A creation of the mind of children

Steven Pinker once said that “Language is essentially a creation of the mind of children.” He also referenced, in his book “The Language Instinct”, a study that showed that when you try to teach children Esperanto (an early artificially constructed attempt at a “universal language”), the children spontaneously start to fix it — they immediately start to change the language itself rather than learning to speak it. Esperanto does not conform to the meta-grammar common to all natural languages. It is not naturally learnable by children.

Yesterday J. Peterson commented on my post about using on-line games as a way to get kids around the world to each other their respective languages. The comment focused on the idea of introducing a shared invented language — perhaps Esperanto, or Klingon, or Elvish. It’s not prohibitively difficult to create such a language. There are even books out there to help you along, such as “In the Land of Invented Languages” by Arika Okrent and “The Language Construction Kit” by Mark Rosenfelder.

Yet I see a problem with this approach: Such languages, unlike the hundreds of naturally evolved languages, are not “naturally learnable” by young minds. Children don’t just naturally learn an arbitrary language — they will only naturally learn languages that have the features found in natural languages like English, French, Chinese, Swahili, etc.

I could see getting a group of small children to devise a new shared natural language on-lline, much as a community of children spontaneously created Hawaiian Creole, or Nicaraguan Sign Language. Such a project could be very interesting, although it’s not immediately clear how one would go about doing that. I’m just not sure what advantage it would have over simply getting children to play shared games in which they learn each other’s natural language.

2 thoughts on “A creation of the mind of children”

  1. When I last visited Northwestern (2006) I suggested to Bruce Gooch they consider using Everquest 2 to teach French. Everquest 2 has great voice actors and robust language libraries to allow playing in French. Northwestern’s Yolanda Rankin came up with a clever idea. Use Everquest 2 to teach ESL to Asian students. It worked beautifully.

    I also mentioned this idea to John Smedley and Raph Koster during Microsoft Gamefest. They were both enthused and worked with Yolanda.


  2. I still think language learning/inventing come from necessities, like the Hawaiian kids in playgrounds needed to play with each other 🙂 Full physical immersion still seems the fastest and complete (like my kids now with French grandparents) but I guess one could make a computer program or glasses/headphones which translates absolutely everything you see and you hear in daily life into French, all day 🙂

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