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Children's Language Development

Childrens Language Development

The development of language, oral language in particular, is one of childrens most impressive
accomplishments that occur during the first 5 years of life (Genishi, 1988). According to Rubin
and Wilson (1995), by the time a child is four and a half they will have a vocabulary of
approximately 2000 words, they will be able to listen well, and 90 to 100 percent of their speech
will be understood. Most children will have mastered all English speech sounds by the age of
seven or eight. By school age, a child should be able to speak in complete sentences with minor
grammatical errors. A childs language skills continue to develop through the school years. From
about age 9 to 19 most language growth occurs in the area of written language. Childrens oral
language is complex, as demonstrated in the sentences they use by the age of 5 (Genishi,
1988). It has also been found that children understand far more than they can speak. The early
childhood classroom is an appropriate place to enrich the language of young children.
Meaningful experiences, during these early years, can provide language opportunities to enhance
and sustain language growth (Genishi, 1988). Early childhood teachers can provide opportunities
for young children to play with language, while gaining an appreciation of the sounds and
meaning of words (Rubin & Wilson, 1995).
According to Cole and Cole (1996), in the period between two and six years of age, childrens
mental and social lives are totally transformed by an explosive growth in the ability to
comprehend and use language. To be able to do this the child needs to learn the sounds that
make up the various words in their language, what these words mean, how to structure these
words together and the different purposes that language has. This illustrates how complex a task
language acquisition is, yet the vast majority of children will both learn to understand and use it
in a short space of time (Lloyd, 1995). In addition, all children regardless of factors such as
ethnicity, culture and social class will go through the same stages when learning language and at
approximately the same age (Flanagan, 1996).
Over the years, the question of how children acquire language has intrigued many researchers
leading to the creation of two contrasting theories. One that states that language is a learnt
behaviour and another which states that people have an innate ability to learn and understand
language. However, both of these theories have been criticized for being inadequate at
explaining how children acquire language (Cole and Cole, 1996). This inadequacy lead to the
creation of the interactionist approach which recognizes that although a child may have some
innate ability that helps them to recognize, respond, learn and create language, the child will only
develop into a competent language user if they experience language in the social context, take
part in social interactions and are given support (Cole and Cole, 1996). This essay will argue
that although some innate factors are involved in language acquisition it is the social
experiences, interactions and support that the child receives that really enables them to develop
language skills.
The idea that children have an innate structure that enables them to acquire language is most
often associated with Chomsky. Chomsky (1957,1968) believed that the fact that children are
able to understand and use a complex language system in such a short of time despite often
hearing incomplete and incorrect language implies that they must be born with something that
helps them to understand and reproduce the language they hear (Keenan, 2002). Chomsky
(1968) suggested that infants are predisposed to listen to and respond to language and that
everyone has an innate mental structure called a Language Acquisition Device. This device
contains information about universal grammar that is present in all languages and adapts to the
language the child hears to enable them to understand the language and use it in the
grammatically correct way (Keenan, 2002). The existence of a Language Acquisition Device
would explain how children quickly and effectively acquire language. It would also explain why
all children go though similar stages in language development, in particular the mistakes they
make. For instance, it is common for children to go through a stage where they over generalize
grammatical rules for example, they may say mouses instead of mice and I goed instead of
I went. It is very unlikely that the child is imitating these words and phrases they are instead
structuring what they want to say by using their stored knowledge of plurals and the past tense
(Flanagan, 1996). These strengths of Chomskys (1968) Language Acquisition Device suggest
that it is likely that humans have some kind of inherited ability that helps in language acquisition.
However, Chomskys (1968) Language Acquisition Device has also been strongly
criticized. The main criticism is that there is no evidence for either the existence of universal
grammar or the existence of such a device in the brain. It is also suggested that if such a
complex device did exist then children would acquire language much quicker than they actually
do (Keenan, 2002). Another criticism of Chomskys theory is that it indicates that children are
not active in their own language acquisition. Research by Bates et al (1975) has shown how
even very young children play an active role in the pre-verbal and verbal exchanges they have
with others (cited in Bancroft, 1995). This suggests they do not just passively absorb language
but actively acquire it. Furthermore, in contrast of Chomskys view that children hear
incomplete and incorrect language, research has shown that adults in many cultures adapt their
speech when talking to children so that it is easier for them to understand. This adaptation could
make it simpler for a child to learn both meanings of words and the grammatical systems that
exist (Lloyd, 1995). Chomskys (1968) Language Acquisition Device shows how the
development of language may be aided by an innate predisposition and mental structure but its
many criticisms and the fact that it does not view the child in its social context mean that this
theory alone does not effectively explain how children acquire language.
Although they recognize that inherited factors may be involved in language acquisition,
interactionists stress the importance of both the social support the parents provide the young
language learner, as well as the social contexts in which the language-learning child is
instructed (Keenan, 2002). Bruner (1983) believed that children will only develop effective
language skills if they are provided with a Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). This
system includes all of the various strategies and techniques that adults use to assist childrens
language acquisition (Keenan, 2002). One technique that Bruner saw as crucial to language
acquisition was pre-verbal exchanges and games that occur between infants and their parents,
which he believes encourages language, and helps to develop communication skills such as turn
taking (Bancroft, 1995). Bruner believes that the fact that parents often repeatedly say the same
thing to their infants in the same contexts helps language develop as it provides a structure for
communication and the repetition may also help the child understand the meanings of
words. Another technique is the way in which an adults speech to young children differs from
their speech to adults, making it both more appealing and easier for the child to
understand. They may also respond to the childs level of understanding by rephrasing both their
and the childs speech in order to help the child become more competent language users (Cole
and Cole, 1996). Another strategy that Bruner described was that of scaffolding, here the adult
uses language that is slightly above the childs own level of understanding this will help the child
understand and use more complex language (Keenan,2002). Many other theorists and research
studies have supported Bruners belief that social interactions and receiving support from adults
are crucial to language acquisition. As Wilson (2001) states, what young children need is first-
hand language experience: as much interaction they can get, with adults and with other children,
one-to-one or in small groups, engaging in topics of shared interest and encouraging an ever-
extending range of purposes for talk (p.23).
