How Language Is Learned

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Language consists of so many complex systems, and it is learned so early, that it is difficult to explain how children manage the task. Some psycholinguists have proposed that language is learned by special genetically programmed procedures that are unique to language learning (e.g., Chomsky, 1968; Pinker, 1994). Others contend that the general analytic capacity of the human brain is such that even complex language rules can be worked out without any innate knowledge or special language acquisition procedures (e.g., Karmiloff-Smith, 1992, 2000). Regardless of which view is correct, experience with one’s native language must be critically important. Recognizing the importance of experience raises two questions: First, how much exposure to language is necessary, and second, are there particular language experiences that can facilitate the process of learning?

Researchers have only scratched the surface in addressing these questions. Two domains in which both the quantity and the quality of experience have been linked to quality of learning are semantic development in the learning of vocabulary, and pragmatic development in the production of narratives.

Although most 5-year-olds know enough vocabulary to communicate about everyday things, there are large individual differences among children in the size of their vocabularies. In recent years, it has become clear that vocabulary size is a key predictor of later literacy and success in school. Even if children with relatively small vocabularies are reading at grade level by the end of second grade, they are likely to fall behind in reading starting in third grade when reading comprehension begins to depend more and more on the breadth of a child’s vocabulary (Senechal & LeFevre, 2002). It has also become clear that children’s vocabulary is related to home and preschool environment (e.g., Cunningham, Stanovich, & West, 1994; Senechal & LeFevre, 2002; Weizman & Snow, 2001).

The amount and kind of language experience children have with adults, in parent–child conversations and in joint book reading, are linked with children’s vocabulary. In one study, researchers made monthly visits for over 2 years to the homes of children whose families were either poor and on welfare, lower middle class (mostly in blue-color occupations), or upper middle class with at least one professional parent (Hart & Risley, 1992, 1995). All of the parents were actively involved with their children, playing with them, expressing affection, providing them with toys, and so on. But there were marked differences in how much the three groups of parents talked to their children right from the start. (Children were about 9 months old at the beginning of the study.) In a 100-hour week, a toddler in a professional family might hear 215,000 words on the average; in a lower-middle-class family children heard about 125,000 words; and in the poorest homes about 62,000. All of the children learned to talk on schedule, but the differences in parental input were correlated with children’s vocabulary measures by age 3; children who heard the most language performed best. The content of parents’ conversations with their youngsters also differed. Those who spoke with their children most tended to ask more questions and elaborated more on topics of conversation. Parents who spoke with their children the least tended to utter more prohibitions. Even when the researchers looked within a single socioeconomic group, so that social class was not a factor, children whose parents talked with them more had the most advanced vocabularies. From this and many other studies, it appears that, regardless of social class, the quantity and quality of parent–child conversation can be a significant factor in vocabulary expansion.

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