Roger William Brown was the John Lindsley Professor in Memory of William James at Harvard University and recipient of numerous awards, including the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the American Psychological Association and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.
Such widespread recognition was prompted by both the substantive range of Brown’s scholarship and research and the distinctively felicitous style of his writing. That range encompassed social psychology (including a “Citation Classic” textbook), linguistics, and cognition (notably, his groundbreaking Words and Things), but most importantly in this context, the acquisition of language. Here, in a sense rarely as accurate in the history of science, Roger Brown was the founder of the field of language development.
Two facts support such a characterization. One is the lineage of central figures in the study of language development who were all Brown students (from Dan Slobin and others in the 1960s to Steven Pinker and others in the 1970s and 1980s). These researchers have testified to how, collectively and individually, Brown’s intellectual and interpersonal gifts gracefully shaped their ways of working.
The other barometer of Brown’s influence comes in the shape of conceptual issues and empirical generalizations that emerged from the research he and his students conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. Best exemplified by A First Language (another “Citation Classic”), such ideas and findings—and the associated fine-grained analysis of extensive language samples from a few children—formed much of the core framework for the subsequent study of language acquisition. That framework and influence are no less heuristically significant today.
Brown’s style of research and writing was a style as elegantly oriented toward story-telling as it was out of step with psychology’s “scientistic tendencies”; in his third-person words, “when he graduated from. . . high school in 1943, Brown’s ambition was to become a novelist of social protest, like Upton Sinclair.” That he later decided “he was not talented enough to be a creative writer” is for continuing generations of students of language development, and many others, to celebrate.
- Brown, W. (1958). Words and things. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Brown, W. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Kessel, F. S. (Ed.). (1988). The development of language and language researchers: Essays in honor of Roger Brown. Hillsdale, NJ: