Childhood Language Development

  • Created by: iona_Cb
  • Created on: 21-11-21 15:45

Overview of Major Theories

Nativism - Language is innate; we are preprogrammed to acquire it

  • Theorists: Chomsky, Lenneberg
  • Case studies: Feral children (Genie), Nicaraguan Sign Langage, the Wug test

Behaviourism - Imitationi and positive/negative reinforcement develop language

  • Theorists: Pavlov, Skinner
  • Case studies: Pavlov's dog, Little Albert, Skinner's box

Cognitivism - Language develops as children's ideas about the world develop

  • Theorists: Piaget, Dore, Halliday

Social Interactionism - Adult carers adjusting their speech patterns can help to influence and improve children's early language

  • Theorists: Vygotsky, Bruner, Tomasello (usage-based linguistics)
  • Case studies: Child Directed Speech
1 of 28

Central Concepts of Nativism

  • All children have an inbuilt language acquisition device (LAD)
    • This allows them to extract a language's rules from what they hear
  • All languages share a similar grammatical structure - the universal grammar
    • For example, around 75% of languages have an SVO word order
    • You can't differentiate between newborn babies' babbling regardless of the language they will learn
  • There is a critical period during which the LAD must be activated, or else language development will be impaired
2 of 28

Chomsky's Theories

  • Language sets humans apart, as no other animals have grammar
  • Children learning to speak don't have enough information to form new, complex sentences
    • This is known as poverty of the stimulus
    • Therefore, there must be an innate component to language acquisition
  • There are inbuilt structures in our brains (the LAD) that help us to acquire grammar
3 of 28

Nicaraguan Sign Language

  • Research by Ann Senghas carried out in the late 80s
  • Deaf children in Nicaragua developed their own sign language
    • The adults around them did not use sign langage as they were not deaf
    • Therefore, there was no outside input
  • Suggests an innate capacity to create language, even with a sophisticated grammar
4 of 28


  • A family called the KEs shared a speech deficit
  • It impacted their linguistic but not their intellectual abilities
  • They all shared a mutation on the FOXP2 gene, leading researchers to theorise that this may be a 'language gene'
  • Others say that it is not sufficient proof
    • It may be a lack of muscular prowess, inhibiting sound production rather than communication
    • It does not explain sex differences in language acquisition
    • Not everyone with speech problems shares this same mutation - it could (and probably is) one of many speech-related genes
5 of 28

The Wug Test

  • Carried out by Jean Berko Gleason in 1958
  • Children were given made-up words and asked to use them in other contexts, e.g. by:
    • Pluralisation ('s' suffix)
    • Conjugation ('ed', 'ing' suffixes)
    • Making them possessive (''s' or ''' suffix)
  • Most (around 75%) did this successfully, showing that there is a level of innate knowledge to grammar - children can apply rules to new words without hearing them first
6 of 28

Feral Children


  • Found aged 13, having never been taught to speak or interacted with socially
  • Could not speak at all when found - was making 'infantile noises', with no verbal skills
  • She was able to learn vocabulary, but never acquired grammar
  • Many scientists think this was because the left cortex of her brain was not stimulted early enough, so was never able to fully develop


  • Found aged 4 (far younger than Genie), having lived with stray dogs
  • At age 6, he had the linguistic capabilities of a 3-year-old
  • He could relate to and empathise with others
  • He is likely to struggle socially, but as hew was found quite young, he may still fully develop language
7 of 28

Criticisms of Nativism

  • Tomasello and Bruner reject Chomsky's theories, especially the LAD and universal grammar
    • Tomasello has called him an 'armchair linguist'
  • Much of the work is theoretical, and not based on empiral scientific evidence
  • Clearly nurture has an impact on language (e.g. people speaking different languages, parental interaction, etc.)
8 of 28

Central Concepts of Behviourism

  • We learn language by imitating those around us, and through positive and negative feedback from caregivers
  • Classical conditioning is when a stimulus elicits a response as it is associated with a reward (e.g. praise) or a punishment (e.g. being told off)
  • Operant conditioning involves voluntary behaviours, and requires consequences to behaviour that do bnot occur every time the behaviour is carried out
  • Language mistakes which may need to be corrected include mispronunciation and overgeneralisation
    • These can be correct by recasting
  • Children learn through making mistakes (called virtuous errors), so too much punishment can inhibit language development as it stops children from trying new words or grammar
9 of 28

Little Albert

  • Carried out by Watson and Rayner in 1920
  • A  one-year-old child (Little Albert) was presented with a white rat
    • He expressed no response - this was a neutral stimulus
  • Then, he was presented with the rat while a loud bang was made, causing him to cry
  • When this was done continuously, he was classically conditioned to be afraid upon seeing the rat
    • This fear generalised to other similar stimuli, like fur coats or white wool
10 of 28

