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Gopnik –
Language deficits
Language deficits and
genetic factors
M. Gopnik
effortlessly. theN are some children who find
__. . . a difficult and arduous task. This group of subjects resembhts a
‘ment and has the potential to provide us with insights into the nature of
biolOgical basis of language. The data show that this disorder is associated with
In genetic fadors that can lead to neurological abnormalities. Our studies of the
istic details of language impairment in English, French, Greek and Japanese have
to conclude that affeded individuals cannot construd normal representations
….ex words nor can they construd the rules which should operate on these
s. These data are inconsistent with any explanation in terms of auditory
processing, Therefore. we must conclude that a genetic disorder can
abflltY to builcl a notn’UlIl grammar.
Amost all children acquire language quickly and easily,
much as rhey learn to walk uptight. They may stumble at
neurological anomalies come from? Gallagher and Watkin
have used new ultra-sound techniques to image brain de-
the very beginning, but very soon they are off on their own,
doing it expertly without any specific instruction. The tact
that grammars are so complex and children acquire them so
velopment in the last trimester of fetal development. They
looked at one fetus from a family with a history oflanguage
easily led Chomsky to conjecture that children must come
equipped with an innate system that tells them how to
build a grammar. Although most children acquire the rules
of their language without any conscious effort, there are a
few children who do not acquire language easily’:”, Many
of these language-impaired individuals have problems with
particular parts of language even when they are adults. For
instance, they cannot reliably produce the past tense of a
verb, something that four-year-olds can do without a problem. For example, when asked to complete the following
sentences: ‘Every day he walks eight miles. Yesterday he …. ‘
or ‘He always friks outside. As usual, yesterday he …. ‘ they
problems and compared it with three fetuses from families
without a history of language disorder. The data produced
suggested that fetuses from families with language impairment have a different pattern of brain development in the
last trimester of gestation compared with fetuses from families not at risk for language impairment”. This all points to
certain genetic factors affecting neurological development
which in turn affects the ability to acquire language.
There is no doubt that a disorder affecting language development exists. There is a large clinical population of
would not be able to answer.
children that clearly find language difficult although they
have normal auditory acuity, non-verbal and psycho-social
skills. It is also true that some, but not all, of these children
Genetics and neurology
Interestingly, evidence indicates that this disorder might be
do have other problems; these range from dyslexia to problems with spatial rotation, depression and an inability to
related to genetic factors and could also be associated with
certain neurological anomalies. Epidemiological studies have
shown that if one member of a family has this language
problem it is likely that another membet of the family will
also have the same problem”!”. Additionally, studies com-
identify which finger is being touched when their hands are
hidden from view. However, none of these other deficits reliably occurs with the language disorder and there are many
individuals that have one of these other problems without
paring identical rwins with fraternal rwins show that if one
identical rwin has this language disorder the likelihood of
the other rwin also having the problem is about 85%; if the
rwins are fraternal the likelihood of them both having the
disorder drops to 45% (Refs 9,11). Magnetic resonance
imaging studies of the brains of individuals with a family
history of rhis language disorder have shown that it is associated with neurological anomalies” “. Where do these
having any language disorder. The question is whether the
language problems that we see in these individuals come
from a separate and special ‘language faculty’ that is out of
order or whether some more general cognitive or perceptual
processing system is not functioning and the purported
‘language’ problems are merely a result of a breakdown in a
much more general system.
