Language Development in Children

Children, even without formal instruction, normally learn to talk during the first few years of life. Ages at which children acquire a certain speech and language are not rigid and inflexible as their abilities and early environments vary widely. These factors greatly influence or affect speech and language development in children. Many developmental psychologists and linguists offer theories to account for children’s rapid acquisition of language, but there is still a large nature versus nurture debate concerning this process.

As defined in the Dictionary of Theories, the nature versus nurture idea “refers to the separate influences of heredity (nature) and environment (nurture) on a living thing” (365). Language cannot be completely genetic. Humans speak a wide variety of different languages and very young children of any race or ethnic background can learn to speak and understand any of these if exposed to appropriate models of the proper time in development. Similarly, children cannot learn to speak a particular language without being exposed to said models of language.

When and how Language is learned

Language is a system, used for communication, comprising a finite set of arbitrary symbols and a set of rules (or grammar) by which the manipulation of these symbols is governed. These symbols can be combined productively to convey new information, distinguishing languages from other forms of communication. The word language (without an article) can also refer to the use of such systems as a phenomenon, the human use of spoken or written words as a communication system, the speech of a country, region, or group. Languages are symptoms of how all humans perceive the world and conduct verbal interactions and used as a social tool.

The development of language is one of the most natural and impressive accomplishment of a child. Almost all children learn language at an early age. According to Pinker, children’s use of language occurs several months after they are able to understand language, that is, before their first birthday. Studies have shown that at birth infants are predisposed to language; they prefer to listen to language rather than random sounds (Cole and Cole).

Human beings are born to speak. They have an innate capacity to speak and figure out the rules of language used in their environment. Noam Chomsky propounded his theory that the capacity of humans to acquire language is in fact innate.

Noam Chomsky suggests that humans are born with an innate knowledge of language, and he calls this knowledge the “language faculty.” He envisions this “language faculty” as a biologically autonomous system in the brain that “has an initial state which is genetically determined, like…the kidney, the circulatory system, and so on” (13). His theory of the “language faculty” involves comparing humans to other species. Not only do we have a linguistic ability much superior to that of other animals, but the rules we have regarding language and symbols in general cannot be found in any other species (Chomsky 13).

Similarly, Chomsky and Gardner believe that infants are born with a significant prewired knowledge of how languages work and how they do not work. These proponents of the innateness of linguistic ability also believe that the genetic basis for language came about as the result of Darwinian evolution and by the extension of the “survival of the fittest” argument. Again, individual views vary slightly, but supporters of this school of thought see language as a product of Darwinian evolution (Gardner 90-91).         The environment is also one of the significant factors in language learning of children. Children learn to speak their language (dialect) thru the important people surrounding them. They do not learn only by imitating those around them.

Barker, et al. (1995, p. 28) cites Pearson and Fielding (1983) in saying that “Listening involves the simultaneous orchestration of skills in phonology, syntax, semantics, and knowledge of text structure”; this means that the process of decoding sound involves a lot of systems that need to be understood as it makes up the whole context of the sound itself.

Children work through linguistic rules on their own because they use forms that adults never use. They eventually learn as they sort out for themselves the exceptions to the rules of English syntax. Through constant practice, children eventually learn to talk.

Children’s words and sentences often differ from adult forms while learning language. Children often produce speech sounds inconsistently and the clarity of sounds may vary according to factors such as where the sound occurs in a word and how familiar the word is to the child. Children whose expressive vocabularies consist of fewer than 50 words and/or produce limited word combinations at 24 months of age are considered late talkers.

Children pass through strategies as they develop and learn to talk. Speech and language normally develop over time. Cooing and babbling are early stages of speech development. As babies get older (often around 9 months), they begin to string sounds together, incorporate the different tones of speech, and say words like “mama” and “dada” (without really understanding what those words mean). Before 12 months, children should also be attentive to sound. Babies who watch intently but don’t react to sound may be showing signs of hearing loss.

By 12 to 15 months, Children should have a wide range of speech sounds in their babbling and at least one or more true words (not including “mama” and “dada”). Nouns usually come first, like “baby” and “ball.” The child should also be able to understand and follow single directions (“Please give me the toy,” for example).

