Learning a language is a pretty interesting ability. It’s a messy business and not always do all words mean exactly what they say. Although it may seem pretty natural to the average human, it’s quite foreign to linguists who understand the minutest aspects of the words and map sentences in a way that makes sentences to understand how the brain works, how societies function, and how humans develop, says Heather Littlefield of the College of Science at Northeastern University.
“My research questions are based on syntax which is word structure and ordering and how we put words together to create sentences,” says Littlefield. “So, what I do is use what we know about the acquisition to test syntactic hypotheses or frameworks.” She breaks down the process of kids acquire a language- starting with words having concrete meaning like mom, ball, bottle, etc., the words that hold these together like “The,” or “or.” Traditionally, linguists categorize these words as “lexical” and the latter “functional.” Every word we speak was thought to fit into one category or the other.
However, later, some words were observed to fall into both categories. So people started calling these bizarre words like “on,” “up,” and “under” as “semi-lexical.” This bugged Littlefield. “If functional is defining syntax and lexical is defining semantics, then to say that lexical is the opposite of functional doesn’t really work, because they’re really two different things,” she explained.
She said that instead of being relegated to categories, words should be qualified by their features. Functional should be one feature and lexical another. Then words could have some or none of either feature. This structure allows for two more new “categories,” words that have both functional and lexical qualities (semi-functional) and words that have neither.
Her model then revealed that as kids, we start to learn the -F/+L words, traditionally called “lexical.” In the case of prepositions, these are words like down and up. Next, we learn the idiomatic words, which have neither functional nor lexical qualities, like blow up (meaning to explode) and then the functional words, which can’t purport to have any kind of tangible meaning at all like piece of paper.
In the future, Littlefield hopes to find out how these words are all acquired by second-language learners. When we’re learning a foreign language, do we acquire words in the same categorical pattern as to when we’re kids learning our first language?