Early Childhood Education

Development, Language


The process of language development begins long before children utter their first conventionally formed utterances. In fact, words represent only one of the many communicative resources that are involved. As a result, the major theoretical perspectives in the field include not only a focus on the development of language itself but also a more multimodal view of communication that couches the child’s developing language in a complex of representational resources. This essay explores some of the central foci in the field, ranging from the nativist, or biological, requirements for language development to some of its social, cultural, and extraverbal aspects.

From the behaviorist perspective, prevalent by the early 1960s, language development results from the influence of the environment on the child (see Behaviorism). The child’s language behaviors are thus molded through the positive or negative reinforcement of a progressively narrower selection of target behaviors. Language acquisition is a result of exposure to linguistic stimuli as well as the engagement of the child’s own learning capacity. Nonetheless, some sort of neurological hard wiring is necessary to link language input with the language patterning that is recognized, accepted, and used by the speakers of a language. In response, Chomsky (1965) posited the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), an innate mental storehouse of the universals of linguistic structure. The device shapes incoming linguistic experience, or input, into the grammar (i.e., output) of the particular language from which the input derives. More than a catalogue of all possible individual utterances in a given language (Pinker, 1994), LAD accounts for a speaker’s ability to generate grammatically new and novel utterances by relating and manipulating the structures operating in a particular language (e.g., the boy caught the ball becomes the ball was caught by the boy). LAD reflects the view that language development cannot be explained as either the product of cultural exigencies alone (Pinker, 1994) or as the result of simple imitation. Neurolinguistics has more recently aimed to explain precisely how the brain organizes the phonological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic systems that enable human communication (e.g., Obler and Gjerlow, 1999).

Utterances, however, also occur in social contexts—real situations in which child participants use language to define, advocate, and accomplish their own purposes. Thus, the interactionist view of language development adds a complementary construct: the Language Acquisition Support System (i.e., LASS) (Bruner, 1983). On this view, the adult world provides a support system for the development of the child’s language, a “transactional format” (Bruner, 1983, p. 19) by means of which children can try out and consolidate linguistic changes with others. For example, to construct and manage joint attention between herself and an infant, a mother may introduce objects by interposing them between herself and the infant (e.g., see the pretty dolly?) (Bruner, 1983, p. 71). Phonetically consistent forms are integrated into socially well-established games and routines (e.g., “where” and “what” games) that relate linguistic signs to elements of the immediate, nonlinguistic context (Bruner, 1983, p. 77). On the other hand, mothers may follow the child’s lead by limiting the semantic content of their speech to those constructions that already occur in the child’s repertoire (Snow, 1977). This, in turn, produces the grammatical simplicity of the mothers’ speech. On this view, grammar simply works to express meanings that the child already possesses. This means that the teaching and practicing of specific grammatical structures will affect language acquisition “ ... only after the child has independently developed the cognitive basis which allows him to use that structure” (Snow, 1977, P. 48). It is thus the continuing exchange of linguistic and pragmatic knowledge that makes possible the development of discourse patterns that then transfer to other contexts such as picture-book reading, where the exchange is built on non-concrete, pictured topics. The child responds, not just to the form, but also to the intent with a referent, and not simply with a repetition of the adult’s language. The operation of LASS and LAD are thus interdependent, the socially generative nature of language as a communicative resource requiring both constructs (Bruner, 1983).

Cultural variance in the ways in which children learn to play appropriate communicative roles has also been explored in several ethnographies that document the ways in which children are socialized into patterns of linguistic as well as communicative competence (e.g., Heath, 1983). These patterns reflect prevalent attitudes toward learning and toward the role of talk itself in various cultural settings. The child is never “in it” alone, but is constantly engaged in highly constructive processes of generating and exchanging meaning with “significant others” who “create the system along with the child” as the child, in turn, “helps the process along” (Halliday, 1980, p. 10). Children help by constructing a “protolanguage” beginning at the age of five to seven months by intentionally addressing symbols—sounds or gestures—to others who will “decode” them (Halliday, 1980, p. 9). Pointing, for example, quickly moves from functioning as a simple gesture to designating particular referents (i.e., something needed or wanted). Such a protolanguage communicates meaning but without verbal syntax or vocabulary. The child next needs to turn the proto-language into a three-level system of meanings, wordings, and sound. The adult’s function in this process is not to model the language for imitation, but to participate in the process along with the child as an equal partner.

