Language Development

Topic: Language Development

Posted by: Jessica

Key Terms:

  • Grammar - in a language, a system of rules that enables us to communicate with and understand others.
  • Semantics - the set of rules by which we drive meaning from morphemes, words, and sentences in a given language; also, the study of meaning.
  • Syntax - the rules for combining words into grammatically sensible sentences in a given language.
  • Babbling stage - beginning at 3 to 4 months, the stage of speech development in which the infant spontaneously utters various sounds at first unrelated to the household language.
  • One-word stage - the stage in speech development, from about age 1 to 2, during which a child speaks mostly in single words.
  • Two-word stage - beginning about age 2, the stage in speech development during which a child speaks mostly two-word statements.
  • Telegraphic speech - early speech stage in which a child speaks like a telegram - "go car" - using mostly nouns and verbs a omitting "auxiliary" words.


Acquiring Language:
  • Children's language development mirror language structure - it moves from simplicity to complexity.
  • Infants start without language. By 4 months of age babies can read lips and discriminate speech sounds. At about this age, babies enter a babbling stage.
  • Babbling includes sounds from various languages, even sounds that do not occur in the household's language. Many of natural babbling sounds are constant-vowel pairs formed by simply bunching the tongue in front of the mouth (da-da, na-na, ta-ta) or by the lips (ma-ma).
  • By the time infants are about 10 months old, their babbling has changed so that a trained ear can identify the language of the household.
  • Around the first birthday, most children enter the one-word stage. Having already learned sounds carry meanings, they begin to use sounds to communicate meaning. Their first words usually contain only one syllable -ma or da. At this stage, an inflected word may equal a sentence.
  • At about 18 months old, their word learning begins to explode, from a word per week to a word per day.
  • Before second birthday, they enter the two-word stage, when they start uttering two-word sentences. Language at this stage is characterized by telegraphic speech.
  • By early elementary school, the child understands complex sentences and begins to enjoy the humor conveyed by double meanings.
Month (approximate)
4Babbles many speech sounds.
10Babbling reveals household language.
12One-word stage.
24Two-word, telegraphic speech.
24+Language develops rapidly into complete sentences.

Explaining Language Development
Skinner: Operant Learning
  • Behaviorist B.F. Skinner believed that we can explain language development with familiar learning principles, such as association, imitation, and reinforcement. Thus, Skinner argued, babies learn to talk in many of the same ways that animals learn to peck keys and press bars.
Chomsky: Inborn Universal Grammar
  • Linguist Noam Chomsky thinks Skinner's ideas were naive. According to Chomsky, children do learn their environment's language, however, they acquire untaught words and grammar at too extraordinary a rate to be explained by solely by learning principles.
  • Chomsky viewed language development as "helping a flower to grow in its own way," instead "filling a bottle with water." All human languages have the same grammatical building blocks, such as nouns and verbs, subjects and objects, negations and questions.
Cognitive Neuroscientists: Statistical Learning
  • Cognitive neuroscientists still debate how much of our language capacity is inborn. With experience, computational models inspired by neural networks can learn to form past-tense verbs appropriately.
  • Network learning differs from the simple form of language learning envisioned by Skinner. It instead involves gradual changes in network connections based on experience.
  • Like computers, human infants display a remarkable ability to learn statistical aspects of human speech.
  • Cognitive neuroscientists emphasize that for mastery of grammar, the learning that occurs during life's first few years, when the brain is building a dense network of neuronal connections, is critical.

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