Your last word
And how complexity is relative
Although all languages have complexities, the complexities should be judged, not from the perspective native speakers of some other language, but from the perspective of the child learning that language in the natural way, from parents, older siblings, adult relatives, and other adults in the child’s environment. What may seem like an extreme complexity from a non-native speaker’s perspective may be much less so from a child’s.
These variable complexities may be in any area of the language. Some of these may be important to senses of identity, as by the story in the Bible about being able to say shibboleth – or not – with fatal consequences for those unable to pass in that particular case.
At least one of the main structural categories, namely what are known as ‘nouns’, appears to be universal across languages. In all languages there are words for mother, father, child. Similarly all languages have sounds or ‘phonemes’ and, ways of forming them and putting them together. The variation is not infinite. Some properties are universal across languages.
In all languages it seems to be meaningful to ask, “What was the last word you said?” In the context of languages like Turkish and Mohawk, the answer may seem more like an English sentence or part of a sentence. But there is still a notion of a word, even though the definition of a word may seem to vary from language to language. In other words, the instantiations of the structures vary. This obviously represents what may be a learnability challenge – more so for some children than others.
Whatever sort of language a child is learning, he or she has to work out whether or not tone or intonation is used to distinguish words or properties of the grammar, and start doing this at the very beginning of learning the first words. And if the child learning English gets this wrong, the input will seem chaotically disorganised because the same word will seem to have an unlimited number of tones – with the effect that words will not be learnt. So there will be no words to put together.
So speech and language development is partly a matter of knowing which aspects of the input to disregard – for the purpose of sorting out the grammatical structures of English, largely, though not completely, disregarding tone.
In a slightly less extreme way, if a child is sounding babyish or can’t be understood, it may be that he or she is just failing to recognise one or more aspects of the structure, and collapsing things together in some inappropriate way, perhaps recognising words and one aspect of the sound structure within them, but nothing else. Such speech can be profoundly unintelligible.
In normal development, the two year old may fail to distinguish between the vowel or nucleus of the syllable and the ‘rime’ or the nucleus and a following consonant. This is often known as ‘final consonant deletion’. The effect is that words like put and push are not distinguished. They may both be said something like PUH – without the H sound. Or more drastically, the child may also fail to distinguish between the rime and the syllable itself with the effect that there is no place for an initial consonant, or ‘onset’ – with the effect that put is said as UT and push as USH. This is often known as ‘initial consonant deletion’. It is much further from normal speech development, and may be considered as reasonable grounds for intervention. Or the child’s system may recognise only the nucleus, with both words said as UH. This might be characterised as ‘consonant deletion’ and a clearer indication of the need for intervention.
But ‘deletion’ may be the wrong analysis. It may be that it is not consonants which are getting deleted, but that there is nowhere for one or the other of these categories to be pronounced.
On such an analysis, there is a naturally corresponding therapeutic goal of allowing the child’s system to represent the unpronounced category or categories.
All of the factors here fall within the scope of what is known as ‘learnability‘.
More generally, it seems that some children are somehow aware of the extraordinary complexity of speech and language, and just reluctant to talk. This is not so much delay or disorder as much as caution. But at a certain point, some encouragement may be appropriate.Obviously, it is hard to tell where caution stops and disability or misrepresentation starts. But it seems to me worth recognising the difference.