From 18 to 24 months, children should have a vocabulary of about 20 words by 18 months and 50 or more partial words by the time they turn 2. By age 2, kids should be learning to combine two words, such as “baby crying” or “Daddy big.” A 2-year-old should also be able to follow two-step commands (such as “Please pick up the toy and bring me your cup”).

From 2 to 3 years, parents often witness an “explosion” in their child’s speech. The child’s vocabulary should increase (to too many words to count) and he or she should routinely combine three or more words into sentences. His or her comprehension should also increase – by 3 years of age, he or she should begin to understand what it means to “put it on the table” or “put it under the bed.” The child should also begin to identify colors and comprehend descriptive concepts (big versus little, for example).

So, as the child grows up, he or she develops his speech and language skill. This skill is enhanced more when the child is given ample opportunity to talk and interact with the people in his environment. Like so many other things, speech development is a mixture of nature and nurture. A child’s genetic makeup will, in part, determine intelligence and speech and language development. However, a lot of it depends on the child’s environment. The child should adequately be stimulated at home .Opportunities for communication exchange and participation should be provided to enhance and develop the skill.  Foremost, feedback should be given to encourage the child to talk more to be able to master the skill.

Language Acquisition in Children

Language acquisition is the process of learning a native or second language, the key milestone in language development. Much of child’s future and social and intellectual development hinges on this milestone. A language delay can lead to isolation and withdrawal, and to learning difficulties and poor performance. Recent research has revealed a dramatic link between the development of spoken language and written language among children and the importance of language acquisition to basic reading skills.

Chomsky’s Innate Hypothesis is based on the observation of a number of indisputable facts in relation to language acquisition:

All children, regardless of I.Q. level, can acquire language;
Children acquire language effortlessly, and in a relatively short period of time;
Children do not have to be taught formally to acquire language;
Language is a complex system;
Children discover the system of language from a small, unsystematic amount of data;
Language acquisition involves very little imitation;
Language acquisition is an active process, involving ‘mental computation’: Children say things that they have never heard from adults, e.g. camed.
From these observations, Chomsky concluded that infants are born with what he called as  Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This area cannot be pinpointed in the brain, but is generally presumed to exist through the neurological networks we have developed; and that exposure is all that is necessary for a child to learn language.

Normal Development of Speech and Language

Children pass through a number of well-defined stages as they are developing normal speech and language. Meaningful speech and language develop overtime. The whole process begins with interactions between the normal neurological system and the child’s environment (Owens, 2001).

Speech is the systematic use of sounds and sound combinations to produce meaningful words, phrases, and sentences. Specific parts of the body interact to produce and modify speech and sounds. The production of sound is called phonation. Modification of the sound by the mouth and nasal cavities is called resonation. The final movements of the mouth, lips, tongue, jaw, and soft palate are called articulation. This process shapes sounds into phonemes, which are the meaningful units of sound we use in constructing speech. Each language has its own set of phonemes that are used to build words.

While several languages share many sounds, not all languages are made up of the same sound systems. Learning phonemes of a language requires motor behavior (physical movements) as well as intellectual understanding. Problems can arise when children cannot control the physical components of their bodies to produce sounds, cannot hear the differences between sounds, or do not possess the cognitive ability to learn the differences between phonemes.

Language is much more complex than speech as it puts meaning into speech and is used to express and receive meaning.  Although most languages have speech as a component, not all do. Sign language is an example of a language system that fulfills all the requirements of language, yet does not use speech as the medium to transmit and receive messages. Languages enable communication to work by allowing composing and sending of messages (encoding) from one person to another , who receives them and understands them (decoding). Encoding and decoding skills develop overtime and are dependent on intact neurological systems and experiences. Language is innate to all human beings.

It is common to all cultures and develops similarly in all people in every society. It is social in nature and depends on interactions with the environment. An easy way to understand how humans develop language is to imagine that we each come equipped with a language acquisition device (LAD) in our brain that enables us to shift through all the speech, gestures, and vocal intonations that surround us we grow. This device helps us attend to what is important and ignore unnecessary distractions. Over time, it helps us learn the systems that surround us, with increasing sophistication, so that we may join in and use them to communicate our own needs and experiences (Chomsky, 1957, 1981; Heward, 2000).

