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Language Development In Infants Essay Outline

A variety of factors can influence language development in children. The relationships parents and caregivers have with a child in the early years of his or her life play a significant role. In addition to these influences on a child's language patterns, the school environment also has an impact. One way teachers can foster language development is by creating an environment in which children are allowed to interact socially and engage in conversations with each other. They can avail themselves of a wide array of children's literature that can serve as a language model for children to promote classroom conversations and reading comprehension. A number of strategies can be used to work with students experiencing language and speech difficulties, as well as students who are learning English as a second language.

Keywords Emotional Skills; English as a Second Language (ESL); Gesturing; Language; Language Skills; Literacy Skills; Morphemes; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Oral Language; Phonological; Recast; Semantic; Social Skills; Syntactic; Vocabulary


The ability to acquire and develop language skills is a capacity that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Language enables us to understand our emotions, to exchange ideas, to study the past as well as contemplate the future (Caulfield, 2002).

There are three basic components to language: phonological, semantic, and syntactic. The phonological component refers to the rules for combining sounds. The semantic is comprised of rules for combining the smallest sounds, or morphemes, into words and sentences. The syntactic are the rules that enable children to further combine words into sentences that express meaning. These components are normally developed and used together in social situations (Pullen, 2003).

Language Development in Infants

Innate Abilities

The development of oral language comes to us naturally and, according to Caulfield (2002) it is apparent that we are born to speak. While children do not normally begin to form their first words until they reach 10 or 12 months, studies have shown that humans are designed to speak even before birth. It appears that language recognition begins before a child's birth. By the 6th or 7th month of gestation, the fetus is able to respond to sounds; a mother's voice can be heard and the fetus can detect slight differences in sound patterns (Caulfield, 2002).

Once they are born, children begin to acquire language skills through their interactions with parents and care givers. These very ordinary situations afford children the time to develop and practice their language skills. Further, these interactions enable children to begin making social connections and to make sense of their world. Before they are even able to speak, however, young children usually communicate with gestures in the first 9 to 12 months of life. Initially children begin to point to objects in their environment. Gestures allow children to communicate since they have not begun to form and develop words. As they begin to do so, children combine gestures with words and this further allows them to develop two-word combinations. Essentially, gesturing enables a child to develop words (Iverson, 2005).


Although they do not actually teach their children how to talk, the involvement of adults and the general environment and culture in which a child is raised does affect a child's ability to learn and develop language skills. Further, this development usually occurs in a sequence of events that is common to most children. Therefore, it can be said that language development occurs because of a combination of nature and nurture. By the time a child is born, he or she has already begun to recognize language and is quickly able to listen to the voices of parents and caregivers. This can be seen by the fact that newborns look at faces of caregivers when they speak. Moreover, newborns quickly learn to get attention from their caregivers by crying. Crying, however, is not merely a way for newborns to convey that they need attention, that is, feeding or changing, crying is also the beginning of a child's ability to acquire and develop language (Caulfield, 2002).

While parents may be able to eventually determine what their infants are trying to communicate through crying, it is more important that these initial interactions provide parents and caregivers with an opportunity to assist children with acquiring language skills. This is because children tend to use words and phrases that parents and caregivers use in these situations. However, this does not mean that children merely learn to speak by imitating adults. Further, children normally do not begin to use meaningful words until they reach their 11th or 12th month. As they do acquire basic vocabulary, a child's interactions with caregivers provide an opportunity for practicing word usage.

Not only do children begin to develop language skills by interacting with adults, children also begin to develop an ability to interact socially. This is important because a child's ability to develop language and social skills during this time will manifest itself at school age. Therefore, the early development of language skills can affect a child's academic progress. The environment in which a child is raised is related to his or her ability to develop language skills in a number of ways. For example, an adult's ability to use language will influence a child's language development and speaking skills. Adults who have strong oral communication skills will have a positive impact on a child's ability to develop language skills. Moreover, as children begin to utter words, parents and caregivers can assist a child's development by repeating what the child says. These interactions are also called "recasts" (Dockrell, 2004).