Influences of TeacherChild Social Interactions on English Language Development in a
Head Start Classroom (Ruth Alfaro Piker, Lesley A. Rex)
Chesterfield et al. (1983) examination of the English development of Spanish-speaking
preschoolers show similar view of Bruners that how teachers impact on their childrens English
learning. They found that the more the learner interacted with the English-speaking teacher, the
more proficient in English the Spanish-speaker. However, they also found that when minimal
interactions transpired between the English-speaking teachers and the English learning children,
these children developed their proficiency from their verbal interactions with their English-
speaking peers. Consequently, the more the children interacted with English-speaking peers, the
more English proficient the learners became.
Bruners (1983) Language Acquisition Support System shows that he views social interaction
and support from adults as vital to a child acquiring language. Research has been done on the
different techniques and experiences that Bruner includes in his Language Acquisition Support
System. The research has involved looking in depth at the different techniques and experiences
to see what they involve, how common they are and whether they do enable a child to acquire
language and if so how do they do this? Bruner believed that the preverbal interactions,
exchanges and games that parents often have with their very young children are, crucial vehicles
in the passage from communication to language (Bruner quoted in Cole and Cole, 1996,
p.321). Bruner (1983) believed that many of the games that frequently take place between
adults and very young children encourage language development as, they offer the first
opportunity to explore how to get things done with words (p.46). The game that is most often
referred to is that of peep-a-boo. This game has a conversation like structure as it revolves
around a shared subject, involves turn taking and easily flows from the infant to the adult
(Bancroft, 1995). Dockrell and Messer (1999) also point out how this type of game shows the
young child why and how language can be used in a context they can understand. Bruners
(1983) observations of two young children taking part in this game with their mothers also show
that the child is given an idea about how and when to respond by the role that the child is given
an idea about how and when to respond by the role that they are playing, as the infant develops
they can be both of these roles. A game of this kind occurred during my recoding of the
language between a seventeen month old and his mother. The child initiated the game by putting
his arm inside of his jumper; his mother responded by gasping and saying, Where has it
gone? the child then pulled his arm back through and smiled and his mother said, oh there it is
placing emphasis on the there and laughing. This sequence was then repeated twice with slight
variations. During the second and third sequence the child exclaimed ah when he pulled his
arm out and on the last sequence his mother ended by saying, Oh theres your hand and kissed
it. The fact that the child initiated the game and waited for his mother to speak before making
his arm reappear indicates he understands the games format. His vocalizations of ah in the
second and third sequences also show how this type of game may encourage speech.
In addition, to the language assisting games mentioned above Bruner also believed that language
acquisition is helped by parents frequently saying the same things to children during certain
activities or tasks. Ferriers (1974) observations of her one-year-old daughter show some
examples of this. For example, the first thing Ferrier often said as she went into her daughters
bedroom was oh, phew! in response to the smell of a dirty nappy, her daughter after a couple
of days, produced it in the same setting, but when the smell was absent. For her it was a form of
greeting and tied initially to that particular routine. (p.78) Using this kind of repetitive language
in the childs everyday routines and rituals helps the child to understand the meaning of the
language they hear and may lead to them imitating the words (BBC2 for Open University,
2003). Dockrell and Messer (1999) also believe that the fact that adults speech to young
children is frequently about something that the child is doing or watching helps language
acquisition as it is in a context they can easily understand and relate to. During my observation, I
found that the vast majority of what the mother said to her son referred to what the child was
doing or holding. For example, the child was sitting between his mothers legs and took her
slipper off, his mother said slipper and the child replied da then the child touched his
mothers foot and she said foot, toes etcetera, this sequence was then repeated again. Being
told what it is he is touching may help this childs vocabulary develop.
Bruner also believed that the way in which adults speak to young children differs from speech to
other adults might help the child to acquire language. Studies have been carried out to look at
what characterizes this child-directed speech and how it might help childrens language
development. When using child-directed speech, the adult will use short sentences and simple
words and will often speak slowly. The adult may also use pauses, stress and repetition to help
the child understand what parts of their speech is most important (Dockrell and Messer,
1999). In my transcript, the mother often repeated the important words when speaking to her
son, socks, their Johns socks the child then said gocks. The fact that the child attempted to
say the repeated word may show how repetition helps the child understand what word is the
actual name for the item he is holding. Research by Pegg et al (1992) showed that young babies
prefer child-directed speech to other speech and are more responsive when it is used (Keenan,
2002). If the child prefers and is more responsive to this type of speech then it may help their
language acquisition as they will listen to more language and take part in more preverbal
exchanges (Lloyd, 1995). In a slight contrast to child-directed speech, Bruner also believed that
parents sometimes use language that is slightly above the childs own level. This is called
scaffolding and may cause the child to understand and use complex language more quickly
(Keenan, 2002). Adults may also encourage children to say then names of present objects and
then give them feedback on their attempts at speech, Bruner believed that this was an important
part of the process by which children learn that specific words refer to specific objects, actions
and more complex concepts (Lloyd, 1995, p.45). My transcript shows evidence of this kind of
encouragement and feedback. The mother showed her son a toy clock and said yesterday you
said clock for the first time didnt you? to which the child replies, cock, cock, cock his mother
then laughs and says yes thats right, clock. Another supporting technique that adults often use
when talking to young children is to give them feedback on their speech by expanding on it and
rephrasing it. One way of expanding on a childs speech is to repeat it in the grammatically
correct way. This could help the child to learn the complex rules of grammar that exist in their
language especially if they copy it.
