7.2 Conceptualizing Language Development

Language can be understood as a series of meaningful exchanges to communicate information, including sounds and sign language (Vygotsky, 1986). Toppelberg and Shapiro (2000) indicate language is composed of sounds, the way these sounds are organized into words or parts of words, the organization of concepts being communicated, and language usage.  This definition can be expanded to include expressive and receptive signals and the exchange between language partners. Receptive language reflects what a child is taking in as information is passed to them. Productive and expressive language are terms that are used interchangeably to indicate that the child is creating their own signals to communicate. Finally, there is a transactional component to language that includes not only the speaker’s intent, but also the receiver’s ability to comprehend what is being said, and the signals that indicate that the information has been received. Language is verbal and non-verbal, developing before a child is even born. Theoretically and practically, language is a reflection of our cognition and a mechanism that helps us solve problems. Language emerges from our environment, and we use it as a medium both to understand (other people and ourselves) and to be understood. It is cultural, nested in our context, and because it fosters our ability to connect with others, deeply profound. Researchers and theorists explore a variety of questions when considering how language develops in children.

Illustration of a bird in flight 7.2a Is Language Innate?

Nativist theory suggests that we are prewired to learn language through an invisible framework, acting as an internal map. Noam Chomsky (1968), who invented this theory, believed that human language is complex and we could not learn it unless we already had a pre-existing physiological structure to prepare us. In effect, Chomsky is suggesting that we have an inborn structure for language, in the same way that we have a skeleton providings structure for our physical growth and development. Chomsky called this the “Language Acquisition Device.” As evidence for his theory, Chomsky points to the fact that all over the world, humans develop language patterns with similar features such as verbs and nouns, called universal grammar. When children are exposed to language, it activates the language acquisition device, but our propensity for language is pre-existing. In fact, Chomsky describes language development as one would describe physical growth, as opposed to how one would describe learning. Chomsky is essentially saying that although the environment is important, it is only strengthening something that already exists. This theory of language development is heavily focused on the biological, or nature, part of development.

Illustration of a bird in flight 7.2b Does Language have Stages?

According to Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental theory (Piaget, 1962), as the child grows and develops, they move through normative, or predictable stages of growth. This growth process allows and compels children to build their own internal categories and rules of language. These internal structures, called schemes, become more complex as children interact with their environment to construct their knowledge. One illustration of this is that a child’s understanding of the rules of language change and become more sophisticated as the child develops cognitively.  For example, young children have a tendency to overregularize a word, such as calling all four-legged animals, “doggie.” Eventually, as their cognitive schema becomes more complex, they recognize that four-legged animals have other distinguishable characteristics and can differentiate animals using this knowledge. Language then, is a display of the child’s cognitive understanding. Language development reflects a complex interplay of opportunities and experiences. Accordingly, there are wide ranges in when children acquire or demonstrate particular language skills.

Illustration of a bird's nest 7.2c Does Social Interaction Create Language? (NEST)


Three children hug each other in the classroom.
Three children hug each other in the classroom.

Language helps us to connect with others and communicate our thoughts and purposes. Language is a series of social transactions. Lev Vygotsky (1986) described this process in his seminal work, Thought and Language, where he indicates that children have social exchanges of meaning that help them to unite their ideas and speech, termed verbal thought. In this series of cooperative exchanges, adults support children by preparing, creating, and providing environments and events. These transactions become pivotal to how children construct their learning with the helpful support of a conversational partner. Children may be serving as the more experienced partner as they engage in transactions with less experienced peers or learn new expressions from their interactions with  others. Vygotsky might argue that using “doggie” to describe all four legged animals creates opportunities to hear other animal names through social interaction. Indeed the act of conversation itself might help the child learn to self-correct and expand their understanding over time. Vygotsky also indicates that this language learning takes place in a social context, influencing how and where children learn to apply their verbal thoughts to interactions. In the Vygotskian view, language is less a reflection of learning, than a tool for solving problems, socialization, and completing tasks.

illustration of a branch 7.2d How is Language Reinforced in the Environment?

Behaviorism theory of language development (Skinner, 1957) suggests that children learn about communication through a series of interactions where the sounds they make, the words they produce, and the gestures they use, are resultant from imitation and subsequent reinforcement. This reinforcement, whether positive, negative, or neutral, directs the language a child values and replicates. Children may produce utterances at random, but when we give children positive cues, it strengthens the likelihood that the child will repeat those utterances intentionally (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). For example, a babbling infant who says, “mamamamama” may be reinforced by an enthusiastic mother who smiles and becomes animated as she says, “That’s right! Mama!” In other words, the feedback cues in the child’s environment influence their language development.

Pause and Reflect: The Role of Social Interaction

Five-year-old Hassan sat on the floor with both feet pushed into untied shoes. As he handled the laces, he said aloud, “First you loop the bunny ears, and then you fold them over. Pull it…Ah! I have to try again.” The teacher came over and asked Hassan, “Do you want help?” He replied, “I can do it.” The teacher then encouraged Hassan to keep trying. After several iterations of trying to make bunny-eared shoelaces into tied shoes, Hassan was successful. Upon noticing Hassan’s tied shoes, his teacher exclaimed, “You did it! Great job hanging in there. You kept trying until you did it.” As you consider Hassan’s words, can you see ages and stages reflected in his vocabulary?  What was the role of the social interaction between Hassan and his teacher?

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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