Along these lines, the early work of Elizabeth Bates (1976) explored the child’s intention to communicate in terms of the development of pragmatic competence—the child’s ability to formulate goals and to select suitable means for accomplishing them. In the sensorimotor stage, for example, children engage in the formulation of object-goals and the selection of suitable means to accomplish the “protoimperative” function of recruiting an adult as a means to attain an object or another goal (Bates, 1976, p. 51). The formulation of the goal then combines with “instrumental behaviors” such as reaching, opening and closing the hand, cooing sounds, and gaze (Bates, 1976, p. 55), and this may occur even before there is evidence of a symbolic capacity, according to Bates. Although the child may be unaware of the signal value of these extraverbal elements, the adult interprets and responds as if to a signal. In this way, gestural communication does provide a framework for early language development; however, language does not come to replace gesture; instead, children support their linguistic communication by means of these gestural complexes by the end of the first year (Volterra et al., 1979).

In fact, the rate at which different children develop language can differ by a year or even more; however, vowel sounds and syllable-like consonant-vowel sequences begin to occur between six and twelve months. Although babies can comprehend simple words and intonation as early as ten months, their receptive language capacities tend to outpace their productive capabilities between one and two years of age. Nonetheless, children begin to produce holophrases and one- word utterances not limited to only nouns, but also including social expressions (bye bye), verbs (go), descriptive vocabulary (hot), and locational expressions (up) (Lindfors, 1987). At about twenty months, combinatory speech (i.e., using two-word utterances) begins. Vocabulary development speeds up dramatically and by about two years of age, the child possesses a vocabulary of over 200 words, correctly ordered in 95 percent of utterances (Pinker, 1994). Through age 6, the average child’s vocabulary increases by as many as ten words per day; additionally, children continue to develop morphosyntactic knowledge even beyond the age of eight (Chomsky, 1969).

Does a critical period exist during which first language (FL) acquisition best takes place? Based on work on brain lateralization by Lenneberg (1967) and evidence from studies of children with Down Syndrome, deaf children, and linguistically isolated children, a critical period for language learning was hypothesized to last from about two years of age to puberty after which the process is supposedly neither as rapid nor as successful. Although many accept the view that there is a window for optimal morphemic and syntactic knowledge lasting from birth to age 12 or 14, evidence does exist to counter the critical period hypothesis. Studies of group performance indicate a gradual decline, but not an abrupt drop-off, in the ability to acquire more complex syntactic features but not simpler ones (Bialystok and Hakuta, 1994). In fact, pragmatic, semantic, and vocabulary acquisition capacities may not diminish with age. Thus, the critical period hypothesis remains somewhat controversial and must be considered along with additional factors that are crucial to language development. These include the frequency and richness of the linguistic interaction experienced by the child as well as other social and cultural, rather than solely biological, factors.

Typological differences in various languages do, however, affect children’s everyday talk as they develop those languages. Very young German speakers, for example, talk about placement (i.e., causing an inanimate object to move to a place) by relying on the expression of spatial vectors through particles such as inward. In contrast, children who are acquiring Hindi or Turkish tend to favor verbs such as put or attach for talking about placement. While Hindi and Turkish are languages that express the path of motion in the verb, German expresses this by means of a satellite element to the verb such as a suffix or particle. Children none in on these sorts of typological differences very early on in the language development process (Bowerman et al., 2002).

Nonetheless, oral language works as only one of the multimodal mediators by means of which children construct and express the meanings that they recruit to transform their interactional environments. As children develop oral language, it becomes “ ... an accompaniment to and an organizer of their symbolic action” in other systems involving print and graphics, for example (Dyson, 1989, p. 6). Neither do children invariably foreground language as a communicative resource; they look instead to find “‘best ways’ of representing meanings; in some circumstances language may be the best medium; in some a drawing may be; in others color may be the most apt medium for expression” (Kress, 1997, p. 37). Children’s communicative development thus makes interdependent use of resources that may be verbal (i.e., the segmental and suprasegmental features of oral language, or texts in written language), visual (e.g., color, texture, line and shape), gestural (e.g., facial expression, hand movements), and actional (i.e., full body movement).