According to Wilson (2001), what seems to be more vital to language acquisition is that the
young child is involved in social interactions that involve language in particular one to one
interactions. Support for the importance of social interactions that involve language has come
from a number of cases where children who did not have such interactions experienced language
delays. One case often mentioned is that of Genie who from the ages of twenty months to
thirteen years was kept isolated from her family in a small room, hearing or seeing no language
and having no significant social interactions. When Genie was discovered she showed no
understanding of language but once placed in a foster home where she heard and saw language
being used an took part in social interactions she slowly developed language that was similar to
that of a three year old (Lloyd, 1995). Genies case shows how a child must hear or see language
in the early years to become competent language users. However, the great levels of deprivation
she experienced for twelve years mean that it cannot be used to prove that social interactions that
involve language are vital for language acquisition.
Cases involving hearing children of deaf parents and deaf children of hearing parents illustrate
the importance of these interactions more clearly (Cole and Cole, 1996). Goldin-Meadow (1985)
found that if hearing parents of a deaf child did not use sign language to communicate with the
child the child would invent their own kind of simple sign language similar to a two year old
hearing childs verbal language but would fail to use complex grammatical structures (Cole and
Cole, 1996). In addition, Sachs et al (1981) studied a hearing child of deaf parents who did not
use sign language with their child and the only language the child heard was on television and
when they spent a short amount of time at nursery. This child developed a basic form of
language and grammar (Cole and Cole, 1996). These two studies imply that if a child is in a
language using environment, they will develop basic language skills but is only when language is
used in social interactions with the child that they will become competent language users.
More evidence for the importance of social interactions for language acquisition has come from
studies on children who watch a lot of television. Snow et al (1976) found that children whose
only experience of language is on the television do not develop enough language to use and
understand a variety of sentences, particularly more complex sentences (Cole and Cole, 1996).
More recently, Duffy et al (2004) researched the effects of childrens viewing habits on their
language development. They found that the children who frequently watched television and did
not do any other activities whilst it was on had how levels of word production and understanding
at three years of age. Watching a lot of television may mean the child is less likely to socially
interact and play with others, experiences which are crucial to language acquisition, this could
explain why their language is poor. Cole and Cole (1996) state how television alone will not
cause a child to acquire language as, children must also actively engage in speaking to others to
see how their words affect others and themselves (p.323).
It is said to be highly probable that some innate factors assist a child in their language acquisition
(Dockrell and Messer, 1999, p.22). However, Nativist theories such as Chomskys (1968)
Language Acquisition Device have many weaknesses and cannot fully explain how children
develop into competent language users (Keenan, 2002). Studies into the support that adults give
to childrens language development in the forms of preverbal games, child-directed speech,
feedback and putting words into context have shown that these can help a child to acquire
language. In addition, such techniques have been found in many different cultures and studies
on children who have not experienced language as part of social interactions in their early years
have shown that these children usually experience language delays and problems (Lloyd,
1995). This all provides support to Bruners (1983) Language Acquisition Support System and
his view that social interactions and support are crucial if a child is to acquire language. In
recent years research studies, polices and teaching resources for parents have reflected this
viewpoint. In conclusion, although some innate factors are involved in language acquisition they
alone do not cause a child to acquire language it is the social experiences, interactions and
support that the child received that really enables them to develop the ability to use and
understand language effectively.

Jerome Bruner and the process of education
Jerome Bruner and the process of education. Jerome Bruner has made a profound
contribution to our appreciation of the process of education and to the development of
curriculum theory. We explore his work and draw out some important lessons for
informal educators and those concerned with the practice of lifelong learning.
It is surely the case that schooling is only one small part of how a culture inducts the young into
its canonical ways. Indeed, schooling may even be at odds with a cultures other ways of
inducting the young into the requirements of communal living. What has become increasingly
clear is that education is not just about conventional school matters like curriculum or
standards or testing. What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the
broader context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in
the young. How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognize, is a function of
how one conceives of culture and its aims, professed and otherwise.(Jerome S. Bruner 1996: ix-
Jerome S. Bruner (1915- ) is one of the best known and influential psychologists of the
twentieth century. He was one of the key figures in the so called cognitive revolution but it is
the field of education that his influence has been especially felt. His books The Process of
Education and Towards a Theory of Instruction have been widely read and become recognized
as classics, and his work on the social studies programme Man: A Course of Study (MACOS)
in the mid-1960s is a landmark in curriculum development. More recently Bruner has come to
be critical of the cognitive revolution and has looked to the building of a cultural psychology
that takes proper account of the historical and social context of participants. In his 1996 book
The Culture of Education these arguments were developed with respect to schooling (and
education more generally). How one conceives of education, he wrote, we have finally come
to recognize, is a function of how one conceives of the culture and its aims, professed and
otherwise (Bruner 1996: ix-x).
