Language Development in the Young Child

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

Language growth is very rapid during the preschool years. From a vocabulary of no words at about one year of age, the two-year-old may have a vocabulary of two or three hundred words and can even form two- or three-word sentences. By the age of five, children can construct simple sentences and may use past and future as well as present tenses correctly. By this age, children also demonstrate considerable mastery of possessives and of definite and indefinite articles and may have an active vocabulary of about 2,500 words. Their passive vocabulary—the words they can hear and understand but do not usually use—is much higher and may be as large as 14,000 words. Averaged over the child's lifetime, she has acquired nine words a day since birth!

Although language growth is relatively easy to describe, it is more difficult to explain. Indeed, there are at least three different types of explanation of language growth, and there is some evidence to support each one.

One explanation of language development starts from the assumption that the language system is present from birth and follows its own path of development quite independent of the development of thought. This is the position of famed linguist Noam Chomsky. Those who look at language development from this perspective try to map the progress of the child's linguistic structures in relation to the child's experience and point to the fact that experience cannot account for the observed achievements in the evolution of language.

Young children's earliest words are often holophrases, or single-word utterances that are meant to convey as much meaning as a full sentence. A child who says "car" may mean, "I see a car," or "I want to be in the car," or "Where is the car?" As children become more proficient they may use telegraphic speech in which they evidence their understanding of word order by the ways in which they combine two or more words, such as "All gone," "Baby up," and "Daddy go bye-bye." Since children do not learn these combinations directly from adults, it is argued that they are evidence of an independently emerging language system.

Other language phenomena during early childhood also support this position. One of these is overregularization. A child may understand a grammatical rule but not its exceptions. For example, a child may say, "The boy runned home." Here the child is generalizing from the past progressive rule—add ed—to all verbs, but she does not appreciate that the verb to run is irregular. The understanding of grammatical rules, but not their exceptions, suggests that language acquisition is not simply a matter of copying adult speech. Adults, children's presumed language role models, do not make such errors.

More evidence for the independence of language development is the creativity of children's language. Children are always coming up with original speech utterance that are not copies of adult verbalizations. Parents do not say, "All gone milk" when they have finished their drink or "Mommy, sleep time" when they are ready for bed. Moreover, parents tend to reinforce the truth value of children's statements, not their grammatical correctness. A child who says, "Mommy dress red," is likely to be told "Yes" if she is correct factually though not grammatically. On the other hand, if the child says, "Mommy's dress is blue" she is likely to be told "no" even though she is grammatically correct. That children learn grammar even though it is not rewarded by parents is another evidence of its independence from adult instruction.

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