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Language Development

4-6 March 2019


Stimulus Response
• B.F. Skinner

• Language is developed through “operant conditioning” or

the child’s environment

Behaviorist Theory
• Parent reinforces with
physical or verbal Child
gestures at
affirmation apple
• Parent combines
modeling word for
Parent Parent
imitation with gives says “say
reinforcement child “Apple
apple please”’
• Child learns new word by
using word to receive
what they want. Child says
Repetition is key. pees”

Process of Operant
Conditioning for Language
• Distinct way of interacting between adults to children
• Use of slower talking speeds, with distinct pauses
between words
• **Spoken at a higher pitch, with exaggerated facial
expressions, i.e., widening eyes
• Simplification of words – bye-bye, night-night, “Yummy
in your tummy!”
• Clear pronunciation of words, short sentences

Child/Infant Directed
• Helps children learn their words by centering their
concentration on pertinent information and word
breakdowns within continuous speech (sentences)
• Children prefer CDS to Adult Directed Speech and will
seek it out

Child/Infant Directed
• Does not fully explain the development of language
• Reinforcement, imitation, and modeling are more
supplementary to the acquisition of language

Limitations of Behaviorist
• Ability to learn language is programmed into
our brains from birth
• Humans must be predisposed for language
• Language acquisition device (LAD)
biologically prepares infants to learn rules of
• Universal grammar
Noam Chomsky

Nativist Theory
• Innate system that permits children to combine words into
grammatically consistent novel utterances and
understand the meanings of sentences they hear.
• Contains universal grammar which is a built-in
storehouse of rules common to all human languages and
allows all humans to come into the world prepared to
learn any language.

Language Acquisition
• From birth, infants prefer human voice over other sounds
• There are general milestones regarding language
development that apply to children from all over the
• Only humans are capable of complex sentence structure
• Primates can only acquire basic vocabulary and limited
hand gesture languages (ASL)

Evidence for Nativist

• Specialized areas of the
human brain dedicated to
• Frontal lobe – language
• Broca’s – speech
• Wernicke’s – word
meaning comprehension
• Brain becomes more
specialized as the child Evidence for
Nativist Theory
picks up more language
• Language acquired later in life doesn’t compare to
language development within the early sensitive
• A sensitive period period
• Complex forms of grammar are learned as children
for language get older and attend school.
• While the brain is
maturing and
lateralizing, the
brain is more
receptive to

Evidence for Nativist Theory

• The rules of grammar differ from country to country and
language to language – thus there cannot be one set rule
that governs all the languages spoken in the world.
• Contradicts observation of development
• More experimentation, learning involved
• Theory lacks comprehensiveness
• Ignores quality of language input
• Ignores role of social experience

Limitations of the Nativist

• Inner (innate) capacities and outer environment work together
• Links Nativist and Behaviorist theories
• Language learning is a social experience
• Drive to connect with others and surroundings

• Example
• Environment that is only adults, who speak to each other and the
child using “adult language”
• Environment where the child is surrounded by other children and
adults alter their speech to be age appropriate

Interactionist Theory
Components of
Language Development
Precursors to Language
• Cooing – 2 months
• Vowel sounds (oooo, ah,
• Babbling – 6 months
• Consonant–vowel
combination (babababa,
• To develop past
babbling, infants need to
hear human speech
• As the infant gets • One theory – infants
older, certain babble test and explore
strings might be used different sound
only in specific arrangements to make
situations – (e.g., meaning and
when looking at a toy, understand how
when near food) language works

• 4-6 months: adults
interact with infants
using give-and-take
games (i.e., peek-a-boo,
pat-a-cake) Teaches infant how to
take turns in verbal
• 12 months: games exchanges
become more
interactive as infants
become active

Precursors to Language:
Turn-Taking Exchanges
Turn-Taking Exchanges
• 8-12 months: infants
show what they want
by pointing or holding
up objects
• Adults label these
movements and
infants learn the link
between word and

Precursors to Language:
Rules about structure and sequence of
Phonology speech sounds

Vocabulary – words and word

Semantics combinations for concepts
• Syntax – rules for by which words
are arranged in sentences
Grammar • Morphology – grammatical markers
indicating number, tense, case,
person, gender…
Appropriate and effective
Pragmatics communication

