Language development in kids, like all forms of development, has been the subject of numerous studies and theories throughout the history of developmental psychology. Language development is a rapid process, especially in the first few years of life, and theories debate exactly how this process occurs and what enables this explosion of linguistic knowledge and use. It is important when studying the stages of language development also to know the theories that accompany them to form an understanding of what happens in each stage.
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The learning theory is based on the behaviorist theories of learning, particularly those of operant conditioning and imitation learning. It is often referred to as the "environmental view." Learning theorists believe the specific language training a child receives determines language development and that biology factors do not play an important role. Language is developed through shaping, or increasing desired behaviors or sounds/words with reinforcements while ignoring or punishing unwanted behaviors or sounds, and through imitation or modeling the language of the parents and adults.
Noam Chomsky proposed the nativist theory in which language is believed to be an innate human capacity, not merely a learned behavior. To explain the rapid development of language skills in infants and early childhood, the nativist theory proposes the language acquisition device (LAD), a brain mechanism specialized in detecting and learning language rules. According to this theory, language development occurs when a child hears language, activating the LAD with its store of innate universal grammatical knowledge and operating principles, and learns the language he hears.
The cognitive approach and the social interaction approach make up the interaction theories of language development. The cognitive approach proposes that language cannot be developed until cognition develops. Cognition initiates the need for language skills, such as learning words when the cognitive need for symbols to represent objects develops. The further a child develops cognitively, the more language skills the child develops. The social interaction approach proposes that biology and social interactions work together to develop language. Sharing the belief of nativists of a biological mechanism for learning language, social interaction theorists also believe that simply hearing language is not enough to develop language skills, that children need interaction with others to develop language skills.
Infants develop language skills at a rapid rate. At birth the only sounds an infant is capable of making are involuntary and undifferentiated, but by 3 months infants have developed differentiated cries and coos for different needs or feelings as well as the ability to make these sounds intentionally. By 6 months, infants show true babbling that progresses into the ability to imitate sounds and words at about 8 months. The development of protowords, such as baba to refer to a bottle, develops at about 9 months. Another important development in the first year is the development of joint focus attention, or the ability to focus on the same object or event at the same time, which allows parents and caregivers to introduce new words to an infant in context to something that can be seen or touched.
In early childhood, children begin to understand words and their meanings or semantics. Being introduced to new words constantly, children in this stage developed methods of putting words into context. For example a child looking at a tall, long-necked, spotted animal and hearing the word "giraffe" associates the word "giraffe" for that particular animal by means of fast mapping. In this stage, children acquire grammar skills as well and move from the use of telegraphic speech, or short simple phrases such as "eat cereal," to complex sentences, such as, "I want to eat cereal." This stage is when children learn the rules for transformational grammar in which they understand how to change a statement to a question, command or negative and begin to ask questions of who, what, where, when and why. This stage is also the beginning of learning the social rules of discourse, such as turn taking, answer-obviousness rule, in which it is understood that if the answer is obvious, the listener should interpret the question as a request, and being relevant to the conversation.
Middle Childhood and Adolescence
Through middle childhood and adolescence, language skills continue to grow. Children acquire vocabulary with abstract words with the development of understanding abstract concepts. Phonemic development and understanding the use of intonation when speaking to relay different meanings, as well as the mastery of grammar and syntax, mark this stage of development. The use of jokes, riddles and sarcasm develops from the explicit knowledge of how language works and how it can be used, as well as the development of the adolescent register, a special form of speech adolescents use to identify themselves as belonging to a particular social, cultural or generational group. This adolescent register includes slang terms and changes often as adolescents grow into adulthood and another generation of adolescents forms its own unique register.
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