In these instances, not only can an adult reply to a child by copying his or her words, parents and caregivers can also provide more information and word phrases that the child will begin to repeat. By making baby talk, parents enable a child to develop language skills. By repeating what a child says, adults also are telling the child that he or she is being listened to, that their words have meaning, and that what they are saying is important to the parent. The benefit here is that the child will be encouraged to continue using words and interacting with adults. This, in turn, will give them confidence in developing their emotional skills as well as their social skills. If a child is raised in an environment that is more orally stimulating, the ability to develop language skills is enhanced. At the same time, a less stimulating environment can adversely affect language development. In addition, in homes where a foreign language is primarily used, a child's ability to develop English language skills will affect his or her social and emotional development.


In addition to the environment in which a child is raised, there are also other factors that can influence the development of language skills. For example, children can experience difficulties acquiring and developing language skills as a result of physiological or psychological problems. Some children might experience delays in developing language skills, and these at times might be the result of a problem with the child's hearing. Other children may experience speech problems such as stuttering or an inability to articulate words properly. Whatever the causes of such problems, children who experience difficulties with language skills at an early age can also experience other learning difficulties once they reach school age. Differences in the environments in which children are raised, and other issues affecting the development of language skills will ultimately affect a child's capacity to further develop language skills and to acquire literacy, emotional and social skills as they are exposed to other social environments.


A child's ability to develop oral language skills will affect his or her ability to learn upon entering more formal education environments such as a day care, pre-school, kindergarten and primary school. In particular, developing language skills is related to developing other literacy, communication and social skills. This includes the ability to listen, speak, read and write. Teachers are faced with the challenge of teaching children who have been raised in a number of different environments and cultures. Since the language abilities of children vary, teachers are required to not only address the needs of individual children, but also to develop teaching methods that will benefit the class and foster...

January 2010, 2nd ed.


Learning to talk is one of the most visible and important achievements of early childhood. In a matter of months, and without explicit teaching, toddlers move from hesitant single words to fluent sentences, and from a small vocabulary to one that is growing by six new words a day. New language tools mean new opportunities for social understanding, for learning about the world, and for sharing experiences, pleasures and needs.


The nature of language knowledge

Language development is even more impressive when we consider the nature of what is learned. It may seem that children merely need to remember what they hear and repeat it at some later time. But as Chomsky1 pointed out so many years ago, if this were the essence of language learning, we would not be successful communicators. Verbal communication requires productivity, i.e. the ability to create an infinite number of utterances we have never heard before. This endless novelty requires that some aspects of language knowledge be abstract. Ultimately, “rules” for combining words cannot be rules about particular words, but must be rules about classes of words such as nouns, verbs or prepositions. Once these abstract blueprints are available, the speaker can fill the “slots” in a sentence with the words that best convey the message of the moment. Chomsky’s key point was that since abstractions cannot ever be directly experienced, they must emerge from the child’s own mental activity while listening to speech.

Problems and Context

The debate

The nature of the mental activity that underlies language learning is widely debated among child language experts. One group of theorists argues that language input merely triggers grammatical knowledge that is already genetically available.2 The opposition argues that grammatical knowledge results from the way the human mind analyzes and organizes information and is not innate.3 This debate reflects fundamentally different beliefs about human development and is not likely to be resolved. However, there are at least two areas in which there is a substantial consensus that can guide educators and policy-makers: (a) the predictability of the course of language acquisition; and (b) its multi-determinate nature.

Research Results

Predictable language sequences

In broad strokes, the observable “facts” of language development are not in dispute. Most children begin speaking during their second year and by age two are likely to know at least 50 words and to be combining them in short phrases.4 Once vocabulary size reaches about 200 words, the rate of word learning increases dramatically and grammatical function words such as articles and prepositions begin to appear with some consistency.5 During the preschool years, sentence patterns become increasingly complex and vocabulary diversifies to include relational terms that express notions of size, location, quantity and time.6 By the age of four to six or so, most children have acquired the basic grammar of the sentence.7 From that point onward, children learn to use language more efficiently and more effectively. They also learn how to create, and maintain, larger language units such as conversation or narrative.8 Although there are individual differences in rate of development, the sequence in which various forms appear is highly predictable both within and across stages.9

Determining factors

There is also considerable agreement that the course of language development reflects the interplay of factors in at least five domains: social, perceptual, cognitive processing, conceptual and linguistic. Theorists differ in the emphasis and degree of determination posited for a given domain, but most would agree that each is relevant. There is a large body of research supporting the view that language learning is influenced by many aspects of human experience and capability. I will mention two findings in each area that capture the flavour of the available evidence.