Components of Language
Phonological Development sequence
of speech

• Early phase:
• First words – can only
pronounce few sounds
• Related to semantic
development “Please”- pee, pees, please

• Understand more than

can say
• Mostly complete by age
Earliest Words
Early Semantic Development of words/

• Word comprehension begins in the

middle of the first year
• Comprehension before production (1st words at 1
• Five-month lag
• First words linked salience, culture
• Mama, dada, ball, doggie, woof-woof
• Fast-mapping- connect word with concept after
a brief encounter
• Form networks of related concepts
Early Semantic Development
• Underextensions- apply word to
narrowly (e.g., dog only applies
to one dog)
• Overextensions- apply word to
widely (e.g., calling the mailman
• Word coinages
• Metaphors
Types of Early Words

• More objects than actions

Object • Verbs are more complex, need more
and repetition
Action • BUT, influenced by culture and
• Modifiers or labels for attributes –
size, color, possession
• Learn general distinctions before
Elementary Age
Semantic Development
• Big vocabulary increase
• Fast-mapping continues
• Analyze word structure
• Reading contributes
• Use words precisely,
understand multiple
meanings – metaphors,
Semantic Development

• Abstract terms
• Sarcasm, irony
• Figurative language
• Proverbs
• Literature appreciation
Individual Differences in Language
• Gender (girls > boys)
• Temperament (shy and
difficult are slower)
• Language environment
• Native language
• Language style
• Referential > expressive
Referential Communication Skills
• Produce messages and know when
the messages we receive are unclear
so that we can ask for more
– Improves with age
Early Grammatical Development
• Simple sentences
• 3-word sentences
• Follow adult rules piecemeal,
gradually refine and generalize
• Affected by language environment
• Add grammatical morphemes
• Markers that change meaning of sentence
• -ing, on, in, -s, irregular past tense, -’s, etc.
• Structural complexity affects order
• Overregulation
• Applying rules without appropriate
Pragmatic Development
• 2-year-olds have
• Early childhood
• Turnabout - comment,
request for more information
• Middle childhood
• Shading - gradual
change of topic
• Illocutionary knowledge
- what a speaker means
to say
Speech Registers
• Language adaptations to
social expectations
• Social routines
• Polite language
• Practice in pretend play?
• Children sensitive to speech
registers between 4–7 years
• Important to social
Metalinguistic Awareness
 Ability to think about
language as a system
 4- and 5-year-olds have early
 Grows in middle childhood
 Phonological awareness
associated with reading
 Morphological awareness
 Advanced in bilingual
• What might be important skills before you are able
to read?
• Reading uses many skills at once
• What are words? Letters? Read from left to right or
right to left?
• Sound-letter correspondence; phonological awareness
• Before learning to read, preschoolers develop
emergent literacy.
• Construct literacy through informal experiences

Applying Information Processing to

Language: Reading
• Language games
• Vocabulary, alphabet recognition, phonological skills
• Talk with adults about events, stories, etc.
• See adults reading and writing
• Visit places to see how language is used in everyday life
• Informal literacy experiences
• Interactive reading
• Writing
• Training, books for low-SES families

Fostering Emergent
• Combines information-processing skills
• Phonological awareness
• Processing speed
• Visual scanning
• Balanced reading instruction combines:
• Whole language
• Phonics

Middle Childhood
Let’s see what
this looks like.

Cultural Differences in
• Decrements in language • Slower
may appear in the later half • Less precisely articulated
of late adulthood • Less fluent
• Tip-of-the-tongue • Why do we see changes?
• Slower information
• Difficulty understanding processing speed
• Decline in working
• Speech of older adults memory
tends to be:
• Lower in volume

Language Changes in
Late Adulthood
Learning Two Languages

Learn both at • No problems with language development

the same time • Good at both by preschool

One, then the • Takes 3 to 5 years to be as good as same-

other age native speakers of second language

Both offer cognitive advantages of bilingualism.

 Attention, reasoning, concepts, flexibility
 General language skills
Why try to learn a second
language as early as possible?

Late bilinguals Early bilinguals