Jerome S. Bruner life
Bruner was born in New York City and later educated at Duke University and Harvard (from
which he was awarded a PhD in 1947). During World War II, Bruner worked as a social
psychologist exploring propaganda public opinion and social attitudes for U.S. Army
intelligence. After obtaining his PhD he became a member of faculty, serving as professor of
psychology, as well as cofounder and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies.
Beginning in the 1940s, Jerome Bruner, along with Leo Postman, worked on the ways in which
needs, motivations, and expectations (or mental sets) influence perception. Sometimes dubbed
as the New Look, they explored perception from a functional orientation (as against a process
to separate from the world around it). In addition to this work, Bruner began to look at the role of
strategies in the process of human categorization, and more generally, the development of human
cognition. This concern with cognitive psychology led to a particular interest in the cognitive
development of children (and their modes of representation) and just what the appropriate forms
of education might be.
From the late 1950s on Jerome Bruner became interested in schooling in the USA and was
invited to chair an influential ten day meeting of scholars and educators at Woods Hole on Cape
Cod in 1959 (under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science
Foundation). One result was Bruners landmark book The Process of Education (1960). It
developed some of the key themes of that meeting and was an crucial factor in the generation of
a range of educational programmes and experiments in the 1960s. Jerome Bruner subsequently
joined a number of key panels and committees (including the Presidents Advisory Panel of
Education). In 1963, he received the Distinguished Scientific Award from the American
Psychological Association, and in 1965 he served as its president.
Jerome S. Bruner also became involved in the design and implementation of the influential
MACOS project (which sought to produce a comprehensive curriculum drawing upon the
behavioural sciences). The curriculum famously aimed to address three questions:
What is uniquely human about human beings?
How did they get that way?
How could they be made more so? (Bruner 1976: 74)
The project involved a number of young researchers, including Howard Gardner, who
subsequently have made an impact on educational thinking and practice. MACOS was attacked
by conservatives (especially the cross-cultural nature of the materials). It was also difficult to
implement requiring a degree of sophistication and learning on the part of teachers, and ability
and motivation on the part of students. The educational tide had begun to move away from more
liberal and progressive thinkers like Jerome Bruner.
In the 1960s Jerome Bruner developed a theory of cognitive growth. His approach (in contrast to
Piaget) looked to environmental and experiential factors. Bruner suggested that intellectual
ability developed in stages through step-by-step changes in how the mind is used. Bruners
thinking became increasingly influenced by writers like Lev Vygotsky and he began to be critical
of the intrapersonal focus he had taken, and the lack of attention paid to social and political
context. In the early 1970s Bruner left Harvard to teach for several years at the university of
Oxford. There he continued his research into questions of agency in infants and began a series of
explorations of childrens language. He returned to Harvard as a visiting professor in 1979 and
then, two years later, joined the faculty of the new School for Social Research in New York City.
He became critical of the cognitive revolution and began to argue for the building of a cultural
psychology. This cultural turn was then reflected in his work on education most especially in
his 1996 book: The Culture of Education.
The process of education
The Process of Education (1960) was a landmark text. It had a direct impact on policy formation
in the United States and influenced the thinking and orientation of a wide group of teachers and
scholars, Its view of children as active problem-solvers who are ready to explore difficult
subjects while being out of step with the dominant view in education at that time, struck a chord
with many. It was a surprise, Jerome Bruner was later to write (in the preface to the 1977
edition), that a book expressing so structuralist a view of knowledge and so intuitionist an
approach to the process of knowing should attract so much attention in America, where
empiricism had long been the dominant voice and learning theory its amplifier (ibid.: vii).
Four key themes emerge out of the work around The Process of Education (1960: 11-16):
The role of structure in learning and how it may be made central in teaching. The approach
taken should be a practical one. The teaching and learning of structure, rather than simply the
mastery of facts and techniques, is at the center of the classic problem of transfer If earlier
learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of
which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible
(ibid.: 12).
Readiness for learning. Here the argument is that schools have wasted a great deal of peoples
time by postponing the teaching of important areas because they are deemed too difficult.
We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually
honest form to any child at any stage of development. (ibid.: 33)
This notion underpins the idea of the spiral curriculum A curriculum as it develops should
revisit this basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full
formal apparatus that goes with them (ibid.: 13).
Intuitive and analytical thinking. Intuition (the intellectual technique of arriving and plausible
but tentative formulations without going through the analytical steps by which such formulations
would be found to be valid or invalid conclusions ibid.: 13) is a much neglected but essential
feature of productive thinking. Here Bruner notes how experts in different fields appear to leap
intuitively into a decision or to a solution to a problem (ibid.: 62) a phenomenon that Donald
Schn was to explore some years later and looked to how teachers and schools might create the
conditions for intuition to flourish.
Motives for learning. Ideally, Jerome Bruner writes, interest in the material to be learned is
the best stimulus to learning, rather than such external goals as grades or later competitive
advantage (ibid.: 14). In an age of increasing spectatorship, motives for learning must be kept
from going passive they must be based as much as possible upon the arousal of interest in
what there is be learned, and they must be kept broad and diverse in expression (ibid.: 80).
Bruner was to write two postscripts to The Process of Education: Towards a theory of
instruction (1966) and The Relevance of Education (1971). In these books Bruner put forth his
evolving ideas about the ways in which instruction actually affects the mental models of the
world that students construct, elaborate on and transform (Gardner 2001: 93). In the first book
the various essays deal with matters such as patterns of growth, the will to learn, and on making
and judging (including some helpful material around evaluation). Two essays are of particular
interest his reflections on MACOS (see above), and his notes on a theory of instruction. The
latter essay makes the case for taking into account questions of predisposition, structure,
sequence, and reinforcement in preparing curricula and programmes. He makes the case for
education as a knowledge-getting process:
To instruct someone is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to
teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We
teach a subject not to produce little living libraries on that subject, but rather to get a student to
think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the
process of knowledge-getting. Knowing is a process not a product. (1966: 72)
The essays in The Relevance of Education (1971) apply his theories to infant development.
