consonant in the other part. With its syllable structure this way round, Arrernte may also be world-unique.

Arrernte and Tashlhiyt may represent the limit cases of markedness in the sound system, what is known as the ‘phonology’.

At the opposite extreme of familiarity, there are English auxiliaries. Take the sentences “He takes sugar” and in the past ‘tense’ as this is known, “He took sugar.” By what was once known as ‘Do support’ the category Tense is moved to the left in negatives and questions and realised in a form of the verb do in “Does he compete?” or “He didn’t compete”. No other widely studied language has anything quite like this (although there may be something like it in one Italian dialect). If Do support was only known from the last elderly inhabitants of a small island, reported by one investigator, the more typical case might be regarded as a universal, and the seemingly dying language of the elderly islanders as a response to the knowledge that one of them will one day be the only speaker. But English is, for now, a world language with high levels of markedness in both its system of auiliaries and its syllable structure. Both are accordingly hard for children to learn.