Language acquisition

It has often been said that the childhood is a creation of the modern period. Indeed, ancient and medieval sources occlude discussions of the first age of the human individual, the baby and toddler years. Premodern representations of children emphasise size, rather than any other features, to designate youngsters. From the baby in the cradle or in the mother’s arms, the human child stands on her two feet like a miniature adult. Artistic sensitivity to early youth is very low in this period. That’s because the child, the argument goes, doesn’t really exist.

And yet, there are occasional medieval reflections on the childhood years of human existence. And they are instructive. Instead of launching into a survey of literary sources for ancient and medieval childhood (there are numerous books on the topic, anyway), I’ll focus on language acquisition.

Plato was one of the earliest thinkers ever to discuss the humans’ innate ability to acquire and use language. While his ideas were extremely influential through the ages, his observations were purely theoretical. He didn’t invite Socrates or any of his other thoughtful dialogists to talk about their or any other people’s children’s ability to acquire speech. We’d have to wait for St Augustine to give us an early glimpse on what happens when children are in the presence of speech and how they might acquire it. And not any children, but himself as a child. Introspective autobiography meets empirical observation.

In the first book of his Confessions, Augustine describes his infancy and the moment he started to acquire human speech. The account is remarkable:

I remember this, and I afterwards observed how I first learned to speak, for my elders did not teach me words in any set method, as they did letters afterwards; but myself, when I was unable to say all I wished and to whomsoever I desired, by means of the whimperings and broken utterances and various motions of my limbs, which I used to enforce my wishes, repeated the sounds in my memory by the mind, O my God, which Thou gavest me. When they called anything by name, and moved the body towards it while they spoke, I saw and gathered that the thing they wished to point out was called by the name they then uttered; and that they did mean this was made plain by the motion of the body, even by the natural language of all nations expressed by the countenance, glance of the eye, movement of other members, and by the sound of the voice indicating the affections of the mind, as it seeks, possesses, rejects, or avoids. So it was that by frequently hearing words, in duly placed sentences, I gradually gathered what things they were the signs of; and having formed my mouth to the utterance of these signs, I thereby expressed my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me the signs by which we express our wishes, and advanced deeper into the stormy fellowship of human life, depending the while on the authority of parents, and the beck of elders. (Confessions, Book I, chapter 8)

Augustine’s realism is unsurpassed. He understood that non-verbal behaviour and imitation are at the heart of the child’s ability to acquire speech and understanding. Nor was he ignorant of the fact that expressing one’s will is ultimately a speech act, something we might call, following John Langshaw Austin, a locutionary act. First-language acquisition is a matter of identifying signs and making them your own.

Almost a millennium later, Dante picked up Augustine’s ideas and incorporated them into his theory of natural language which he laid out in his essay De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the eloquence of the vernacular language), the world’s first treatise on historical linguistics. Dante was the first to point out that the mother tongue has qualities that an artificial language such as Latin (check my previous posts if you’re offended or confused by my use of the word artificial), or other acquired languages such as French or Provençal, do not. One’s mother tongue feels closer to home, is a language of the heart, acquired from close interaction with one’s mamma and babbo, the homely Italian words Dante uses for mother and father. While it may lack the precision and efficiency of a conventional language such as Latin (at least in Dante’s time when the vernaculars had not achieved literary status), the mother tongue is part of one’s identity and constitute’s one’s cultural legacy to future generations.

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