Language Development in Early Childhood

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain language development and the importance of language in early childhood
  • Describe Vygotsky’s model, including the zone of proximal development

Language Development

A man reads a book to a toddler sitting next to him

Figure 1. Reading to young children helps them develop language skills by hearing and using new vocabulary words.

A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of two to six from about 200 words to over 10,000 words through a process called fast-mapping. Words 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 tend to learn verbs more readily, but those learning less verb-friendly languages such as English seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai, et als, 2008). Children are also very creative in creating their own words to use as labels such as a “take-care-of” when referring to John, the character on the cartoon Garfield, who takes care of the cat.

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, two preschool-aged girls began to laugh loudly while listening to a tape-recording of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” when the narrator reports, “Prince Phillip lost his head!” They imagine his head popping off and rolling down the hill as he runs and searches for it. Or 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!”

Overregularization

Children learn the rules of grammar as they learn the language. Some of these rules are not taught explicitly, and others are. Often when learning language intuitively children apply rules inappropriately at first. But even after successfully navigating the rule for a while, at times, explicitly teaching a child a grammar rule may cause them to make mistakes they had previously not been making. For instance, two- to three-year-old children may say “I goed there” or “I doed that” as they understand intuitively that adding “ed” to a word makes it mean “something I did in the past.” As the child hears the correct grammar rule applied by the people around them, they correctly begin to say “I went there” and “I did that.” It would seem that the child has solidly learned the grammar rule, but it is actually common for the developing child to revert back to their original mistake. This happens as they overregulate the rule. This can happen because they intuitively discover the rule and overgeneralize it or because they are explicitly taught to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense in school. A child who had previously produced correct sentences may start to form incorrect sentences such as, “I goed there. I doed that.” These children are able to quickly re-learn the correct exceptions to the -ed rule.

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).

Vygotsky and education

Target showing three concentric circles. The center circle as what a learner can do, the next circle as the zone of proximal development, or what the learner can do with guidance, and the outer ring showing what the learner cannot do.

Figure 2. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development represents what a student can learn with the proper support.

Vygotsky’s theories do not just apply to language development but have been extremely influential for education in general. Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term scaffolding, it is often credited to him as a continuation of his ideas pertaining to the way adults or other children can use guidance in order for a child to work within their ZPD. (The term scaffolding was first developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross while applying Vygotsky’s concept of ZPD to various educational contexts.)

Educators often apply these concepts by assigning tasks that students cannot do on their own, but which they can do with assistance; they should provide just enough assistance so that students learn to complete the tasks independently and then provide an environment that enables students to do harder tasks than would otherwise be possible. Teachers can also allow students with more knowledge to assist students who need more guidance. Especially in the context of collaborative learning, group members who have higher levels of understanding can help the less advanced members learn within their zone of proximal development.

The following video shows how Vygotsky’s theory applies to learning in early childhood:

You can view the transcript for “Vygotsky’s Developmental Theory: An Introduction (Davidson Films, Inc.)” here (opens in new window).

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.

watch it

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.

You can view the transcript for “Beyond the 30 Million Word Gap” here (opens in new window).

Try It

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.

GLOSSARY

fast-mapping:
a word-learning process in which new words are rapidly learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known
overregulation:
a process in learning a language in which children overgeneralize rules to words where the rule is not applicable
private speech:
speech that a child says aloud, but which is not meant to be part of communication with anyone else
zone of proximal development:
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

Contribute!

Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More