In 1990 I reported, in Nature, on a family in England
in which half of the members had particular difficulcies
Copyright © 1997, Elsevier Science Ltd. All riqhts reserved. 1364-6613/97/$17.00
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol
PII: S1364-6613(97)01005-X
1, No.1,
April 1997
M. Gopnikis in the
Department of
Linguistics, McGill
University, 1001
Sherbrooke St West,
Montreal, Cansd«;
H3A IG5.
tel: +’1 5143983155
fax: +1 5143987088
Gopnik –
Language deficits
Table 1. Ability to produce tense marking (% correct)
% correct
Subjects were given items like: Everyday I walk to school. Just like everyday, yesterday I. … This task requires the subject to
recognize that the temporal context specified in the second sentence requires a particular verb form.
with certain aspects of English II,. Since then we have studied
dozens of language-impaired families. We have sent native
speakers to Greece to gather the data from language-impaired
Greek speakers and to Japan to gather the Japanese data. In
Canada we have tested both English speakers and French
Japanese and Greek subjects and they all show the same
pattern of impairment, The language-impaired subjects are
speakers. In some extended families one branch are native
speakers of English and another branch are native speakers
generally good at the same language tasks, such as recognizing that an item like ‘zashed’ is not a word in English, and
of French. The linguistic data are remarkably convergent
across these linguistically diverse populations (J. Dalalakis,
PhD Thesis, McGill University, Canada. 1996; P. Royle, MA
Thesis. McGill University, Canada, 1996; H. Goad and
C. Rebellari. unpublished observations)”!” ,… These data
bad at the same tasks, such as producing tense-marking. It
has been suggested that if these subjects have problems with
processing sound they might miss the small sounds at the
end of verbs (e.g. in English I-dl) that mark the past
have led us to conclude that language-impaired subjects do
not construct the same sorts of complex representations for
words as their unaffected relatives and, therefore, they can-
have problems with tense we should say they have problems
with hearing or pronouncing the final I-dl and that, in turn,
causes them to make errors in tense-marking. If that were
not use the grammatical rules that operate on these complex
representations. Moreover, these linguistic problems often
cluster in families. I have often been misinterpreted as
true, it would show that their problem was not with tense at
all, but rnerelv with perceiving or articulating the sound
claiming that a separate gene exists for grammar – I do not.
The data, however, do indicate that particular properties of
language can be impaired and that this impairment is associated with genetic factors that, in turn. have consequences
tense”:”. If this were the case, instead of saying that they
that encodes tense. But their problem with tense is not restricted to English; the subjects with language problems
have difficulties with tense in all the populations we have
looked at (see Table 1).
What is particularly interesting is that the way tense is
for neurological development.
Not everybody agrees with our hypothesis that the dif-
encoded in these other languages is quite different from
English. For example, Greek has many more different forms
ficulties that these subjects have with language are a direct
result of the problems that they have with building linguistic
representations and rules. There are three major kinds of
objections raised by those who think that: (1) these subjects
of the verb than any of the other languages (about 60 for
regular verbs as compared with about four in English). Therefore, there are many more ways to get the tense wrong in
Greek than there are in English, and the Greek data reflect
do have a problem with building grammars but we are mistaken about what part of the grammar is broken I ” ; (2) the
this fact. In French the final syllable is stressed, so that the
tense ending is easy to hear. In Japanese it is even more ob-
crucial problem lies with auditory or articulatory processing
vious because certain tenses are marked by multisyllabic inflections. I know, from personal experience, that some of
and the apparent problems with language are really an indirect result of these non-linguistic processing difficulties'” 12′;
and (3) the problem with language is a reflection of a more
general problem in the cognitive system. Each of these other
explanations makes specific predictions about what precisely
these inflections are extremely easy to hear, even for a nonspeaker of Japanese. ‘X’hen I was in Japan I watched the
news on TV and the one recurring word that I heard was
‘rnashira. The next day I asked my host what ‘rnashira’
should go wrong with language and what else should be wrong
with these subjects. but unfortunately the cross-linguistic
meant. He looked confused and then laughed; ‘rnashira’, it
rums alit, is the polite past-tense inflection (it was rather
data are not consistent with these alternative models.
like asking what the word ‘ing’ means in English). So the
problems with tense that Japanese language-impaired subjects have cannot be caused by an auditory processing problem. This is not true even in English because the English
subjects also get irregular verbs, like go/went, wrong, and
they make the same kinds of mistakes in tense no matter
how they are tested: in writing, in reading, in grammatical
judgements and in grammatical ratings 2 ] – .”’ .
