Language Development

English Language AQA A

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Before birth

DeCasper and Spence (1986) found that babies sucked on their dummies more when their mothers read to them the same story that they'd also read aloud during the last 6 months of pregnancy

Mehler et al (1988) found that 4 day old french babies increased sucking on their dummy, showing interest or recognition when they heard french as opposed to italian or english. this suggested that they had acquired some awareness of the sounds of french

Fitzpatrick (2002) found that the heart rate of a baby slowed when it heard its mother's voice

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vocal chords and cooing stage

  • period between birth and first word is known as pre-verbal stage
  • crying is the first main vocal expression a baby makes- makes the caregiver awate the baby needs something
  • isn't a concious act on the baby's part it is more a instinctive response

Cooing stage- when the baby forms sounds

  • 6 to 8 weeks old
  • small range of sounds
  • starts with vowels like /u/ and /a/
  • then start to produce extended vowel combinations like ooo and aaah
  • start to use velar consonants (back of tongue) like /k/ and /g/
  • sounds don't carry meaning baby is just experimenting with sound
  • sounds become more defined and are strung together
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  • 6 months old
  • repeated consonant/ vowel combinations like ma-ma-ma and ba-ba-ba, repeating sounds is know as reduplicated or canonical babbling
  • variegated babbling= sounds not repeated e.g. goo-gi-goo-ga
  • constants usually get in reduplicated or variegated babling are h,w,j,p,b,m,t,d,n,k,g
  • research has shown that deaf babies who've had some exposure to sign language will babble with their hands showing babbling is an innate activity
  • most people argue babbling is a continuation of the baby's experimental sounds creation rather than the production of sounds which carry meaning
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Babbling stage

  • when babies start to babble the number of different phonemes they produce increases- phonemic expansion
  • later this is reduced- phonemic contraction- this is the when the baby starts to concentrate on reproducing the phonemes it hears in its native language
  • it's at this stage (about 10 months old) that children of different nationalities start to sound different

intonation patterns

  • even in early stages some babies will use rhythms that resemble the speech pattern of adults- recognisable inotation in strings of phonemes

production of first word

  • eventually certain combinations of consonants and vowels start to carry meaning- proto-words, these are not words but function like them
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Phonological development

  • children learn vowels and consonants at different speeds
  • most children will be able to use all the vowels in English by the time they are 2 1/2
  • they might not use all the consonants confidently until they are 6 or 7
  • the earliest consonants mastered tend to be m,n,p,h,t,k
  • the latest tend to be the /th/ sounds
  • children find using consonants at the beginning of words (word-initial) easier than consonants at the end of words (word-final)
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learning to pronounce things properly is difficult but children can still communicate by making a simplier version which applies mainly to consonants:

  • Deletion- childs drops a consonant all together, particularly ar end of word e.g. cat--> ca
  • Substitution- child replace consonant with one easier to say e.g. legs --> wegs,  cup --> tup
  • cluster reduction- where there are consonant clusters a child may drop one of the consonants for example green--> geen

Berko and Brown reported what they referred to as the fis phenomenon

  • a child referred to his plastic fish as fis
  • when an adult asked is this your fis? the child said no, stating instead it was his fis. When the adult asked is this your fish? the child replied yes, my fis
  • this suggests that children can recognise and understand a wider range of phonemes than they can produce
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Other features in phonological development

  • Addition- when vowel is added to the end of the word e.g. dog --> dogu
  • Assimilation- when one consonant in a word is changed because of the influence of another in the same word e.g. tub --> bub
  • Reduplication- when a phoneme is repeated like moo-moo (cow)
  • voicing- when voiceless consonants like p,t,f,s are replaced by their voiced equvialents b,d,v,s e.g. sock ---> zok
  • De-voicing- when voiced consonants are replaced by their voiceless equivalents e.g. bag --> pag

It takes longer to develop intonation

  • Cruttenden (1985) proved it takes longer to understand the complexities of stress and intonation he found that 10 year olds had difficulty distinguishing between:
    • she dressed, and fed the baby (she dressed herself, and fed the baby
    • she dressed and fed the baby (she dressed the baby and fed it too)
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Function's of children's language- Halliday

At first, a child can get responses or reacions by using proto-words, after a while they start to use recognisable words which have different functions.

