How early does language development begin? It begins in the womb when the fetus hears her mother’s voice and language in the environment. Babies who are 4 days old can distinguish between languages. Newborns show their preference for the language that is familiar by sucking more vigorously on a nipple when they hear it as compared to an unfamiliar language (Cowley, 1997).
Like cognitive development, acquisition of language during the first 2 years is an impressive achievement. Between birth and 2 years, infants and toddlers learn enough about their language to speak and develop a vocabulary ranging from 50 to 200 words (Berk, 2002). Children of every culture and country learn the language of their community. Italian babies, for example, understand names of different kinds of pasta quite early in life (Trawick-Smith, 2006). Children from bilingual families learn words from both languages before 18 months.
Theories of Language Development
How do theorists explain language development? Three major theories have informed our understanding of how language develops. B. F. Skinner (1957) initiated the behaviorist theory of language development. Skinner proposed that language is acquired through operant conditioning; that is, parents reinforce the baby’s efforts at language. Subsequently, they reinforce the most correct forms of efforts to say words. Behaviorists also propose that the child learns language through imitation. The adult conditions the child to use correct language forms by rewarding efforts to imitate adult language.
Noam Chomsky (1957) understood that even very young children take charge of learning language. His theory was labeled as nativist because he believed that children have an innate ability to acquire language. He proposed that all children have a biologically based innate system for learning language that he called a language acquisition device (LAD). Chomsky believed that the LAD contains a set of rules common to all languages that children use to understand the rules of their language.
A more recent theoretical approach, termed interactionist, is based on the fact that language is not acquired without socialization. Language cannot be acquired without a social context. Infants and toddlers have an innate capability to learn language facilitated by adult caregivers (Berger, 2000; Berk, 2002). Vygotsky (1984) proposed that language is learned in a social context. Language is centered in the sociocultural history of a population. The child as a member of the group learns the language to communicate in his community.
Sequence of Language Development
All children learn language in the same sequence. Although the timing may vary for different languages, the developmental sequence is the same. From the moment of birth, the neonate uses cries and facial expressions to express his needs. He can distinguish his mother’s voice from other voices and can discriminate among many different speech sounds (Berger, 2000). Thereafter, steps toward speech and the use of language develop at regular intervals.
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