How Children Learn Language
Studies of language development show that children do much more than imitate others as they learn to talk (Gallas et al., 1996; Hoff, 2006; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Tabors & Snow, 2004; Weaver, 1996). In fact, while learning to talk, children provide some of the best examples of how they construct all knowledge. If you have been around young children, you have heard evidence that they do more than mimic adult talk; rather, they create their own theories about language. They definitely use the ideas gained from more competent speakers but obviously analyze them in an effort to understand how it all fits together. When Betsy says, “I falled down,” she clearly is constructing her own understanding of language as she practices it, trying out her current theories about how to put words together.
Children have a lot to learn in the process of becoming verbal. Early in life, most babies start to figure out that the sounds people make are a means of communicating with other human beings—a way of expressing their desires, sharing their feelings, and explaining their experiences. Then, babies start to work on the complexities of accurate communication. When they are only about six months old, youngsters who can hear talk will usually imitate speech intonations so that it sounds as if they are saying something understandable. At this point, youngsters still have to work on the specific sounds involved. Before their first year is over, most babies have narrowed their utterances from all the possible sounds to those significant in their environment. Babies in Mexico will trill the r sound, babies in Germany will practice the guttural sounds they hear, and babies in English-speaking countries will learn neither. Before long, typically developing children begin to make the sounds of their language in combinations that mean something specific. As soon as they acquire this ability to communicate with words, they begin to string them together for even greater results.
As they begin to use words in combination, children generally put them together in ways matching the grammatical rules of their language (syntax). English-speaking children put the subject before the verb and, when they become more sophisticated, the object after the verb. However, they also clearly demonstrate their learning process as they reinvent grammar rules, for instance, adding an s to make a plural in foots and mouses and adding ed for the past tense in runned and digged. Young children also are motivated to increase their vocabulary, so they incessantly ask the names of things.
By the time teachers see them in preschool, most children seem to be proficient with language. They generally are able to make themselves understood to others and are fairly good at understanding what others say to them. How did they learn so much in such a short time? They did not learn it by being drilled in the sounds and grammar of their language. They learned by being immersed in language, by using it in their everyday lives. Children use language to communicate—they learn it as they use it in meaningful, authentic ways (e.g., Gronlund, 2006; Nekovei & Ermis, 2006).
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