Critical periods in language learning

During our second meeting, we discussed critical periods in language acquisition, connecting it to the Poverty of the Stimulus argument, with contributions from Stuart Washington and Robert Grimm. Animals, especially songbird and bats, were discussed as valuable models to investigate critical periods in tightly controlled settings that are not possible with humans. Then, we delved more into human language per se, starting from the Poverty of the Stimulus argument to discuss whether language needs a genetic, innate component, connecting it to research on critical periods.
The abstracts of the four presentations follows:

Stuart Washington (Georgetown University): A Brief Overview of the Neurobiology of Critical Periods

Abstract:  Psychology and linguistics are replete with examples demonstrating that the level of language exposure early in life (i.e., before the age of 5) dictates language proficiency later in life.  However, such behavioural observations raise intriguing questions but offer few answers about the neurobiological underpinnings of such "critical periods."  Since it is generally unethical to perform rigorous cellular and molecular neurobiological experiments on healthy humans, we must turn to animal models.  This presentation will discuss the structural and functional changes that occur in the brain following the acquisition of audio-vocal social communication abilities.  This lecture will focus primarily on neurobiological research on songbirds and how it has been related to the neural substrates of critical periods for speech and language in humans.  Given that they also have complex audio-vocal communication and have closer phylogenetic proximity to humans than to birds, we shall also discuss the fledgling field of auditory communication in bats and how it may also inform our knowledge of human-language critical periods.

 

Robert Grimm (UA): The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument in Language Acquisition -- History and current developments

Abstract: This talk provides an overview of and introduction to the poverty of the stimulus argument in language acquisition. Briefly, the argument is that there may not be sufficient information contained in the language children are exposed to in order for them to eventually arrive at adult linguistic competence; and that therefore, humans are likely born with rich innate linguistic knowledge. We will trace the historical genesis of this idea and survey some of the most recent evidence, with an emphasis on critical evaluation.