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Language and Communication

Language serves a variety of purposes for the developing child. It facilitates interpersonal communication, helps organize thinking, and aids in learning. The development of communicative competence is an important part of children's language learning.

Communication requires us to use both productive language, transmitting messages to others, and receptive language, in which we receive and understand messages others send us.


The study of language can be divided into four areas. Phonology describes a language's system of sounds, or how the basic sound units, called phonemes, are connected to form words. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words and sentences. Grammar, which describes the structure of a language, includes syntax, which refers to the rules that govern how words are combined into sentences, and morphology; morphemes are a language's smallest units of meaning. Pragmatics consists of rules for the use of appropriate language in particular social settings.


The Learning Theory View

The traditional learning view explains language development by the principle of reinforcement. Other learning theorists believe the child learns language primarily through imitation. Although learning principles seem to be important in modifying language usage, they do not explain how children might acquire the enormous number of reinforcement linkages required to communicate effectively. Neither do they account for the regular sequence of language development, children's creative utterances, or the fact that children learn to speak grammatically even when parents fail to reinforce grammar.

The Nativist View

According to Noam Chomsky's nativist approach to language development, children have an innate language acquisition device (LAD) that enables them to learn language early and quickly. Support for this position comes from the findings of certain universal features in all languages, such as the use of a relatively small set of sounds and the combination of words into what in English are called "sentences," as well as from evidence that there may be a critical period for learning language. Critics point out that there is little agreement about the exact nature of the early grammatical rules that children learn and argue that language is not acquired as rapidly as nativists once thought. They also point out that the wealth of variant grammatical and syntactic rules around the world argues against any sort of universality and that the nativist view ignores the social context in which language develops.

The Interactionist View

Most modern theorists take an interactionist position, recognizing that children are biologically prepared for language but require extensive experience with expressed language for adequate development. According to this view, children play an active role in acquiring language by formulating, testing, and evaluating hypotheses about their languages' rules.

In proposing a language acquisition support system (LASS), Jerome Bruner emphasizes the critical roles of parents and other early caretakers in the child's language development. American middle-class mothers in particular support a child's beginning language by using infant-directed speech, or simplified language with their children, by playing nonverbal games with them, and by recasting children's incomplete sentences in grammatical form. Many cultures do not use such specific techniques, nor do they demonstrate that negative evidence is a critical force in language learning.


Not by Word Alone: Preverbal Communication

Infants acquire early training in the give and take of conversation through "pseudo-dialogues" with their parents, and by the time they are 1 year old, they are highly skilled at nonverbal communication. Using protodeclaratives and protoimperatives, young children can make statements about things and get other people to do things for them.

Early Language Comprehension

Infants' capacity for receptive language begins as early as the first month of life, as demonstrated in their categorical speech perception, the ability to discriminate among consonant sounds as well as their ability to recognize some vowel sounds by the age of 2 months.

Initially babies can distinguish sounds in languages other than that of their parents, but as children are exposed to their native languages, their abilities to distinguish and categorize phonemes continue to be refined and specialized for the sounds of their own languages.

Some evidence indicates that infants may be able to segment speech and to recognize words in the context of ongoing speech earlier than we had thought.

Babbling and Other Early Sounds

Precursors to productive language include cooing, babbling, and patterned speech. Babbling occurs in many cultures, and the babbling of deaf babies is very similar to that of hearing infants. Babbling has also been shown to resemble a child's first meaningful words, a finding that suggests its importance in the development of linguistic skills.


How Children Acquire Words

Children's acquisition of vocabulary proceeds in bursts, the first of these occurring at about a year and a half in the naming explosion. Other aids to rapid learning of new words include a number of constraints that allow children to make certain narrowing judgments about a new word, such as that it refers only to an object or that it is entirely different from other words they already know.

Infants' speed at learning words may be increased by certain kinds of constraints-whole object, taxonomic, and mutual exclusivity-that limit the kinds of hypotheses the child entertains in discovering the meaning of a new word.