The data
To make our argument convincing we have to show that
this disorder affects those aspects of language that reflect
impaired rules and representations. We also have to show
that these linguistic problems are not related to the peculiar
shape of any particular language, but occur across languages
that have very different properties. In addition. we must
demonstrate that the differences that are observed between
impaired and unimpaired subjects, when they are consciously
processing language, also show up when they are unconsciously
processing the same sorts of items.
To date, we have extensive data from English, French,
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol
It is true that they sometimes produce the past tense
or plural forms in spontaneous speech. This has led some
researchers to postulate that they have the rule for forming
Gopnik – Language deficits
the past tense but they just do not know exactly when rhev
have to use it. However, the fact that they sometimes use
the word ‘walked’ does not show that they represent it in
the same way as the normal grammar does: that is, the stem
‘walk’ plus the inflection for past tense ‘-ed’. We have investigated this in detail and several different and independent
sources of evidence show that the language-impaired subjects treat words, even inflected words, as whole unanalyzed
chunks. For them the word ‘walked’ is simply a single word
‘These are … ‘
‘This is a wug’
that means ‘to move in the past’, AliI can do here is give a
small selection from our results.
One simple test to see whether they have a productive
rule for making inflected forms is to give them a novel word,
that they could never have heard before, and provide a context in which it has to undergo some grammatical rule (see
Fig, I), We tried this out for several grammarical forms in all
of our populations. In every single rest the impaired subjects
were significantly worse than the controls (see Table 2).
These data show clearly and convincingly that the
language-impaired subjects are significantly worse than unimpaired subjects for every grammatical task and for every
language population. However, if they really do not have a
‘Na enas pondik6s.’
(Here is a mouse)
‘Na enas anthropos pu … ‘
(Here is a man who
becomes a mouse. We
call him … )
Fig. 1 For production of novel forms.
make it ‘sasss’ with a prolonged l-si: given rug’ they produce
‘wug-s’ instead of the normal form ‘wugz’: given ‘rob’ they
productive rule then you might wonder, not how they get it
produce ‘rob-ES’ with the final sound pronounced as if they
wrong sometimes, but how they ever get any right. A very
careful phonetic analysis of the forms that are counted as
were naming the letter they had been taught to add. Some-
correct English plurals and past tenses in Table 1 shows that
many of the seemingly correct forms that are produced by
the language-impaired subjects are not strictly correct at ail”:”.
The forms that the language-impaired subjects are producing are very different from the rule-governed forms produced by the controls. For example, the impaired subjects
seem to know that there has to be an I-s/-like sound at the
end of a word when it refers to more than one object (not
surprising, since most of them have spent many hours in
speech therapy where they have been explicitly taught to
‘add an I-sl when there is more than one’). So when they are
given the novel word ‘sas’ they simply add an I-sl sound and
times it appears that they search their mental lexicon ro find the
closest real sounding word that ends with a sibilant I-s/-like
sound, whether or not this sound actually encodes plurality.
For example, when given the word ‘brorn’ they produce the
word ‘bronze’ which has a slightlv different nasal sound, but
has the I-s/-like sound that they are searching for. When you
control for these kinds of errors their success rate drops to
lOO;(l. This is not an impressive success rate, especially as the
‘add an I-sl’ strategy will, in some cases, produce a form that
sounds just like the expected form even though it is produced
via a different route. What this shows is that if you do not have
the normal route available to acquire language, you can find
some orher way to solve the problem. It will not do it as quickly
Table 2. Ability to mark novel words grammatically (% correct)
Past tense
English (in England)
English (in Canada)
English (in England)
English (in Canada)
English (in England)
In each of these tests the subjects were given a context which required that a grammatical rule be applied to a novel word:
This pencil is weff. This pencil is even ..
Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol
1. No
April 1997
Gopnik –
Language deficits
or as well, but it will make a start. All of these cross-linguistic
data from novel forms tell the same story: the languageimpaired subjects do not know how to use the resources of
their language to automatically produce new forms.
Another interesting example involves the production of
compounds and diminutives in Greek. To produce these
forms you must be able to separate the root from the inflection. Language-impaired Greek subjects cannot do this;
they do not recognize that Greek words have complex internal structures” (J. Dalalakis, Thesis, McGill University,
Canada, 1996).
impairments. There is no reliable correlation between any
specific cognitive problem and the language deficit. In addition,
nobody has shown how the cognitive problems which a few
of them do have. such as low-performance IQ or problems
with spatial rotation, could directly result in a problem with
inflecting novel words. It is much more likely that the
genetic disorder causes abnormal neurological development
and these neurological anomalies, in turn, can affect different cognitive and perceptual processes. If this is true, then
the linguistic problems may co-occur with any number of
other deficits without being directly caused by any of them.
So far, all of the tests considered have required the subjects
to process language consciously. If these impaired subjects
do have complex internal representations of words and pro-
What do we know? Some people are born with the inabiliry
ductive rules that operate on these representations, but do not
to acquire some of the specific grammatical aspects of their
have any way of consciously manipulating the knowledge that
native language and this inability, from all indications, is
they have, then our conclusions could be wrong. If this were
associated with one or more genetic factors which control
true, the inflected forms that they produce in spontaneous
neurological development. It looks as ifDatwin was right again
speech might be produced by the correct productive rule,
when he said: ‘man has an instinctive tendency to speak.’:”
but they would not have the resources ro manipulate these
rules consciously. There are a lot of data showing that people
who have brain injuries often still have implicit knowledge
that they have no way of explicitly accessing. To test whether
1 Van der lely. H. and Harris, M. (1990) Comprehension of reversible
sentences in specifically language impaired children 1. Speech Lang.
this could be the case with the language-impaired subjects
we developed tests in which the subjects were consciously
Dis. 55,101-117
2 Bishop, D.v.M. (1992) The underlying nature of specific language
Impairment J. Child Psycho/. Psychiatry 33. 3-66
doing one task while we were testing another. In these tests,
the subjects think that they are merely judging whether a
3 Clahsen, H. (1992) linguistic perspectives on specific language
impairment Theorie des Lexikons, Arbeitspapier 37, Heinrich Heine
word on the computer screen is a real word in their language
or not – a task that they are good at. What we are really test-
4 leonard, l. (1994) Some problems facing accounts of morphological
ing is whether they process linguistically complex words, like
deficits in children with specific language impairment, in Specific
past forms or diminutives, differently from simple forms. The
Language Impairments in Children (Watkins. R.v. and Rice, M.l., eds),
on-line processing data from English, French and Greek
show that the impaired subjects actually do unconsciously
Paul H. Brookes
5 Rice, M.l. (1994) Grammatical categories of children with specific
language impairments, in Specific Language Impairments in Children
process words differently from their unimpaired relatives”:”.
The controls take longer to process grammatically complex
(Watkins, R.v. and Rice, M.l.. eds), pp. 69-90, Paul H. Brookes
6 Gopnik,
or ‘zash’: the language-impaired subjeers process both simple
7 Pembrey, M. (1992) Genetics and language disorders, in Specific
Speech and Language Disorders in Children (Fletcher, P. and Hall, D.,
and complex words at the same rate. Whether you look at
eds), Singular Publishing Group
their off-line performance or their on-line performance they
8 Tomblin, J.B. and Buckwalter, P.R.(1994) Studies of genetics of specific
seem ro be oblivious to the fact that words can be made up
language impairment, in Specific Language Impairments in Children
(Watkins, R.V. and Rice, M.l., eds), pp. 17-34, Paul H. Brookes
of sub-parts and that these sub-parts can be operated on by
9 Tomblin, B. Epidemiology of specific language impairment, in The
rules at a higher level.
Inheritance and Innateness o …
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