The culture of education
Jerome Bruners reflections on education in The Culture of Education (1996) show the impact of
the changes in his thinking since the 1960s. He now placed his work within a thorough
appreciation of culture: culture shapes the mind it provides us with the toolkit by which we
construct not only our worlds but our very conception of our selves and our powers (ibid.: x).
This orientation presupposes that human mental activity is neither solo nor conducted
unassisted, even when it goes on inside the head (ibid.: xi). It also takes Bruner well beyond
the confines of schooling.
Jerome S. Bruner has had a profound effect on education and upon those researchers and
students he has worked with. Howard Gardner has commented:
Jerome Bruner is not merely one of the foremost educational thinkers of the era; he is also an
inspired learner and teacher. His infectious curiosity inspires all who are not completely jaded.
Individuals of every age and background are invited to join in. Logical analyses, technical
dissertations, rich and wide knowledge of diverse subject matters, asides to an ever wider orbit of
information, intuitive leaps, pregnant enigmas pour forth from his indefatigable mouth and pen.
In his words, Intellectual activity is anywhere and everywhere, whether at the frontier of
knowledge or in a third-grade classroom. To those who know him, Bruner remains the
Compleat Educator in the flesh (Gardner 2001: 94)
To be completed
Further reading and references
Bruner, J (1960) The Process of Education, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 97 +
xxvi pages. Rightly recognized as a twentieth century educational classic, this book argues that
schooling and curricula should be constructed to foster intuitive graspings. Bruner makes the
case for a spiral curriculum. The second edition, 1977, has a a new preface that reassesses the
Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press. 176 + x
Bruner, J. S. (1971) The Relevance of Education, New York: Norton. In this book Bruner applied
his theories to infant development.
Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 224 +
xvi pages.
Bruner, J. (1973) Going Beyond the Information Given, New York: Norton.
Bruner, J. (1983) Childs Talk: Learning to Use Language, New York: Norton.
Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of Meaning Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J., Goodnow, J., & Austin, A. (1956) A Study of Thinking, New York: Wiley.
Gardner, H. (2001) Jerome S. Bruner in J. A. Palmer (ed.) Fifty Modern Thinkers on
Education. From Piaget to the present, London: Routledge.
To cite this article: Smith, M.K. (2002) Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education, the
encyclopedia of informal education. [
education/ Retrieved: enter date]
Mark K. Smith 2002

Didactics- 1 Introduction
Timothy Mason
Learning Language
In this first lecture I look at two ways of accounting for how a child acquires its mother tongue. The first, drawn
from the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky, sees language as a specific skill, its acquisition governed by an inborn
programme, and requiring no direct intervention from parents or teachers. The second, advanced by Jerome Bruner
and rooted in Lev Vygotsky's theories of development, sees the behaviour of the child's entourage as crucial.

If I wanted to start the course off with a silly pun, I could say 'Learning a language is child's play'. But perhaps it is
more accurate to say 'Creating a language is child's play'. Let us look at an example of how a language may be
created :
A Pidgin is a communicative code that allows people of different mother-tongues to talk to each other without
having to go through the trouble of learning each other's languages. It is characterized by
- reduced syntax and vocabulary
- no fixed order of words, with considerable variation from one speaker to another
- used purely as a language of communication
It is not 'lived in' as fully developed languages are ; no-one speaks a pidgin as their mother tongue. Although one
can express quite complex concepts through a pidgin, such codes do not attain the level of expressivity of a full
But a pidgin can become a language - under the right circumstances, it will evolve into a Creole. How does this
Derek Bickerton, who has reconstructed the process of creolisation in Hawaii, says that it takes one generation(1).
When children begin to use a pidgin, they automatically enrich the vocabulary and the syntax - it becomes a full
language. The community of young children in Hawaii took the pidgin used by their parents - workers from China,
Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines and Puerto Rico - and created a language. (Bickerton's work has been
According to the followers of the American linguist, Noam Chomsky(2), this can stand as an emblem for what the
process of acquiring a language consists in - at least for a mother tongue. The child does not learn the language, but
creates it anew.
Does this have anything to tell us about learning a foreign language? It has often been noticed that, whereas just
about everyone learns a first language with great ease, very few people manage to learn a second language so well
that they can pass for a native. Moreover, while there is very little variation in final competence in L1, people vary
widely in the extent to which they acquire an L2. One of the first questions that we should ask, then, is whether there
is any relationship between the acquisition of an L1 and the acquisition of an L2?
In order to answer this question, we first need to look more closely at what is known about L1 acquisition. This is
what I intend to do over the next couple of weeks.
1. First, I will outline a theory of acquisition suggested by the work of the American linguist Noam Chomsky.
2. Then I will consider some of the objections that have been made to the Chomskian theory.
3. We will then turn to the empirical material, to see whether it favours Chomsky or his critics.
Chomsky and language learning.