Halliday (1975) states that the early language of children has 7 functions

  • Instrumental- to get something e.g. 'go toily' means 'i want to go to the toilet'
  • Regulatory- make requests or give order e.g. 'not your teddy' means 'leave my teddy alone'
  • Interactional- to relate to others e.g. 'nice mummy'
  • personal- convey a sense of personal identity and to express views and feelings e.g. 'naughty doggy'
  • heuristic- find out about the immediate environment e.g. 'what boy doing?'
  • imaginative- be creative through language that relates to imaginative play, storytelling, rhymes and humor e.g. 'one day my daddy came home and he said...'
  • representation- convey information e.g. 'i'm three'
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Interaction with others

  • babies learn about social conventions even before they can speak for example the game 'peek-a-boo' familiarises the baby with turn-taking and is an early form of social interaction
  • even at the babbling stage a child's carer might respond to the child as if they were having a conversation
  • as children develop they can interact in more sophisticated ways they will start conversations, use a full range of speech functions and show politeness features, they start to use more adult forms of interaction like turn-taking, adjacency pairs and opening and closing sequences
  • non-verbal communication and non-verbal aspects of speech become more sophisticated as children grow up
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Acquiring vocabulary

happens very quickly:

  • 18 months- 50+
    • child's ability to understand words will always develop quicker than their ability to use them, at 18 months can understand around 250
  • 2 years- 300+
  • 5 years- approx. 3000
  • 7 years- approx 4000

Children's first words relate to their immediate surroundings connected to the things that children see, hear, taste, smell and touch or that have a social function

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First words

Nelson (1973) studied the first 50 words produced by 18 children and grouped them into 5 categories:

  • classes of objects- dog, ball, car,shoe
  • specific objects- mummy, daddy
  • action/ events- give, stop, go, up, where
  • modifying things- dirty, nice, all-gone
  • personal/ social- hi, bye-bye, yes, no

classes of objects formed the largest group because it's easier for children to identify things they can touch

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Creative use of words

between the ages of 12-18 months children will improvise if they don't know the word for something. this takes 2 forms:

  • Under-extension- when a child uses a word in a very restricted way e.g. when a child says hat but only means the hat they wear rather than any hat
  • over-extension- when a chid uses a word to refer to several different but related things e.g. word dog used to describe any 4 legged animals like cats, foxes

Rescorla (1980)- 2 types of over-extension- categorical and analogical

  • categorical- when a word is used to refer to things in a similar category
  • analogical- when a word is used to refer to things that aren't clearly in the same category but have some physical or functional relation to each other
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Aitchison's development processes

1. Labelling

  • when a child links a sound to an object- they are able to call something by its correct name

2. Packaging

  • when a child begins to understand the range of meaning a word might have. they recognise that the word bottle can cover different shapes and sizes but they all have a similar function

3. Network building

  • when a child starts to make connections between words e.g. they understand that words have opposites like big and small or know that little and small are synonyms
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Holophrastic or one-word stage

Holophrases are single words that express a complete idea- an individual word performs the same function as a sentence would

for example- when a child says teddy the meaning of this utterance isn't obvious straight away it could be:

  • here's my teddy (declarative)
  • where's my teddy (interrogative)
  • get my teddy (imperative)
  • here's my teddy, excellent! (exclamative)

care givers often need contextual cues and the child's non verbal communication to interpret holophrases

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two-word stage

around 18 months children start to use 2 words in conjunction. when they do this they will automatically begin to create grammatical relationships between words- the start of syntax

common combinations:

  • baby crying- subject + verb
  • catch ball- verb + object
  • daddy dinner- subject + object
  • dolly dirty- subject + complement

These combinations show similar patterns to more complex grammatical constructions

the phrases use the basic blocks of meaning needed for sentences

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Telegraphic stage

around 2 years old children start to use 3 or 4 word combinations

These utterances are formed according to grammatical rules:

  • doggy is naughty- subject + verb + complement
  • jodie want cup- subject + verb + object
  • give mummy spoon- verb + object + object

children still focus on the words the carry most meaning and omit functional words e.g. prepositions, auxiliary verbs and determiners

By age 5 children will be able to use a range of grammatical constructions:

  • co-ordinating conjunctions to link separate utterances
  • negatives involving the auxiliary do
  • questions formed with who, where and what
  • inflections like -ed for past tense, -ing for present participles and -s for plurals
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Children start to add inflections to their words as early as 20 months old

studies have shown that inflections are acquired in a certain order- a study by Brown (1973) of children between 20 and 36 suggested that the order in which children learns inflections is:

  • 1. present participle- i going
  • 2. plural -s - cups
  • 3. possessive 's- teddy's chair
  • 4. articles a,the- get the ball
  • 5. past tense -ed- i kicked it
  • 6. third person singular verb ending -s- she loves me
  • 7. auxiliary be- it is raining

a and the are used most frequently and -ed least frequently but they are 4th and 5th in terms of acquistion- imitation doesn't have strong influence on inflections

-ing inflection earliest represents the present tense which children can relate to 

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3 stages of inflections

Cruttenden (1979) identified 3 stages in the acquisition of inflections

Stage 1- inconsistent usage

  • a child will use an inflection correctly some of the time but this is because they've learnt the word not the grammatical rule e.g. they might say I play outside one day and I played outside the next

Stage 2- consistent usage but sometimes misapplied

  • for example applying the regular past tense inflection -ed to irregular verbs
  • a child will say something like i drinked it rather than i drank- called overgeneralisation or a 'virtuous error' they understand how the past tense is formed by mistakenly apply construction to irregular verb

Stage 3- consistent usage- this is when children are able to cope with irregular forms correctly

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Berko's wug test

children seem to acquire the grammatical rules of language just by being in an environment where language is spoken and where they can react with others

Berko's (1958) wug test

  • children were shown a picture of a strange creature and told it was a wug
  • they were shown a drawing of 2 of the creatures and told 'now there is another one. there are 2 of them - there are two...' encouraging the children to complete the sentence
  • 3-4 year old children said there were 2 wugs

the test showed that children had't used the -s because they were imitating someone as they'd never heard of a Wug before. They'd automatically used the rule that states -s is added to a noun to form a plural

this is called internalisation- they'd heard the rule so often that it was second nature to apply it

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Learning to ask questions

in the first 3 years children develop the ability to construct questions

Stage 1- around 18 months

  • during the two-word stage, children start to use rising intonation to indicate a question e.g. sit me? or go walk?

Stage 2- between the ages of 2 and 3

  • in telegraphic talk, children continue to use rising intonation but now include wh- words in the utterance e.g. where tractor? what mummy doing?
  • as they continue to develop they use a wide range of interrogative pronouns such as why, when and how

Stage 3- age 3+- children will use subject-verb inversion e.g. can i see it? instead of constructions like i see it? they also use auxiliary verbs

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Stage of learning negatives

at the same time as they start using interrogatives children learn to use negatives:

Stage 1- around 18 months

  • children use no or not to make things negative normally at the beginning of the phrase rather than the end e.g no juice and not baby's bed

Stage 2- between ages of 2 and 3

  • children start to use no and not in front of verbs too, like i no want juice
  • they also develop the use of contracted negatives like can't and don't e.g. i can't drink it, these 2 forms can sometimes get mixed up e.g. I can't like it

Stage 3- from 3+

  • children stop using no and not in the way they did in stage 1
  • they standardise their use of can't and don't and start using other negative contractions like didn't and won't, use of isn't develops slightly later
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Behaviourists theory- imitation- Skinner

Skinner (1957) suggested that language is acquired through imitation and reinforcement:

  • children repeat what they hear (imitation)
  • caregivers reward a child's efforts with praise
  • they also reinforce what the child says by repeating words and phrases back and correcting mistakes

this approach says that children learn all the specific pronunciation of individual words by copying an adult- therefore in theory it explains an important part of their phonological development

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Problems with imitation

  • children construct new sentences they've never heard before, so they aren't always directly imitating
  • they don't memorise thousands of sentences to use later, so their development can't be exclusively based on repeating what they've heard their parents or people saying
  • imitation can't explain overgeneralisations like he runned away, children can't copy these mistakes as adults don't make them
  • imitation theory can't explain things like the fis phenomenon- the fact that children can recognise a much larger range of words than they are able to use
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Innateness theory- Chomsky

Chomsky (1965) argued that a child's ability to acquire language is inbuilt, he said that language isn't taught, but it's a natural development that occurs when children are exposed to language

he suggested that each child has a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which allows them to take in and use the grammatical rules of the language that's spoken where they live

Evidence for chomsky's approach:

  • explains how children end up making overgeneralisations and why they acquire inflections in a certain order
  • children learn language quickly because they are predisposed to learn it
  • all children pass through the same early stages of language acquisition before refining their range of sounds to their native language
  • common features of language- linguistic universals e.g. everyone uses a combination of regular and irregular verbs suggesting that all speakers acquire language in the same way- supporting the LAD

Criticism- underestimates the significance of Skinner's argument that interaction, imitation and reinforcement are important in development

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Cognitive Approach- Piaget

The cognitive approach focuses on the importance of mental processes

Piaget (1896-1980) stated that a child needs to have developed certain mental abilities before it can acquire particular aspects of language:

  • at first a child can't mentally process the concept that something can exist outside their immediate surroundings- egocentric
  • by they're 18 months old, children realise that things have object permanence- they can exist all the time even when the child can't see them, this coincides with a big increase in vocabulary
  • the child is then mentally better equipped to understand abstract concepts like past, present and future

criticism- doesn't explain how some people with learning difficulties are still linguistically fluent- this suggests that cognitive development and language development aren't as closely connected as the cognitive approach suggests

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Input approach- Bruner and Lenneberg

The input approach argues that in order for language to develop their has to be linguistic interaction with caregivers

Bruner (1983) suggests that there is a Language Acquisition Support System (LASS)- a support system where caregivers support their children's linguistic development in social situations

  • there are clear patterns of interaction between children and caregiver in everyday social situations, like meal times, bath times and playing
  • the care giver talks to the child and encourages them to talk back by pointing things out and asking questions e.g. 'what's that there, is it a doggy?' as a result linguistic support the child gradually learns to play a more active role in social situations
  • children who are deprived of language early on don't seem to be able to acquire it easily later- Lenneberg (1967) proposed the Critical Period Hypothesis which states that without linguistic interaction before ages 5-6 language development is severely limited

This view is supported by some rare cases where children without any exposure to language in the first 5 years of life subsequently fail to develop normal speech

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Socio-cultural theory- Vygotsky

This theory suggests that social interaction and experiencing different social and cultural contexts are very important for language development

Vygotsky (1978) identified 2 significant factors and contribute to language development- private speech and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

  • private speech- when a child talks aloud to itself. Vygotsky saw this as a major step forward in a child's mental development- this is evidence the child is thinking for itself
  • The ZPD-  when a child needs a caregiver's help in order to interact e.g. if a doctor asks 'where does it hurt,' the child might not answer. the caregiver either responds or tries to encourage a response- this gives the child a model to apply to similar situations in the future when it might respond without help

this kind of support is called scaffolding. children require it less and less once they become more able to deal with different social and cultural situations on their own

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Language Acquisition can't just be 1 theory

There isn't one model of language acquisition that can fully explain how a child learns to speak

  • theories of innate acquisition and cognitive development do not take into account the role of interaction in the development of a child's language
  • theories of imitation and reinforcement can't explain the fact that some features of language apply to everyone, and that all babies show similar cooing and babbling features, regardless of their native language
  • the most likely explanation is that language development involves all of these different influences to some degree
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Development of writing stages