In classrooms, however, teacher talk also mediates the discourse in ways that extend well beyond the transmission of information to enacted definitions of learning, knowledge, communicative competence, and educational equity. Teacher talk thus shapes children’s language in both direct and indirect ways; for instance, the use of “inauthentic” questions that require children to merely “display” known information tends to prompt factual, short answers while “authentic” questions that displace the teacher as the sole possessor of knowledge tend to elicit longer and more complex responses because a negotiated space is required (Cazden, 2001, p. 46). Peer talk, too, shapes child language in classroom discourses, but teachers act as reminders (not just as models) of what children can do communicatively. Although peer teaching may be seen to derive, in some sense, from the interactional pattern that the teacher has established in the classroom, children often mirror this in their own language behavior as well as in the kind of social negotiation and problem solving for which the classroom discourse makes room.

Teacher talk is also especially critical to providing young children with opportunities to hear and use “challenging vocabulary” or “rare words” that extend beyond basic “school readiness” language such as color term rehearsal (Dickenson, 2001, p. 238). Teachers can enhance children’s engagement in higher-order thinking by incorporating into their interactions a wide range of interesting words that children can then contextualize in their play. In this way, and by providing interactions that extend across several turns, teachers of three- and four-year-olds can provide conversational space for the development of a range of oral language and print uses that will occur in the kindergarten. Children’s long-term language growth is also impacted by the total number of words and variety of words used with peers in free play, although free play must be appropriately balanced with more structured activity. Children who, as four-year-olds, have interacted with teachers who reduce the amount of their own talk in favor of lengthening the children’s contribution to the conversation also show better kindergarten performance (Dickenson, 2001).

All along the way, language development includes children’s engagement in the multimodal discourses that comprise their lives at home and in school. Young communicators do not simply reproduce convention. Teachers can enhance and respond to children’s communicative development by creating environments, or sets of contexts, where children can practice questioning, arguing, remembering, and imagining through the orchestration of self-selected combinations of multiple modes—including oral and written language. This enhances language development by linking it to a complex of motivated signs that reflect children’s interests as individuals interacting with others (Kress, 1997). Such a multimodal view becomes especially crucial to the integration of verbal, visual, and actional resources in classroom discourse that can no longer be seen as language-centered. On the contrary, language here emerges as one of a range of resources to serve purposes that arise in the moment and recur over time in expansive communicative environments. See also Development, Brain; Bruner, Jerome.

Further Readings: Bates, Elizabeth (1976). Language and context: The acquisition of pragmatics. New York: Academic Press; Bialystok, Ellen and Kenji Hakuta (1994). In other words: The science and psychology of second language acquisition. New York: Basic Books; Bowerman, Melissa, Penelope Brown, Sonja Eisenbeiss, Bhuvana Narasimhan, and Dan Slobin (2002). Putting things in places: Developmental consequences of linguistic typology. Stanford University: Symposium, Child Language Research Forum. Available online at http://ihd.berkeley.edu/slobinpapers.htm; Bruner, Jerome (1983). Child’s talk: Learning to use language. New York: Norton; Cazden, Courtney (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning, 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Chomsky, Carol (1969). The acquisition of syntax in children from 5 to 10. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Chomsky, Noam (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Dickenson, David K. (2001). Large-group and free-play times: Conversational settings supporting language and literacy development. In David K. Dickenson and Patton O. Tabors, eds. Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, pp. 223-255; Dyson, Anne Haas (1989). Multiple worlds of child writers: Friends learning to write. New York: Teachers College Press; Halliday, Michael (1980). Three aspects of children’s language development: Learning language, learning through language, learning about language. In Yetta M. Goodman, Myna M. Haussler, and Dorothy S. Strickland, eds. Oral and written language development research: Impact on the school. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 7-19; Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press; Kress, Gunther (1997). Before writing: Rethinking the paths to literacy. London: Routledge; Lenneberg, Eric. (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley; Lindfors, Judith W. (1987). Children's language and learning, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Obler, Loraine K., and Kris Gjerlow (1999). Language and the brain. New York: Cambridge University Press; Pinker, Steven (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: HarperCollins; Snow, Catherine E. (1977). Mothers’ speech research: From input to interaction. In Catherine E. Snow and Charles A. Ferguson, eds. Talking to children: Language input and acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 31-49; Volterra, Virginia, Elizabeth Bates, Laura Benigni, Inge Bretherton, and Luigia Camaioni (1979). First words in language and action: A qualitative look. In Elizabeth Bates, Laura Benigni, Luigia Camaioni, Inge Bretherton, and Virginia Volterra, eds. The emergence of symbols: Cognition and communication in infancy. New York: Academic Press, pp. 141-222.

Susan Jane Britsch