The major components of language are phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Phonology is the sound system of a language. The phonological rules of each language determine which combinations of sounds are permissible in language to form meaningful words. Morphology deals with the rules fot transforming words and changing their basic meanings.  Syntax is the rules system governing the order and combination of words to form phrases and sentences.

Semantics is the meaning of language and finally, Pragmatics involves the social aspects of language. It takes into account a knowledge and understanding of rules of turn taking, starting and ending conversations, choosing and maintaining appropriate topics, being sensitive to miscommunications, and being aware of what experiences are shared by listeners and which need supplemental information for understanding messages ( American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1982).

Disorders of Speech and Language

The way children speak is a reflection of their culture (Heward, 2000). We learn speech and language by interaction with people in our environment when we are children. Many factors contribute to linguistic diversity. The primary ones can be race, ethnicity, social and economic status, education, occupation, and geographic region.

Speech and language are vulnerable to disruptions that can lead to disorders. Since the entire communication system depends on neurological systems for cognitive processing of environmental experiences, disruptions in the neurological systems, underdevelopment of cognitive skills, or lack of appropriate language experiences can lead to speech disorders (understanding and formulating language) and speech disorders (producing language).

A speech disorder is characterized by any impairment of vocal production (voice), speech sound production (articulation), fluency (stuttering and related disorders), or any combination of these impairments ( American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1993a) Speech disorders are present when a child’s speech is so different from what is expected that it calls attention to itself, when it is so difficult to understand that it interferes with communication, or when it causes distress to the speaker or listener ( Van Riper & Erickson,1996).

A language disorder is abnormal development in understanding and/or using spoken language, written, or other symbol systems. The disorder may involve the rate of acquisition of language; the form of language (phonology, morphology, or syntax); the content of language (semantics); the function of language (pragmatics); or any combination of form, content, and function ( American Speech-Language-Hearing Association,1993a; Hunt & Marshall, 2002; Polloway & Smith; 2000)

Nurturing Language Development

Parents and caregivers need to remember that language in children normally and usually develops very efficiently. Adults should try not to focus on problems such as the inability to pronounce words as adults do because most children naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of the child’s total repertoire of language. However, if a child appears not to hear what others say to her; if family members and those closest to her find her difficult to understand; or if she is noticeably different in her communicative abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to seek advice from specialists in children’s speech, language and hearing.

To be able to enhance the development of language in children, parents, teachers, and caregivers should provide them environments full of language development opportunities. They should understand that every child’s language or dialect is worthy of respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects their identities, values and experiences of the child’s family and community. They should be treated as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not yet talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking turns, looking attentively, using facial experiences with conversing adults. Interaction among children should also be encouraged.

Peer learning is an important part of language development, especially in mixed age groups. Activities which involve varied materials should promote talk. There should be a balance between individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and discussion, such as dramatic play, block-building, book sharing, or carpentry. It should always be remembered that parents, caregivers, teachers and guardians are the main sources of language development in children.

Although children learn from their peers too, adults are still the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center or classroom. Parents and other people close to the child should continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising question, and providing information in varied situations.


This paper has presented explanations that will account for language development in children. Learning theorists believe that language acquisition is a result of the environment, but studies have shown that language is not merely imitation only, in the absence of grammatical structure, children will invent structure. A soundtrack is not sufficient to acquire language too, an interaction is necessary to enhance language learning in children. Further, innate language development theorists believe that the brain also plays an important role in acquisition of language. Guidelines are presented to help nurture the development of language in children.

Understanding how young normally developing children acquire language is helpful to the teacher, language facilitator or specialist working with children who have delayed or disordered communication. Knowledge of the normal language development of children can help specialists and teachers determine whether a particular child is simply developing language at a slower-than-normal rate or whether the child already shows an abnormal pattern of language development.

Works Cited

Bothamley, J. (1993) Dictionary of Theories. Washington D.C.: Gale Research    International Ltd.

Chomsky, N. (1972) Chomsky: Selected Readings. London: Oxford University Press.

Cole, M. and S. (1996) The Development of Children. 3rd ed. New York: W.H. Freeman  and Company.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York:  Harper Collins, 1983.

Hunt & Marshall, 2002; Polloway & Smith; 2000; American Speech-Language-Hearing  Association,1993a

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York:  Harper Perennial