Language Development

Language is a system of communication that uses symbols in a regular way to create meaning. Language gives us the ability to communicate our intelligence to others by talking, reading, and writing. Although other species have at least some ability to communicate, none of them have language.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you know it’s not easy. There are new rules of grammar that come with many exceptions, new sounds that are hard to make, endless lists of vocabulary to commit to memory and so on. And yet, you managed to learn the basics of your very first language around the time you were two years old; no textbooks in sight.
Not only are children able to absorb the complicated rules of grammar without formal teaching, they do so from a limited vocabulary. Regardless of how much a child is spoken to, they will not hear every possible word and sentence by the time they begin speaking. Yet when they do start to talk, children begin to follow grammatical rules and apply them to form new, innovative phrases. This level of information processing is incredibly impressive in anyone, much less someone still figuring out counting and skipping!

Given the remarkable complexity of a language, one might expect that mastering a language would be an especially arduous task; indeed, for those of us trying to learn a second language as adults, this might seem to be true. However, young children master language very quickly with relative ease. B. F. Skinner (1957) proposed that language is learned through reinforcement. Noam Chomsky (1965) criticized this behaviorist approach, asserting instead that the mechanisms underlying language acquisition are biologically determined. The use of language develops in the absence of formal instruction and appears to follow a very similar pattern in children from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It would seem, therefore, that we are born with a biological predisposition to acquire a language (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011). Moreover, it appears that there is a critical period for language acquisition, such that this proficiency at acquiring language is maximal early in life; generally, as people age, the ease with which they acquire and master new languages diminishes (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Lenneberg, 1967; Singleton, 1995).

There are many components of language that will now be reviewed.

The Structures of Language

All languages have underlying structural rules that make meaningful communication possible. Every language is different. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (“red house”), whereas in Spanish, the adjective comes after (“casa [house] roja [red].”) In German, you can put noun after noun together to form giant compound words; in Chinese, the pitch of your voice determines the meaning of your words; in American Sign Language, you can convey full, grammatical sentences with tense and aspect by moving your hands and face. But all languages have structural underpinnings that make them logical for the people who speak and understand them.

image

Figure 3.9.1. Major levels of linguistic structure. This diagram outlines the relationship between types of linguistic units. Speech sounds make up phonemes, which make up words. Words make up sentences, which have literal meanings and contextual meanings.

Phoneme

phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that makes a meaningful difference in a language. This small sound may cause a change of meaning within a language, but that doesn’t have meaning by itself. For example, in the words “bake” and “brake,” only one phoneme has been altered, but a change in meaning has been triggered. The phoneme /r/ has no meaning on its own, but by appearing in the word it has completely changed the word’s meaning. In spoken languages, phonemes are produced by the positions and movements of the vocal tract, including our lips, teeth, tongue, vocal cords, and throat, whereas in sign languages phonemes are defined by the shapes and movement of the hands.

Phonemes correspond to the sounds of the alphabet, although there is not always a one-to-one relationship between a letter and a phoneme (the sound made when you say the word). For example, the word “dog” has three phonemes: /d/, /o/, and / g /. However, the word “shape,” despite having five letters, has only three phonemes: /sh/, /long-a/, and /p/. There are hundreds of unique phonemes that can be made by human speakers, but most languages only use a small subset of the possibilities. English contains about 45 phonemes, whereas other languages have as few as 15 and others more than 60. The Hawaiian language contains fewer phonemes as it includes only 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and 7 consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, and w).

Babies can discriminate among the sounds that make up a language (for example, they can tell the difference between the “s” in vision and the “ss” in fission); early on, they can differentiate between the sounds of all human languages, even those that do not occur in the languages that are used in their environment. However, they lose their ability to do so as they get older; by 10 months of age, they can only discriminate among those phonemes that are used in the language or languages in their environments (Jensen, 2011; Werker & Lalonde, 1988; Werker & Tees, 1984). Phonemes that were initially differentiated come to be treated as equivalent (Werker & Tees, 2002).