  • when young children do drawings they're actually starting to learn skills they'll need when they learn to write
  • between 5-6 years old, children can write some letters of the alphabet and some words
  • between 6-7, children will start using simple punctuation and write in short sentences (similar to how they speak) about things of personal interest e.g. their family, or what they did at the weekend
  • between 7-8 children start to write for different purposes and audiences, they will be able to write and punctuate more complex sentences and check their work for errors
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Learning to write and spell

Children go through stages of development before they can write and spell entire words, the following stages overlap with each other:

  • children start creating letters, or symbols to look like letters (pseudo-letters) there's no particular pattern to how these shapes are combined
  • following this, they might start to use consonants from the start of the word they want to write e.g. w for want
  • they move to combine initial and final consonants e.g. sm to represent the sounds of some
  • children start combining vowels and consonants in more recognisable ways e.g. bes for best
  • the next developing is writing words that contain all the right syllables e.g. sleping for sleeping
  • finally children start to get to grips with various spelling patterns e.g. creeping, weeping, long, strong
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development influenced by caregivers and teachers

  • in pre-school years caregivers encourage children to draw lines and shapes to build their coordination skills and imitate letters e.g. a child can copy their own name if it's been written out for them by an adult
  • between 5-6 caregivers and teachers usually get them to experiment with different writing activities e.g. filling in gaps in sentences or writing a shopping list
  • 6-7 years old, caregivers and teachers can get them to write personal information such as short letters to relatives
  • 7-8 years old caregivers and teachers teach them to experiment with different kinds of writing and about different genres e.g. short stories, poetry, non-fiction forms
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Child Directed Speech (CDS) or Motherese

language features are often simplified or exaggerated and often have the purpose of encouraging a child to interact as they are easier to understand

Phonology and Prosody:

  • intonation is exaggerated and words are stressed more strongly
  • pitch is usually higher
  • words and phrases are repeated e.g. get the ball, annie, get the ball
  • the pace is often much slower, with longer pauses than in adult speech


  • vocabulary is often simplified e.g. banana--> nana
  • caregivers use reduplication- constructions like choo-choo
  • they also use diminutives- like birdie, doggie or fishy
  • a high proportion of words will refer to objects that the child can see or touch
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Child-directed speech (CDS), motherese


  • sentence structures are simplified and function words and often omitted
  • proper nouns are often used instead of pronouns
  • a higher proportion of nouns will be concrete nouns
  • the present tense will be used more than the past tense, the caregiver will talk more about what's happening 'now'
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Ways caregivers encourage language development

  • They repeat certain structures e.g. annie get the tractor, annie find the bottle
  • they ask lots of questions e.g. Annie, where's doggie gone? encouraging the child to respond
  • they use lots of imperatives e.g. pick up dolly
  • caregivers often recast what a child has said be representing information in a different way
  • caregivers also expand on what children say

no one knows if CDS has any impact on development, Child-directed speech isn't used by parents in every culture, but speakers of all cultures grow up to be fluent

there's nothing conclusive to say that CDS does or doesn't work- research has produced conflicting results

it could be that CDS is more about building a relationship than about language development

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Media texts for children

The way that children are addressed in print media and on the internet varies according to the age of the intended reader, and the purpose of the discourse

  • generally, typeface for children is larger and might vary in size and colour
  • the tone is upbeat and there are usually lots of exclamation marks
  • the vocabulary is simple, and the language informal and will probably include some slang or colloquialisms
  • there are often lots of phonological features like alliteration and repetition, there may also be phonetic spelling of words
  • the texts often address the reader directly and might use lots of imperatives to make children feel involved and to stimulate them
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Television programmes and CDS

TV and radio discourses that are aimed at children normally use phonological features found in CDS- presenters of children's programmes will use features similar to those used by the caregiver

they have a slower pace, exaggerated intonation and probably increased volume as well as stronger stress on important words

there are plenty of interactive features like questions and inclusive direct address

they use deictic words like here in conjunction with the action that's taking place on the screen

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