Noam Chomsky is perhaps the best known and the most influential linguist of the second half of the Twentieth
Century. He has made a number of strong claims about language : in particular, he suggests that language is an
innate faculty - that is to say that we are born with a set of rules about language in our heads which he refers to as
the 'Universal Grammar'. The universal grammar is the basis upon which all human languages build. If a Martian
linguist were to visit Earth, he would deduce from the evidence that there was only one language, with a number of
local variants. Chomsky gives a number of reasons why this should be so. Among the most important of these
reasons is the ease with which children acquire their mother tongue. He claims that it would be little short of a
miracle if children learnt their language in the same way that they learn mathematics or how to ride a bicycle. This,
he says, is because :
1. Children are exposed to very little correctly formed language. When people speak, they constantly interrupt
themselves, change their minds, make slips of the tongue and so on. Yet children manage to learn their
language all the same. This claim is usually referred to as the Argument from Poverty of the Stimulus.
2. Children do not simply copy the language that they hear around them. They deduce rules from it, which
they can then use to produce sentences that they have never heard before. They do not learn a repertoire
of phrases and sayings, as the behaviourists believe, but a grammar that generates an infinity of new
Children are born, then, with the Universal Grammar wired into their brains. This grammar offers a certain limited
number of possibilities - for example, over the word order of a typical sentence.
Some languages have a basic SVO structure
The teacher gave a lecture.
75% of the world's languages use either this (English, French, Vietnamese) or SOV (Japanese, Tibetan, Korean) -
others prefer VSO (10 - 15% - Welsh) or VOS (Malagasy)(3) * Some languages, such as Latin, appear to have free
word order, but even here, SOV is very common. OSV is very rare - but you will find an example in the speech of
Yoda, in Star Wars(4).
Strong with the force you are.
When the child begins to listen to his parents, he will unconsciously recognise which kind of a language he is
dealing with - and he will set his grammar to the correct one - this is known as 'setting the parameters'.
It is as if the child were offered at birth a certain number of hypotheses, which he or she then matches with what is
happening around him. He knows intuitively that there are some words that behave like verbs, and others like nouns,
and that there is a limited set of possibilities as to their ordering within the phrase. This is not information that he is
taught directly by the adults that surround him, but information that is given. It is as if the traveller were provided at
the beginning of his journey with a compass and an astrolabe.
This set of language learning tools, provided at birth, is referred to by Chomsky as the Language Acquisition
Device. (Notice that he uses the term "acquisition" rather than learning).
Chomsky's critics
Those linguists who do not agree with Chomsky point to several problems, of which I shall mention just four.
1. Chomsky differentiates between competence and performance. Performance is what people actually say,
which is often ungrammatical, whereas competence is what they instinctively know about the syntax of
their language - and this is more or less equated with the Universal Grammar. Chomsky concentrates
upon this aspect of language - he thus ignores the things that people actually say. The problem here is
that he relies upon people's intuitions as to what is right or wrong - but it is not at all clear that people will
all make the same judgements, or that their judgements actually reflect the way people really do use the
2. Chomsky distinguishes between the 'core' or central grammar of a language, which is essentially founded
on the UG, and peripheral grammar. Thus, in English, the fact that 'We were' is considered correct, and
'We was ' incorrect is a historical accident, rather than an integral part of the core grammar - as late as the
18th Century, recognised writers, such as Dean Swift, could write 'We was ...' without feeling that they
had committed a terrible error. Similarly, the outlawing of the double negation in English is peripheral,
due to social and historical circumstances rather than anything specific to the language itself. To Chomsky,
the real object of linguistic science is the core grammar. But how do we determine what belongs to the
core, and what belongs to the periphery? To some observers, all grammar is conventional, and there is no
particular reason to make the Chomskian distinction.
3. Chomsky also appears to reduce language to its grammar. He seems to regard meaning as secondary - a
sentence such as 'Colourless green ideas sleep furiously' may be considered as part of the English
language, for it is grammatically correct, and therefore worthy of study by Transformational
Grammarians. A sentence such as 'My mother, he no like bananas', on the other hand, is of no interest to
the Chomskian linguist. Nor would he be particularly interested in most of the utterances heard in the
course of a normal lecture.
4. Because he disregards meaning, and the social situation in which language is normally produced, he
disregards in particular the situation in which the child learns his first language.
Bruner's LASS
Let us look closely at this fourth objection. The psychologist, Jerome Bruner(5), holds that while there very well
may be, as Chomsky suggests, a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, there must also be a Language Acquisition
Support System, or LASS. He is referring to the family and entourage of the child.
If we watch closely the way a child interacts with the adults around her, we will see that they constantly provide
opportunities for her to acquire her mother - tongue. Mother or father provide ritualised scenarios - the ceremony of
having a bath, eating a meal, getting dressed, or playing a game - in which the phases of interaction are rapidly
recognised and predicted by the infant.
It is within such clear and emotionally charged contexts that the child first becomes aware of the way in which
language is used. The utterances of the mother or father are themselves ritualised, and accompany the activity in
predictable, and comprehensible ways. Gradually, the child moves from a passive position to an active one, taking
over the movements of the caretaker, and, eventually, the language as well.
Bruner cites the example of a well-known childhood game, in which the mother, or other caretaker, disappears and
then reappears. Through this ritual, which at first may be accompanied by simple noises, or 'Bye-bye .... Hello', and
later by lengthier commentaries, the child is both learning about separation and return and being offered a context
within which language, charged with emotive content, may be acquired. It is this reciprocal, and affective nature of
language that Chomsky appears to leave out of his hypotheses.
Bruner's conception of the way children learn language is taken a little further by John Macnamara (6), who holds
that children, rather than having an in-built language device, have an innate capacity to read meaning into social
situations. It is this capacity that makes them capable of understanding language, and therefore learning it with ease,
rather than an LAD.