Morpheme

Whereas phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language, a morpheme is a string of one or more phonemes that makes up the smallest units of meaning in a language. Thus, a morpheme is a series of phonemes that has a special meaning. If a morpheme is altered in any way, the entire meaning of the word can be changed. Some morphemes are individual words (such as “eat” or “water”). These are known as free morphemes because they can exist on their own. Other morphemes are prefixes, suffixes, or other linguistic pieces that aren’t full words on their own but do affect meaning (such as  the “-s” at the end of “cats” or the “re-” at the beginning of “redo.”) Because these morphemes must be attached to another word to have meaning, they are called bound morphemes.

Semantics

Semantics refers to the set of rules we use to obtain meaning from morphemes. For example, adding “ed” to the end of a verb makes it past tense.

Grammar and Syntax

Because all language obeys a set of combinatory rules, we can communicate an infinite number of concepts. While every language has a different set of rules, all languages do obey rules. These rules are known as grammar. Speakers of a language have internalized the rules and exceptions for that language’s grammar. There are rules for every level of language—word formation (for example, native speakers of English have internalized the general rule that -ed is the ending for past-tense verbs, so even when they encounter a brand-new verb, they automatically know how to put it into past tense); phrase formation (for example, knowing that when you use the verb “buy,” it needs a subject and an object; “She buys” is wrong, but “She buys a gift” is okay); and sentence formation.

Syntax is the set of rules of a language by which we construct sentences. Each language has a different syntax. The syntax of the English language requires that each sentence have a noun and a verb, each of which may be modified by adjectives and adverbs. Some syntaxes make use of the order in which words appear. For example, in English “The man bites the dog” is different from “The dog bites the man.”

Pragmatics

The social side of language is expressed through pragmatics, or how we communicate effectively and appropriately with others. Examples of pragmatics include turn- taking, staying on topic, volume and tone of voice, and appropriate eye contact. Lastly, words do not possess fixed meanings but change their interpretation as a function of the context in which they are spoken. We use contextual informationthe information surrounding language, to help us interpret it. Examples of contextual information include our knowledge and nonverbal expressions such as facial expressions, postures, and gestures. Misunderstandings can easily arise if people are not attentive to contextual information or if some of it is missing, such as it may be in newspaper headlines or in text messages.

Pre-Linguistic Pragmatics

Video 3.9.1. Talking Twin Babies demonstrates how children can learn and use pragmatics even before they can produce language.

Language Development Progression

Children begin to learn about language from a very early age (Table 3.9.1). In fact, it appears that this is occurring even before we are born. Newborns show a preference for their mother’s voice and appear to be able to discriminate between the language spoken by their mother and other languages. Babies are also attuned to the languages being used around them and show preferences for videos of faces that are moving in synchrony with the audio of spoken language versus videos that do not synchronize with the audio (Blossom & Morgan, 2006; Pickens, 1994; Spelke & Cortelyou, 1981).

Table 3.9.1. Stages of Language and Communication Development
Stage Age Developmental Language and Communication
1 0–3 months Reflexive communication
2 3–8 months Reflexive communication; interest in others
3 8–12 months Intentional communication; sociability
4 12–18 months First words
5 18–24 months Simple sentences of two words
6 2–3 years Sentences of three or more words
7 3–5 years Complex sentences; has conversations

Intentional Vocalizations

In terms of producing spoken language, babies begin to coo almost immediately. Cooing is a one-syllable combination of a consonant and a vowel sound (e.g., coo or ba). Interestingly, babies replicate sounds from their own languages. A baby whose parents speak French will coo in a different tone than a baby whose parents speak Spanish or Urdu. These gurgling, musical vocalizations can serve as a source of entertainment to an infant who has been laid down for a nap or seated in a carrier on a car ride. Cooing serves as practice for vocalization, as well as the infant hears the sound of his or her own voice and tries to repeat sounds that are entertaining. Infants also begin to learn the pace and pause of conversation as they alternate their vocalization with that of someone else and then take their turn again when the other person’s vocalization has stopped.

At about four to six months of age, infants begin making even more elaborate vocalizations that include the sounds required for any language. Guttural sounds, clicks, consonants, and vowel sounds stand ready to equip the child with the ability to repeat whatever sounds are characteristic of the language heard. Eventually, these sounds will no longer be used as the infant grows more accustomed to a particular language.

At about 7 months, infants begin Babbling, engaging in intentional vocalizations that lack specific meaning and comprise a consonant-vowel repeated sequence, such as ma-ma-ma, da-da- da. Children babble as practice in creating specific sounds, and by the time they are 1 year old, the babbling uses primarily the sounds of the language that they are learning (de Boysson- Bardies, Sagart, & Durand, 1984). These vocalizations have a conversational tone that sounds meaningful even though it isn’t. Babbling also helps children understand the social, communicative function of language. Children who are exposed to sign language babble in sign by making hand movements that represent real language (Petitto & Marentette, 1991).

Gesturing

Children communicate information through gesturing long before they speak, and there is some evidence that gesture usage predicts subsequent language development (Iverson & Goldin-Meadow, 2005). Deaf babies also use gestures to communicate wants, reactions, and feelings. Because gesturing seems to be easier than vocalization for some toddlers, sign language is sometimes taught to enhance one’s ability to communicate by making use of the ease of gesturing. The rhythm and pattern of language is used when deaf babies sign just as it is when hearing babies babble.

Examples

Video 3.9.2. Baby Sign Language demonstrates how infants can be taught sign language to communicate before they can speak. Most infants will begin gesturing on their own around 10 months old, but infants can be taught gestures, like signs, before they are 6 months old.

Receptive Language

At around ten months of age, the infant can understand more than he or she can say, which is referred to as receptive language. You may have experienced this phenomenon as well if you have ever tried to learn a second language. You may have been able to follow a conversation more easily than contribute to it. One of the first words that children understand is their own name, usually by about 6 months, followed by commonly used words like “bottle,” “mama,” and “doggie” by 10 to 12 months (Mandel, Jusczyk, & Pisoni, 1995).

Infants shake their head “no” around 6–9 months, and they respond to verbal requests to do things like “wave bye-bye” or “blow a kiss” around 9–12 months. Children also use contextual information, particularly the cues that parents provide, to help them learn language. Children learn that people are usually referring to things that they are looking at when they are speaking (Baldwin, 1993), and that that the speaker’s emotional expressions are related to the content of their speech.

Productive Language

Children begin using their first words at about 12 or 13 months of age and may use partial words to convey thoughts at even younger ages. These one word expressions are referred to as holophrasic speech. For example, the child may say “ju” for the word “juice” and use this sound when referring to a bottle. The listener must interpret the meaning of the holophrase, and when this is someone who has spent time with the child, interpretation is not too difficult. But, someone who has not been around the child will have trouble knowing what is meant. Imagine the parent who to a friend exclaims, “Ezra’s talking all the time now!” The friend hears only “ju da ga” to which the parent explains means, “I want some milk when I go with Daddy.”

First words and Cultural Influences

First words if the child is using English tend to be nouns. The child labels objects such as cup, ball, or other items that they regularly interact with. In a verb-friendly language such as Chinese, however, children may learn more verbs. This may also be due to the different emphasis given to objects based on culture. Chinese children may be taught to notice action and relationships between objects, while children from the United States may be taught to name an object and its qualities (color, texture, size, etc.). These differences can be seen when comparing interpretations of art by older students from China and the United States.

Two-word Sentences and Telegraphic Speech

By the time they become toddlers, children have a vocabulary of about 50-200 words and begin putting those words together in telegraphic speech, such as “baby bye-bye” or “doggie pretty”. Words needed to convey messages are used, but the articles and other parts of speech necessary for grammatical correctness are not yet used. These expressions sound like a telegraph, or perhaps a better analogy today would be that they read like a text message. Telegraphic Speech/Text Message Speech occurs when unnecessary words are not used. “Give baby ball” is used rather than “Give the baby the ball.”

