Jean Berko and the experience of “wugs”

Jean Berko’s wugs experience it was a real milestone in the history of psycholinguistics. By introducing artificial words to young children, Berko showed that even in the very early stages of life, we are able to extract rules of language and apply them to unfamiliar words.

In this article, we will see what the background of the experiment was, how it was carried out and what exactly was discovered through it.

    Biography of Jean Berko

    Jean Berko was born in 1931 in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1958, after studying history, literature and linguistics, he obtained his doctorate from Harvard University with a study in the field of psycholinguistics which would be hugely influential to include the so-called “wug experiment”, which we will describe in detail in the next section.

    Berko spent most of his career at Boston University, where he worked as a teacher until a few years ago. She is currently retired from this profession, although continues to engage in research in the field of psycholinguistics.

    In addition to his studies and work on language development in the early stages of life, Berko’s work also includes research on vocabulary, aphasia, the acquisition of routines in children, and the differences between the language of mothers. and that of the fathers.

      The wugs experience

      In his most famous research, which would later become known as the “Wug Experiment,” Berko worked with girls and boys ages 4-7. His goal was analyze children’s ability to understand the rules of language (Specifically adding inflectional suffixes) and applying them to new words.

      To do this, he showed experimental subjects pictures of objects and activities to which artificial words such as names had been given. The most famous example is that of the “WUG”, a bluish being and vaguely resembling that of a bird; in this case, a single WUG was taught first, then two equal designs.

      The test itself consisted of presenting the children unfinished sentences that had to be completed by declining the pseudo-reflection In the question. The text that accompanied the first drawing of the WUG read “This is a WUG”; under the image of the two wugs it read “Here we have another WUG. Now there are two. We have two …”. The children had to answer “wugs”.

      In addition to plurals, Berko studied verb conjugations (e.g., the past simple), possessives, and other common declensions of the English language. With his experience, he has shown that young children have already learned the rules of their mother tongue and are able to use them in words they do not know.

      He further found that at a very young age children can apply the rules to familiar words but not to pseudo-lords; he deduces that first the declensions of each word are learned separately, and at a later stage the ability to deduce linguistic models and apply them to new words.

        Implications for language acquisition

        The experience of wugs has refuted the idea that language is acquired by imitating the words of others and the reinforcement obtained by speaking them. At the time, this hypothesis was defended by many theorists of learning, in particular in behavioral orientation.

        Since the children who participated in the experiment did not know the artificial words before the test, the fact that they were right to decline them necessarily implies that they knew the basic rules of their language. After Berko other researchers have generalized these results in different languages ​​and contexts.

        After its publication, the results of this experiment had a very significant influence on the study of language. Today, Berko’s findings are firmly rooted in the scientific theory of language acquisition.

        Other contributions from Berko

        Berko’s other research can also be included in psycholinguistics, although this author has shown interest in many facets of language and its broad influence on learning and behavior.

        1. Studies on aphasia

        Aphasia is a disorder consisting of very marked difficulty in using expressive and / or receptive language. It is usually due to brain injury and its specific characteristics depend on the location of the damage, so several types of aphasia have been described.

        Along with Goodglass, Bernholtz and Hyde, Berko argued that the language problems of aphasia cannot be explained by the presence of stable grammatical errors, nor by the intentional omission of words to reduce speech effort.

          2. Language differences between mothers and fathers

          In a 1975 study, Berko found that adults’ interaction with young children seemed to vary based on their gender: while men gave more orders and reflected more traditional gender roles, women have adapted their speech more to the characteristics of the child.

          Although Berko wanted to generalize these results to the language of mothers and fathers in general, the truth is that the experiment sample only included three couples with children and four daycare teachers, two of whom were women and two men.

          3. Acquisition of routines in childhood

          Berko conceptualized routines as verbal patterns, sometimes accompanied by gestures, that young children internalize under the influence of the cultural context in which they grow up. they particularly stand out his studies on behaviors of “good manners”, Like to greet, say goodbye, thank or apologize.

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