Chomsky, then, sees the child as essentially autonomous in the creation of language. She is programmed to learn,
and will learn so long as minimal social and economic conditions are realised. In Bruner's version, the program is
indeed in place, but the social conditions become more important. The child is still an active participant, is still
essentially creative in her approach to language acquisition, but the role of the parents and other caretakers is also
seen as primordial. Finally, Macnamara sees language learning as being subordinate to and dependent upon the
capacity to understand and participate in social activities.

Chomsky - the evidence I

In this lecture we look at the evidence from neurology and the study of language disorders (aphasias) to see whether
there is any evidence for localization of language skills within the brain. We then look at what has been observed of
the behaviours of parents and children during the language acquisition process.
A : Introduction
Last week we saw 3 models of language learning :
Chomsky - LAD - UG
- the child will create language on the basis of the partial and ungrammatical sentences that she hears.
The entourage simply provides minimal conditions of care and protection, but does not have to take any
particular notice of the child.
Bruner - every LAD needs his LASS.
Parents provide clear, predictable repeated situations in which meaning of utterances is clear to the child.
- no need for LAD - children have capacity to make sense of human interaction - this enables them to
understand language.
Does the evidence permit us to favour one or the other of these models?
B : The evidence from neurology:
For an excellent round-up of what is known about the human brain, see William Calvin's book 'Conversations with
Neil's Brain The Neural Nature of Thought & Language. A full critique of Chomsky and Pinker's belief in the
special nature of language, written from the point of view of neurological anthropology, can be found in Deacon.
Note: Caution is to be taken with evidence from neurobiology. There is a temptation to use the neuro-sciences to
underpin a favoured style of teaching. However, it is not at all clear that we are as yet able to move directly from the
way the brain is structured to the way teachers ought to plan their classes. This is not simply because our knowledge
of the brain is changing rapidly - for example, a number of pedagogues have referred to the tripartite division of the
brain into 'reptilian', 'mammalian' and 'human' layer, and have claimed to found their teaching approach on this
division ; not all neurologists would today subscribe to this model. It is also because the classroom cannot be fully
understood as a set of neurosystems in an unmediated relationship to each other. The social and historical conditions
under which schooling occurs cannot be excluded from the equation.
Chomsky suggests that the UG is innate, and that it is specific. If this were so, we might expect to find that
language was linked to specific areas of the human brain1. Let us see if this is the case.
Human beings' brains are lateralised - that is, the right half of your brain controls the left side of your body, and the
left half of the brain controls the right side of your body. But, to a far greater extent than among apes and monkeys,
one side of the brain appears to be more powerful than the other - in most human beings, the left hand side is
dominant. Why should this be?
To answer this question, we need to go back to the year of 1861. In that year, a patient of the French neurologist,
Paul Broca, died. The man was known as 'Tan', for he suffered from a condition known as 'aphasia', in which the
powers of speech are severely curtailed - and the only word he was capable of uttering was 'tan'. Broca carried out
an autopsy upon the patient, and he discovered that there was damage to the brain in the left frontal lobe. Later,
another patient with a similar deficiency died. Broca autopsied again, and again he discovered a lesion in the same
area of the brain. By 1885, after examining the brains of a number of people suffering from aphasia, Broca felt
justified in declaring 'Nous parlons avec l'hmisphere gauche.
Damage to the area that Broca identified - now known as Broca's area - produces a very typical form of speech
defect. The sufferer appears to lose the ability to construct sentences grammatically. He tries very hard to
communicate, and, if the condition is not as extreme as it was in the case of Tan, we may engage in meaningful
conversation with him.
Not all aphasias2 are of the same kind, however. In some cases, the patient appears to be fluent - indeed, may be
exceptionally fluent - but what he says does not make sense. He loses control of his vocabulary, producing
malapropisms, and inventing words that do not exist. Moreover, whereas a patient suffering from Broca's aphasia is
able to understand what is said to him, a patient suffering from the second kind may not understand what others
say, and also, may not realise that there is something wrong with their speech. People suffering from this often
develop paranoid symptoms. This kind of aphasia is linked to lesions in another part of the left hemisphere of the
brain - Wernicke's area, discovered by Carl Wernicke in 1874.
Does this suggest that Chomsky is correct in believing that there is a specific language mechanism in the brain? To
some observers, it does. However, it does need to be pointed out that the picture is much more complex than the
original formulation by Chomsky might have lead us to believe. I have described two areas that are important in
language processing, but there are also others. It is also the case that some aspects of linguistic behaviour appear
to be linked to the right hemisphere - emotional colouring, a sense of humour, and a memory for rhymes and songs
amongst them. In one way or another, a normal conversation will involve activation of most of the brain.
Moreover, it does not appear to be possible to say that any of these areas are exclusively reserved for language
It is also interesting to note that a patient suffering from Wernicke's aphasia is very close to Chomskian man - they
are grammatically fluent, but make no sense. Chomsky's grammatical capacity does indeed appear to be linked to
Broca's area - but whereas someone who has had their vocabulary-finding functions interfered with has great
difficulty in communicating, while remaining unaware of those difficulties, someone who has had their
grammar removed may still be able to communicate, and is aware of the difficulties from which they suffer.
This may be seen as suggesting that Chomsky does overemphasise the importance of syntax.
C : Evidence from mother-tongue acquisition
Now let us look at how children actually do learn language.