Language Errors

The early utterances of children contain many errors, for instance, confusing /b/ and /d/, or /c/ and /z/. The words children create are often simplified, in part because they are not yet able to make more complex sounds of the real language (Dobrich & Scarborough, 1992). Children may say “keekee” for kitty, “nana” for banana, and “vesketti” for spaghetti because it is easier. Often these early words are accompanied by gestures that may also be easier to produce than the words themselves. Children’s pronunciations become increasingly accurate between 1 and 3 years, but some problems may persist until school age.

A child who learns that a word stands for an object may initially think that the word can be used for only that particular object, which is referred to as UnderextensionOnly the family’s Irish Setter is a “doggie”, for example. More often, however, a child may think that a label applies to all objects that are similar to the original object, which is called Overextension. For example, all animals become “doggies”.

Link to Learning

Read this article to learn more about common linguistic mistakes that children make and what they mean: 10 Language Mistakes Kids Make That Are Actually Pretty Smart.

Child-Directed Speech

Why is a horse a “horsie”? Have you ever wondered why adults tend to use “baby talk” or that sing-song type of intonation and exaggeration used when talking to children? This represents a universal tendency and is known as child-directed Speech. It involves exaggerating the vowel and consonant sounds, using a high-pitched voice, and delivering the phrase with great facial expression (Clark, 2009)Why is this done? Infants are frequently more attuned to the tone of voice of the person speaking than to the content of the words themselves, and are aware of the target of speech. Werker, Pegg, and McLeod (1994) found that infants listened longer to a woman who was speaking to a baby than to a woman who was speaking to another adult. It may be in order to clearly articulate the sounds of a word so that the child can hear the sounds involved. It may also be because when this type of speech is used, the infant pays more attention to the speaker and this sets up a pattern of interaction in which the speaker and listener are in tune with one another.

Watch It

Video 3.9.3. This video examines new research on child-directed speech.

 Vocabulary

A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of two to six from about 200 words to over 10,000 words. This “vocabulary spurt” typically involves 10-20 new words per week and is accomplished through a process called fast-mappingWords are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, learn verbs more readily, while those speaking English tend to learn nouns more readily. However, those learning less verb-friendly languages, such as English, seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai et al., 2008).

One of the reasons that children can classify objects in so many ways is that they have acquired a vocabulary to do so. By fifth grade, a child’s vocabulary has grown to 40,000 words. It grows at a rate that exceeds that of those in early childhood. This language explosion, however, differs from that of younger children because it is facilitated by being able to associate new words with those already known, and because it is accompanied by a more sophisticated understanding of the meanings of a word.

Children can repeat words and phrases after having heard them only once or twice, but they do not always understand the meaning of the words or phrases. This is especially true of expressions or figures of speech which are taken literally. For example, a classroom full of preschoolers hears the teacher say, “Wow! That was a piece of cake!” The children began asking “Cake? Where is my cake? I want cake!”

Those in middle and late childhood are also able to think of objects in less literal ways. For example, if asked for the first word that comes to mind when one hears the word “pizza”, the younger child is likely to say “eat” or some word that describes what is done with a pizza. However, the older child is more likely to place pizza in the appropriate category and say “food”. This sophistication of vocabulary is also evidenced by the fact that older children tell jokes and delight in doing do. They may use jokes that involve plays on words such as “knock- knock” jokes or jokes with punch lines. Young children do not understand play on words and tell “jokes” that are literal or slapstick, such as “A man fell down in the mud! Isn’t that funny?”