Skinner's Box

  • Carried out by B. F. Skinner in the 1950s
  • He placed hungy pigeons in a box and gave them food in response to certain voluntary behaviours (such as pecking at a bowl)
    • The food was not given every time they did this
    • They learnt that pecking led to food, and so were conditioned to make the conscious action of pecking for the postive reinforcement of food
  • This relates to how children imitate language (such as 'please pass the butter') and are rewarded for it (such as by being passed the butter), and so use the same language in the future
    • The positive reinforcement of praise can also be effective
11 of 28

Criticisms of Behaviourism

  • The Wug test shows that children learn grammars, not just vocabularies (supporting universal grammar)
  • Poverty of the stimulus means that there may not be enough input for imitation and reinforcement to be effective alone
  • Many behaviourist studies are done on animals, rather than humans
12 of 28

Central Concepts of Cognitivism

  • Mainly developed by Piaget, a developmental psychologist who studied children's developmental stages
  • Over time, they develop cognitively, and language development comes hand in hand with this
    • Object permanence is the knowledge that objects continue existing when you can't perceive them
    • Egocentricity is the inability to understand or empathise with others
    • Seriation is the ordering of objects or concepts
    • Abstract thinking is the consideration of abstract concepts
    • Deductive reasoning is drawing conclusions based on given evidence
  • A child's cognitive ability needs to be present for a child's language to respresent or reflect it
    • To use comparatives or superlatives, they must understand size and scale
    • To use prepositions, they must understand position and movement
    • For example, the development of concrete to abstract conceptual understanding correlates with abstract nouns and modal verbs developing later on
13 of 28

Cognitive Developmental Stages

  • Developed in 1926 by Piaget
  • Sensori-Motor Stage (birth -> 2 years)
    • Children develop senses through experiences and movement
    • They begin to develop object permanence
    • Learning to sit, crawl, stand, walk, and run leads to increased cognitive development
    • They are egocentric, with no theory of mind
  • Pre-operational Stage (2 years-> 7 years)
    • Lots of fantastical thinking
    • Learning to speak, and understand and use symbolism and paralanguage
    • Still quite egocentric
  • Concrete operational Stage (7 years -> 11 years)
    • Use of logic and concrete cognitive operations develops
    • Inductive reasoning
    • Understanding of conversation, seriation, and empathy
  • Formal operational Stage (12 years +)
    • Abstract concepts can be considered rationally
    • More compassion and understanding of identity and morality
    • Deductive reasoning develops
14 of 28

Halliday's Taxonomy

  • Developed by Halliday, shows the order in which children develop and use different functions of language
  • Language to fulfil physical, emotional, and social needs comes first
    • Instrumental (expressing needs)
    • Regulatory (persuading, telling, and requesting others to do something)
    • Interactional (making contact and forming relationships)
    • Personal (expressing feelings and opinions and establishing individual identity)
  • Language to fulfil environmental needs
    • Heuristic (gaining knowledge)
    • Imaginative (creating an imaginary environment)
    • Representational (conveying facts and information)
15 of 28

Dore's Infant Language Functions

  • Developed by Dore to show types of infant language functions, but not the order in which they appear
  • Labelling (assigning names to things)
  • Repeating (repeating an adult's words)
  • Answering (responding to someone)
  • Requesting action (asking for something to be done, or to do something)
  • Calling (getting attention)
  • Greeting (saying hello)
  • Protesting (objecting to the requests or actions of others)
  • Practising (using language alone)
16 of 28

Criticisms of Cognitivism

  • Piaget's research used very narrow samples, both ethnically and socio-economically
    • It was also carried out in a test environment, meaning they are unlikely to replicate children's day-to-day behaviour
  • William's Syndrome is a syndrome that impacts cognitive development, but not linguistic ability
  • Research shows that children are already not entirely egocentric by 18 months, meaning his stages were not entirely accurate
17 of 28

Central Concepts of Social Interactionism

  • Meaningful interaction with children is essential to language development
  • There is not an innate component to language
  • It is not just reinforcement, but meaningful language that teaches children (such as expansion)
18 of 28

Vygotsky's Theories

  • Suggested the importance of 'doing' in a child's development
  • A more knowledgeable other (MKO) is influential by supporting them from a position of more knowledge and understanding
    • They proved scaffolding to help direct the child into their zone of proximal development
19 of 28

Bruner's Theories

  • Rejected Chomsky's LAD and developed Vygotsky's research, focusing on the importance of a child's caregiver interaction
  • The Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) is the caregives and other important MKOs in a child's life
  • Focused on social situations
    • Child are presented with countless opportunities to acquire language
    • There is a need for quality input (such as explaining why something is the case)
20 of 28

Tomasello's Theories

  • Rejects Chomsky's universal grammar and language as an instinct
  • Says that the ability to learn language is inherently social, driven by the human disposition to be cooperative and collaborative
  • From 9 -> 12 months, children use a pattern-forming ability
    • They learn about different forms and functions of single words
    • They understand the intentional aspect of language
    • From this, they build generalisations about larger syntactic constructions or schemas
  • Had a usage-based model
21 of 28