They may begin to learn in the womb. We know that they react to their mothers' voices from birth - they have been
listening to her over the last three months of pregnancy. However, the first noticeable active vocal activity begins at
about 8 weeks - the baby begins to coo - at first producing individual sounds, but later stringing them together in a
rhythmical pattern. Then, at around 20 weeks, the baby diversifies the sounds she is producing, and gradually starts
babbling. Babbling involves a selection process.
- in the first stage, the child appears to produce the whole gamut of sounds used by human beings in the production
of speech - it is the tower of Babel indeed.
Bit by bit, however, the range of sounds used narrows down, and the child concentrates more and more upon the
sounds used by the mother tongue. She is listening to you. So what is being said to her?
We remember that Chomsky claims that children only hear very partial and ungrammatical input. It is now known
that this claim is almost certainly false - adults in our culture, when speaking to children, take great care to
phrase their utterances correctly. This is probably not because they are thinking primarily about offering the
correct syntactic model, but because they are aiming for clarity of expression. It has been noticed that mothers and
other caretakers, when speaking to children, adopt a certain number of specific verbal strategies. The style of
speech that they use is sometimes referred to as 'Motherese', although non-sexist linguists prefer to call it
'caretaker talk'. What are the characteristics of this kind of language?
1. Simplified in grammar and meaning
2. Shorter sentences - from about 8 words per sentence to four, when speaking to two year olds
3. More restricted range of sentence patterns
4. Expansion and repetition of sentences
5. Slower speech
6. Use of special words and sounds
7. High pitch
8. Large number of questions and utterances with high rising intonation - looking for feedback.
9. Embedded in the here and now.
So the language that children hear is by no means necessarily partial and ungrammatical. It has been
suggested that these characteristics offer the child such clear samples of language, that there is no need to posit a
Chomskian black box, or UG. However, supporters of the UG approach point out that -
Grammatical forms in caretaker language are not as simple as they may appear.
- large number of Wh- forms.
Moreover, no-one has yet found a close correlation between language used by caretakers, and language
produced by children.
Not all social groups adapt their speech to young children
In Samoa, for example, adults very rarely speak directly to their children, and among some black communities in
the US, it is considered a waste of time to speak to children who are too young to give sensible replies - why talk to
them, they don't know anything yet? And yet, these children also learn language.
Children do not simply repeat the language they hear from their caretakers
Not only do they fail to copy the utterancesheir mothers give them, tthey also produce utterances that they have
never heard, and use structures that they have never heard.
When mothers interact with their young children, they appear to pay very little attention to the
grammatical correctness of their youngsters' utterances. They correct wrong information, and not wrong
grammar. So, Roger Brown reports the following dialogue :
Child : Mamma isn't boy, he a girl.
Mother : That's right.
Child : And Walt Disney comes on Tuesday.
Mother : No he does not.
Indeed - and this is of direct interest to language teachers - correction of grammatical form appears to be a waste of
The mistakes that the child makes do not appear to be simply random errors. Linguists argue that they are not,
in fact , ungrammatical, but that they are based upon the child's own grammar. Interestingly enough, all children
tend to make the same kinds of mistakes at roughly the same period in their linguistic development. For example,
English-speaking children working on negation go through a predictable sequence :
1. First the negative words 'No' and 'Not' appear as single word sentences.
2. These combine with other words to form two-word sentences - 'No car', 'Not gone' etc.
3. During third year - negative words used within constructions
You no do that, Mummy
You not got it
while negative auxiliaries also appear. - Won't, can't
Greater accuracy - not replaces no. Double negatives are used for emphasis
Use of any, hardly, scarcely acquired during early years of school.
As we shall see, there are interesting similarities between this sequence, and the sequence of acquisition of the
negation in English by second-language learners.
Followers of Chomsky claim that the regularity of these errors, and the fact that they are not based upon what the
child hears, demonstrate that they are derived from the Universal Grammar. The child works through from the
simplest possibilities offered by the UG to the more complex, until his own grammar is the same as the grammar of
the mother-tongue. The claim is almost that the child does not make mistakes, but simply has a different
grammar to the grammar of the adult.
The evidence from neuroscience and from first-language learning is suggestive. We find a number of observations
that do fit in with what we would expect if Chomsky were right. However, the evidence needs to be treated with
We have also seen that Chomsky is certainly incorrect in his claim that children do not hear well-formed language.
On the other hand, children do seem to understand almost instinctively that language is a rule-bound system, and are
capable of discovering the rules underlying their mother tongue with remarkable rapidity. But it needs to be borne in
mind that the fact that children seek out the rules underlying language does not mean that they necessarily have a
specific approach to language itself. It may simply be a product of the peculiar nature of human intelligence,
which makes us look out for and be sensitive to the underlying rules which govern phenomena in the world -
this is one of the main characteristics of all human cultural activities, and not just of language-learning.
Next week, we will go on to look at the evidence from observations of language-learning in extreme situations. I
will be talking about so-called 'wild children', about deaf and dumb children, and about the activities of Nim
Chimsky, a close cousin of the famous linguist's.
1. Chomsky himself does not believe that the LAD can be traced to a specific location in the brain. However, as
Steven Pinker puts it, 'if there is a language instinct, it has to be embodied somewhere in the brain' (Pinker, op.cit., p.
2. Some discussion of aphasia will be found in most introductory textbooks to psycholinguistics. I have mainly
relied on Pinker - particularly pages 299 ff - on Christine Temple, 'The Brain ; an introduction to the psychology of
the human brain and behaviour', Penguin, 1993, pp. 88-98, and Jean Aitchison, 'The Articulate Mammal ; An
Introduction to Psycholinguistics', pp. 241 ff.