30 Million Word Gap

To accomplish the tremendous rate of word learning that needs to occur during early childhood, it is important that children are learning new words each day. Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the late 1990s and early 2000s indicated that children from less advantaged backgrounds are exposed to millions of fewer words in their first three years of life than children who come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. In their research, families were classified by socioeconomic status, (SES) into “high” (professional), “middle” (working class), and “low” (welfare) SES. They found that the average child in a professional family hears 2,153 words per waking hour, the average child in a working-class family hears 1,251 words per hour, and an average child in a welfare family only 616 words per hour. Extrapolating, they stated that, “in four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.” The line of thinking following their study is that children from more affluent households would enter school knowing more words, which would give them advantage in school.

Hart and Risley’s research has been criticized by scholars. Critics theorize that the language and achievement gaps are not a result of the number of words a child is exposed to, but rather alternative theories suggest it could reflect the disconnect of linguistic practices between home and school. Thus, judging academic success and linguistic capabilities from socioeconomic status may ignore bigger societal issues. A recent replication of Hart and Risley’s study with more participants has found that the “word gap” may be closer to 4 million words, not the oft-cited 30 million words previously proposed. The ongoing word gap research is evidence of the importance of language development in early childhood.

Video 3.9.4. Watch as Dr. John Gabrieli, from the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Development explains how early language exposure affects language development. His research uses the current technology to correlate home language experiences with brain function. They determined that the number of conversational turns was more important to development in Broca’s area (brain region linked to speech production) than the number of words heard or the family’s socioeconomic status.

Grammar and Flexibility

Older children are also able to learn new rules of grammar with more flexibility. While younger children are likely to be reluctant to give up saying “I goed there”, older children will learn this rather quickly along with other rules of grammar.

Bilingualism

Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are Bilingualmeaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers- Sutton, 2005). Even in the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 47 million people speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 million of these people are children or youths in public schools (United States Department of Commerce, 2003). The large majority of bilingual students (75%) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than a hundred different language groups from around the world. In larger communities throughout the United States, it is therefore common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once. In classrooms, as in other social settings, bilingualism exists in different forms and degrees. At one extreme are students who speak both English and another language fluently; at the other extreme are those who speak only limited versions of both languages. In between are students who speak their home (or heritage) language much better than English, as well as others who have partially lost their heritage language in the process of learning English (Tse, 2001). Commonly, a student may speak a language satisfactorily but be challenged by reading or writing it. Whatever the case, each bilingual student poses unique challenges to teachers.

The student who speaks both languages fluently has a definite cognitive advantage. As you might suspect and research confirmed, a fully fluent bilingual student is in a better position to express concepts or ideas in more than one way, and to be aware of doing so (Jimenez, Garcia, & Pearson, 1995; Francis, 2006). Unfortunately, the bilingualism of many students is unbalanced in the sense that they are either still learning English, or else they have lost some earlier ability to use their original, heritage language. Losing one’s original language is a concern as research finds that language loss limits students’ ability to learn English as well or as quickly as they could do. Having a large vocabulary in a first language has been shown to save time in learning vocabulary in a second language (Hansen, Umeda & McKinney, 2002). Preserving the first language is important if a student has impaired skill in all languages and therefore needs intervention or help from a speech-language specialist. Research has found, in such cases, that the specialist can be more effective if the specialist speaks and uses the first language as well as English (Kohnert, Yim, Nett, Kan, & Duran, 2005).

Watch It

Video 3.9.5. This video explains some of the research surrounding language acquisition in babies, particularly those learning a second language.

Theories of Language Development

Psychological theories of language learning differ in terms of the importance they place on nature and nurture. Remember that we are a product of both nature and nurture. Researchers now believe that language acquisition is partially inborn and partially learned through our interactions with our linguistic environment (Gleitman & Newport, 1995; Stork & Widdowson, 1974).

Video 3.9.6. Theories of Language Development discusses the major theories of how language develops in children.