Child Directed Speech

  • Adults speak to children in certain ways (this can be called 'motherese', and is not baby talk - it is real words, but used differently)
    • Melodic pitch
    • Simpler grammar
    • Repetition
    • More questions
    • Diminuitives
    • Use of nouns rather than pronouns, and plural pronouns
    • Politeness features and mitigated imperatives
    • Expansion and recasting
  • It is produced spontaneously and subconciously around babies, and may have had an evolutionary benefit, by comforting and soothing babies
    • It causes more activity in neurons, and makes newborns listen for longer
  • Research has found that hearing more words is not as benefical to childhood language development as hearing and taking more conversational turns
22 of 28

Criticisms of Social Interactionism

  • Babies can respond to language even when still in the womb, despite not having the opportunity for interaction
    • This also shows that CDS may not be essential
  • People instinctively develop language (such as Nicaraguan Sign Language) without outside interaction
23 of 28

Studies on Child Directed Speech

  • Nairan Ramirez-Esparza recorded American parents and babies interacting in their homes
    • They found that children who heard more CDS in one-to-one interactions at age 1 had larger vocabularies at age 2, suggesting it helps speech segmentation and hence leads babies to learn more words more quickly
    • There may be other factors, such as more overall parental interaction, more book-reading, or more play
  • Weiya Ma tested if one-year-old American babies could learn made-up words for objects they had never seen before
    • Half heard the labels in CDS-style speech, and half didn't; those who did recognised the words' meanings afterwards, but those who didn't did not
    • This was not ecologically valid, meaning that it may not be accurate to real-world learning, where children learn words over an extended period of time
  • Catherine Laing recorded British mothers reading picture books to their babies in the home
    • Mothers used more CDS when saying onomatopoeic words, which babies tend to learn a lot more quickly
24 of 28

The WEIRD problem

  • Many linguistic studies are done in WEIRD countries
    • This means they are prdominantly white, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic
  • Alex Cristia found that Bolivian children from the Tsimane population had only 1 minute of adult interaction per waking hour
  • Maria Casillas found that Tseltal Mayan children growing up in Southern Mexico heard only a third of the amount of speech directed specifically at them as what middle class children growing up in the USA heard
    • These children had similar language skills to North American children
  • Studies like these challenge the necessity of CDS, and highlight the necessity of cross-cultural research in ecologically valid situations
25 of 28

Bellugi on Spoken Acquisition

  • 1966 - negative acquisition
    • First: using a name instead of a pronoun
    • Second: recognising a difference between subject and object pronouns but not being able to apply it
    • Third: correctly applying this difference
  • 1966 - question formation
    • First: placing a negative word at the beginning of an utterance
    • Second: moving the word within the body of an utterance
    • Third: attaching it to auxiliary verbs or the copula verb 'to be'
  • 1971 - pronoun acquisition
    • First: rising intonation of single then multiple words
    • Second: inversion of auxiliary verbs
    • Third: formulaic 'wh-' questions
    • Fourth: use of tag questions. This may come later as they are often used to support conversations, which caregivers are more likely to do when using CDS then their children
26 of 28

Brown's Stages of Language Development

  • In 1973, Roger Brown developed five stages of language development which focused on grammaticaly development in terms of morphology and syntax
  • He looked at mean length of utterance (MLU), which is a broad way of exploring a participant's input and can be link to a discussion of dominance
  • 15-30 months
    • No bound morphemes, generally correct word order, MLU of 1.75
  • 28-36 months
    • Appearance of bound morphemes, present progressive tense, regular '-s' plurals, MLU of 2.25
  • 36-42 months
    • Possessives, adjectives, adverbs, articles 'a' and 'the', MLU of 2.75
  • 40-46 months
    • Regular past tense, MLU of 3.5
  • 42-53 months
    • Compound sentences, MLU of 4.0
27 of 28

Other Theories on Spoken Acquisition

  • Sinclair & Coulhard (1975)
    • CDS helps children to become aware of adjacency pairs via initiation, response, feedback structure, or IDF structure
  • Eve Clark
    • Children can use overextension, applying a more specific word to label a general word (e.g. 'daddy' to refer to all men)
      • Analogical overextension is when a child makes links due to properties or use (e.g. all spherical objects are 'balls')
      • Categorical overextension is when all words in a category are referred to as the same (e.g. all clothes are 'dresses')
    • Underextension is less frequent, and is using a general word for a specific object or thing (e.g. 'apple' only for green apples)
    • These could be said to indicate an innate capacity to make sense of language, by finding connections and similarities between words
  • Jean Aitchison (1987)
    • Children's semantic development occurs by first labelling (making a link between the sounds of words and the objects they refer to), then packaging (understanding a word's range of meanings), then network building (grasping connections between words)
28 of 28


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Language resources:

See all English Language resources »See all Child language acquisition resources »