  1. Toddlers infer a speaker’s communicative intent and use that information to guide their language learning. For example, as early as 24 months, they are able to infer solely from an adult’s excited tone of voice and from the physical setting that a new word must refer to an object that has been placed on the table while the adult was away.10
  2. The verbal environment influences language learning. From ages one to three, children from highly verbal “professional” families heard nearly three times as many words per week as children from low verbal “welfare” families. Longitudinal data show that aspects of this early parental language predict language scores at age nine.11


  1. Infant perception sets the stage. Auditory perceptual skills at six or 12 months of age can predict vocabulary size and syntactic complexity at 23 months of age.12
  2. Perceptibility matters. In English, the forms that are challenging for impaired learners are forms with reduced perceptual salience, e.g. those that are unstressed or lie united within a consonant cluster.13

Cognitive processes

  1. Frequency affects rate of learning. Children who hear an unusually high proportion of examples of a language form learn that form faster than children who receive ordinary input.14
  2. “Trade-offs” among the different domains of language can occur when the total targeted sentence requires more mental resources than the child has available. For example, children make more errors on small grammatical forms such as verb endings and prepositions in sentences with complex syntax than in sentences with simple syntax.15


  1. Relational terms are linked to mental age.Words that express notions of time, causality, location, size and order are correlated with mental age much more than words that simply refer to objects and events.16 Moreover, children learning different languages learn to talk about spatial locations such as in or next to in much the same order, regardless of the grammatical devices of their particular language.17
  2. Language skills are affected by world knowledge. Children who have difficulty recalling a word also know less about the objects to which the word refers.18


  1. Verb endings are cues to verb meaning. If a verb ends in –ing, three-year-olds will decide that it refers to an activity, such as swim, rather than to a completed change of state, such as push off.19
  2. Current vocabulary influences new learning. Toddlers usually decide that a new word refers to the object for which they do not already have a label.6


Nature and nurture

These are just some of the findings that, taken together, speak convincingly of the interactive nature of development. Children come to the task of language learning with perceptual mechanisms that function in a certain way and with finite attention and memory capacities. These cognitive systems will, at the least, influence what is noticed in the language input, and may well be central to the learning process. Similarly, children’s prior experience with the material and social world provides the early bases for interpreting the language they hear. Later, they will also make use of language cues. The course of language acquisition is not, however, driven exclusively from within. The structure of the language to be learned, and the frequency with which various forms are heard, will also have an effect. Despite the theoretical debates, it seems clear that language skills reflect knowledge and capabilities in virtually every domain and should not be viewed in an insular fashion.

Educational and Policy Implications

Educators and policy-makers have often ignored preschoolers whose language seems to be lagging behind development in other areas, arguing that such children are “just a bit late” in talking. The research evidence suggests instead that language acquisition should be treated as an important barometer of success in complex integrative tasks. As we have just seen, whenever language “fails” other domains are implicated as well – as either causes or consequences. Indeed, major epidemiological studies have now demonstrated that children diagnosed with specific language disorders at age four (i.e. delays in language acquisition without sensori-motor impairment, affective disorder or retardation) are at high risk for academic failure and mental-health problems well into young adulthood.20,21 Fortunately, the research evidence also indicates that it is possible to accelerate language learning.22 Even though the child must be the one to create the abstract patterns from the language data, we can facilitate this learning (a) by presenting language examples that are in accord with the child’s perceptual, social and cognitive resources; and (b) by choosing learning goals that are in harmony with the common course of development.


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