Learning Theory

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation of language development is that it occurs through the principles of learning, including association and reinforcement (Skinner, 1953). Additionally, Bandura (1977) described the importance of observation and imitation of others in learning language. There must be at least some truth to the idea that language is learned through environmental interactions or nurture. Children learn the language that they hear spoken around them rather than some other language. Also supporting this idea is the gradual improvement of language skills with time. It seems that children modify their language through imitation and reinforcement, such as parental praise and being understood. For example, when a two-year-old child asks for juice, he might say, “me juice,” to which his mother might respond by giving him a cup of apple juice.

However, language cannot be entirely learned. For one, children learn words too fast for them to be learned through reinforcement. Between the ages of 18 months and 5 years, children learn up to 10 new words every day (Anglin, 1993). More importantly, language is more generative than it is imitativeLanguage is not a predefined set of ideas and sentences that we choose when we need them, but rather a system of rules and procedures that allows us to create an infinite number of statements, thoughts, and ideas, including those that have never previously occurred. When a child says that she “swimmed” in the pool, for instance, she is showing generativity. No adult speaker of English would ever say “swimmed,” yet it is easily generated from the normal system of producing language.

Other evidence that refutes the idea that all language is learned through experience comes from the observation that children may learn languages better than they ever hear them. Deaf children whose parents do not speak ASL very well nevertheless are able to learn it perfectly on their own, and may even make up their own language if they need to (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1998). A group of deaf children in a school in Nicaragua, whose teachers could not sign, invented a way to communicate through made-up signs (Senghas, Senghas, & Pyers, 2005). The development of this new Nicaraguan Sign Language has continued and changed as new generations of students have come to the school and started using the language. Although the original system was not a real language, it is becoming closer and closer every year, showing the development of a new language in modern times.

Nativism

The linguist Noam Chomsky is a believer in the nature approach to language, arguing that human brains contain a Language Acquisition Device that includes a universal grammar that underlies all human language (Chomsky, 1965, 1972). According to this approach, each of the many languages spoken around the world (there are between 6,000 and 8,000) is an individual example of the same underlying set of procedures that are hardwired into human brains. Chomsky’s account proposes that children are born with a knowledge of general rules of syntax that determine how sentences are constructed. Language develops as long as the infant is exposed to it. No teaching, training, or reinforcement is required for language to develop as proposed by Skinner.

Chomsky differentiates between the deep structure of an idea; that is, how the idea is represented in the fundamental universal grammar that is common to all languages, and the surface structure of the idea or how it is expressed in any one language. Once we hear or express a thought in surface structure, we generally forget exactly how it happened. At the end of a lecture, you will remember a lot of the deep structure (i.e., the ideas expressed by the instructor), but you cannot reproduce the surface structure (the exact words that the instructor used to communicate the ideas).

Although there is general agreement among psychologists that babies are genetically programmed to learn language, there is still debate about Chomsky’s idea that there is a universal grammar that can account for all language learning. Evans and Levinson (2009) surveyed the world’s languages and found that none of the presumed underlying features of the language acquisition device were entirely universal. In their search they found languages that did not have noun or verb phrases, that did not have tenses (e.g., past, present, future), and even some that did not have nouns or verbs at all, even though a basic assumption of a universal grammar is that all languages should share these features.

Critical Periods

Anyone who has tried to master a second language as an adult knows the difficulty of language learning. Yet children learn languages easily and naturally. Children who are not exposed to language early in their lives will likely never learn one. Case studies, including Victor the “Wild Child,” who was abandoned as a baby in France and not discovered until he was 12, and Genie, a child whose parents kept her locked in a closet from 18 months until 13 years of age, are (fortunately) two of the only known examples of these deprived children. Both of these children made some progress in socialization after they were rescued, but neither of them ever developed language (Rymer, 1993). This is also why it is important to determine quickly if a child is deaf, and to communicate in sign language immediately. Deaf children who are not exposed to sign language during their early years will likely never learn it (Mayberry, Lock, & Kazmi, 2002). The concept of critical periods highlights the importance of both nature and nurture for language development.