What Kinds of Words Do Children Learn First??

Children may learn object or naming words first, although some research has suggested that such words make up only a third of early vocabularies.

Errors in Early Word Use

A common error is that of overextension, in which a child uses a single word to mean many different things. In underextension, a child may restrict a word to only one representative of a category.


Can One Word Express a Complete Thought??

The one-word utterances that children begin to produce from about 1 year on are known as holophrases to indicate that these words often appear to represent a complete thought.

Two-Word Sentences

Somewhere between 1½ and 2, children begin to use telegraphic speech, which generally includes only nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Probably because language development and cognitive development go hand in hand, these two-word communications are semantically similar across cultures and languages, including the sign language used by the deaf.

Learning the Rules

Children appear to learn qualifying morphemes in the same order. Typically, they learn simpler morphemes, such as the suffix -ing and the plural form -s-s, earlier than more complex ones, such as the contractions that's and they're. In overregularization, children apply rules for regular formations in all cases, including those where formations are properly irregular.

Approaching Formal Grammar

At about the age of 3 children begin to form more complex sentences, showing signs of understanding some of the rules of adult grammar. In the latter part of the third year, the questions they have started to frame begin to include "wh" questions and questions that begin with "how"; these questions facilitate gathering a great deal of new information. Negative statements may express recognition that something is absent or has disappeared or rejection or denial of something.

The process of acquiring grammatic forms and achieving grammatic accuracy continues throughout the elementary school years and to some degree is a life-long task.

How Children Make Sense of What They Hear

Using a kind of "syntactic bootstrapping," children as young as 1½ or 2 years old use semantic and syntactic cues to help them understand sentences. This ability improves both as a function of an increasing number of cues and with age, but children's comprehension of complex sentence structures continues to develop for many years.


The Rules of Pragmatics

Because language is a social phenomenon, children must learn pragmaticspragmatics, or the rules for the appropriate use of language in differing social situations. Children must be able to send their own messages to other people as well as receive and understand the messages others send them.

Learning to Adjust Speech to Audience

To raise their level of communication beyond speech acts to true discourse, children must learn a complicated set of skills, including how to engage the attention of listeners, how to be sensitive to listeners' feedback, how to adjust speech to characteristics of listeners and to particular situations, how to be good listeners, and how, as listeners, to let others know that their messages are unclear and that they need to provide more information.

Even preschoolers are remarkably sophisticated speakers, but because they have difficulty tracking multiple speakers and judging when it is their turn to speak, they are more effective on a one-to-one basis than in a group. Children improve their conversational sophistication through direct instruction and by observing and listening to others speak.

Children must learn not only how to express positive thoughts and feelings through polite linguistic conventions, but how to give expression to such potentially negative things as anger and aggressiveness. They must also learn when expression of the latter is inappropriate and requires apology.

Learning to Listen Critically

Children's ability to recognize that messages directed to them are unclear improves with age. Although children can be taught to be more effective listeners, there may be a minimal age at which they can benefit from such instruction.

The Use of Figurative Language

Perhaps as early as a year and a half, children can understand and produce some forms of figurative speech, although some early efforts, known as "child metaphors," are not true metaphorical expressions. Presenting children with metaphors, and encouraging their skills at categorization, may facilitate their learning to use existing knowledge in understanding new things.


When children achieve metalinguistic awareness, about the age of 10, they can both understand that language is a system of rules for communication and discuss the properties and uses of language. Although they can use many rules at an earlier age, they have difficulty separating words from the object or events they represent and grasping the concept that words are elements of language.


The evidence indicates the bilingual education, in which children learn two languages simultaneously, does not place children at a disadvantage in terms of language proficiency. In fact, learning two languages may have specific benefits, such as advanced cognitive skills, more flexibility of thought, and greater acceptance of peers and other cultural backgrounds.

Child PsychologyOnline Learning Center

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