Brain Areas for Language

For the 90% of people who are right-handed, language is stored and controlled by the left cerebral cortex, although for some left-handers this pattern is reversed. These differences can easily be seen in the results of neuroimaging studies that show that listening to and producing language creates greater activity in the left hemisphere than in the right. Broca’s areaan area in front of the left hemisphere near the motor cortexis responsible for language production (Figure 3.21). This area was first localized in the 1860s by the French physician Paul Broca, who studied patients with lesions to various parts of the brain. Wernicke’s areaan area of the brain next to the auditory cortexis responsible for language comprehension.

Figure 3.9.2. Drawing of Brain Showing Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas for most people the left hemisphere is specialized for language. Broca’s area, near the motor cortex, is involved in language production, whereas Wernicke’s area, near the auditory cortex, is specialized for language comprehension.

Video 3.9.7. Language and the Brain reviews major brain structures and functions involved in language.

Interactionist Approach

The interactionist approach (sociocultural theory) combines ideas from psychology and biology to explain how language is developed. According to this theory, children learn language out of a desire to communicate with the world around them. Language emerges from, and is dependent upon, social interaction. The Interactionist approach claims that if our language ability develops out of a desire to communicate, then language is dependent upon whom we want to communicate with. This means the environment you grow up in will heavily affect how well and how quickly you learn to talk. For example, infants being raised by only their mother are more likely to learn the word “mama”, and less likely to develop “dada”. Among the first words we learn are ways to demand attention or food. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you may recognize this theory’s influence. Language classes often teach commonly used vocabulary and phrases first, and then focus on building conversations rather than simple rote memorization. Even when we expand our vocabularies in our native language, we remember the words we use the most.

Social pragmatics

Language from this view is not only a cognitive skill but also a social one. Language is a tool humans use to communicate, connect to, influence, and inform others. Most of all, language comes out of a need to cooperate. The social nature of language has been demonstrated by a number of studies that have shown that children use several pre-linguistic skills (such as pointing and other gestures) to communicate not only their own needs but what others may need. So a child watching her mother search for an object may point to the object to help her mother find it.

Eighteen-month to 30-month-olds have been shown to make linguistic repairs when it is clear that another person does not understand them (Grosse, Behne, Carpenter & Tomasello, 2010). Grosse et al. (2010) found that even when the child was given the desired object, if there had been any misunderstanding along the way (such as a delay in being handed the object, or the experimenter calling the object by the wrong name), children would make linguistic repairs. This would suggest that children are using language not only as a means of achieving some material goal, but to make themselves understood in the mind of another person.

Vygotsky and Language Development 

Lev Vygotsky hypothesized that children had a zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is the range of material that a child is ready to learn if proper support and guidance are given from either a peer who understands the material or by an adult. We can see the benefit of this sort of guidance when we think about the acquisition of language. Children can be assisted in learning language by others who listen attentively, model more accurate pronunciations and encourage elaboration. For example, if the child exclaims, “I’m goed there!” then the adult responds, “You went there?”

Children may be hard-wired for language development, as Noam Chomsky suggested in his theory of universal grammar, but active participation is also important for language development. The process of scaffolding is one in which the guide provides needed assistance to the child as a new skill is learned. Repeating what a child has said, but in a grammatically correct way, is scaffolding for a child who is struggling with the rules of language production.

Private Speech

Do you ever talk to yourself? Why? Chances are, this occurs when you are struggling with a problem, trying to remember something or feel very emotional about a situation. Children talk to themselves too. Piaget interpreted this as egocentric speech or a practice engaged in because of a child’s inability to see things from other points of view. Vygotsky, however, believed that children talk to themselves in order to solve problems or clarify thoughts. As children learn to think in words, they do so aloud before eventually closing their lips and engaging in private speech or inner speech. Thinking out loud eventually becomes thought accompanied by internal speech, and talking to oneself becomes a practice only engaged in when we are trying to learn something or remember something, etc. This inner speech is not as elaborate as the speech we use when communicating with others (Vygotsky, 1962).