Child Language Acquisition

The process involved in learning any language is quite complicated and has been researched and investigated quite thoroughly by several linguists throughout the years. As stated by David Messer and Jeffrey Turner, “The importance of language to human development and the inherent fascination of this topic has made it one of the most likely and active areas or research in psychology and linguistics.” The subject of child language acquisition is interesting to me because I hope to teach elementary children and wanted to learn more about how language is learned, as well as the different problems that occur while children are learning a language. Throughout this paper I will be focusing on how children communicate before using a written and spoken language, highlighting specific communicative elements. These elements include facial expressions, cries, coos, grunts, babbling, and gestures. I will also explain the stages of language acquisition and what typically happens at each stage. I will also investigate and explain what specific factors influence the development of language in children. Finally, I will discuss some frequently asked questions regarding the process of language acquisition.
Beginning with communication before language, there are several different ways for pre-speaking children, as well as pre-signing (deaf or mute) children to communicate. This may seem kind of obvious; however, I was surprised to find what these forms of communication can teach us about language.

One way that young children communicate involves facial expressions. According to Susan Foster-Cohen (1999), the first facial expressions that typically appear in infants include smiling, and the puckering of lips to convey hunger or pain. It was also noted that the purpose of smiling has sometimes been credited to indigestion, however, true smiles were said to appear within the first few weeks. True smiles, meaning those that involve the whole face and eyes, often start as a result of a person’s voice (by the third week). These smiles result from a person’s face a few weeks later. Foster-Cohen also noted that other researchers claim true smiles do not appear until the third month. The main point the author made is that this beginning stage of communication acts as a response, rather than initiation of communication. When infants begin to realize that the expressions they use evoke some sort of a response, they begin to understand the process of communication. Although this is most likely a subconscious realization, it leads to the use of facial expressions for a specific purpose, rather than mere responses to familiar stimuli. Thus begins the process of communication.

After facial expressions, infants often begin using cries, coos, and grunts. Another interesting detail is that infants prefer to vocalize when the other person is not vocalizing. Even at 4-7 months, infants engage in “turn-taking”, indicating that they have some understanding of how communication really works.

The final communicative element that takes place prior to language use is the use of gestures. Foster-Cohen also gave specific attention to this element and noted that gestures usually begin with hand gestures of pointing and reaching. The author also explained that children do not always understand that their movements have meaning, but eventually realize that the actions and gestures they make arouse a response from the people around them. This leads to the use of gestures to communicate. It was also noted that “The pre-linguistic communication system is an important part of communicative development.” I understood this as meaning that gestures and other communicative elements allow children to understand how communication works, and why communication is necessary.

Another aspect involved with language acquisition is that of intonation. According to The Acquisition and Development of Language, (1971), children begin using adult like intonation at about the ninth month. It was also noted in the same text, that vocalization seems to decrease after the period of intonation followed by the appearance of words. These words are not necessarily definable by a dictionary; however, they tend to match the phonological patterns of the particular language being acquired. The same text went on to say that the child typically understands the meaning of their own utterances, even though they may not be lexically correct. The continuation of language development occurs as many conventional words are spoken by the age of two. Also, around the third year, children are typically capable of using short sentences. These sentences are not often grammatically correct of course, but they are usually comprehensible.

Another point that is important to mention has to do with the pattern in which the process occurs. Research has shown that children acquire certain aspects of language in a particular order, regardless of what language they are acquiring. The natural order of language acquisition was also provided with great detail. I will do my best to summarize how this process generally occurs. From 6-9 months, children are in a babbling period. They begin to produce small numbers of words between 12-18 months. Between 18-21 months, children typically contain between 20-200 words. By the age of 2, vocabulary is around 300-400 words. Children begin producing 3-4 word sentences between 30-33 months. At about 36-39 months a child’s vocabulary typically consists of over 1000 words or more. (Menyuk, 1971).

Another source, entitled The Language of Children by Julia Gillen, also contained information about the typical patterns in which children produce language. This text contained a chart with the same stages, but it also highlighted the usefulness and the dangers of focusing on these stages of development. One benefit of knowing how and when these stages typically occur is that it allows parents and linguists to take notice of abnormalities, or problems. If parents and teachers are made aware of how and when language development occurs, it is more likely that they will be able to spot problems early, and early intervention is often beneficial. A danger pointed out is that people may interpret the stages as being completely independent of each other. In other words, they may think that children stop babbling one day, and start talking the next without ever retreating back to babbling. Parents may mistakenly think that something is wrong when their children continue to babble after producing spoken language. Overall, this text emphasized that these stages must be interpreted cautiously.
Another source which contained information on the stages of language acquisition is a chapter from An introduction to Human Language: Fundamental concepts in linguistics, by James Paul Gee.

Chapter 8 specifically focused on the growth of language in the child. This author pointed out that there is a great degree of variability as far as when children go through stages of language. It was also noted that this variability can be attributed to personality and family setting rather than differences in intelligence or linguistic skills. The chapter went on to discuss the stages of language acquisition, which were described similarly to Foster-Cohen’s description. One new term this source pointed out was “holophrases”, which are one word utterances that are used in place of a whole sentence. The holophrase period was said to occur between 9 and 18 months. After the holophrase period, children begin the process of combining words. According to Gee, the child must first realize that two words can mean two different things. I also found it interesting that children often add meaningless morphemes to a holophrase before combining words because they are starting to understand that more words are required in a language. The author also gave two ways in which children move from the holophrase period into two-word utterances. The first route involves chaining related holophrases together. The second route occurs by reproducing what they have heard adults say. Examples of this were the phrases “all gone” and “my turn”. While children may not really know what the individual words mean, they have heard the phrases enough that they can reproduce them and eventually begin creating their own phrases.

Another important aspect involved in the development of language deals with what factors influence language development. One such factor is the notion of a “critical period”. The critical period hypothesis was first introduced into the language learning world by Eric Lenneberg in 1960. The basic idea is that language learning occurs most naturally at a certain stage of life, and that as children emerge from that stage it becomes increasingly difficult to learn a language (Foster-Cohen, 1999). The most common example of the importance of the critical period is the famous case of Genie.

After researching a little more into the case of Genie I was able to find an on-line article entitled, Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children. This article presented information about how the brain works and helped to explain a little why abused and neglected children, like Genie, may have trouble speaking, as well as how difficulties are related to the critical period. The article basically affirmed the notion of the critical period. According to the article, a baby’s brain comes with a network of neural connections which function based off of sensory input. It was also noted that these connections are shaped through experience, and those that are not used are cut off. Eventually the brain is sculpted to fit the life of the child. The article also pointed out that fear and neglect can inhibit neural development. Although Genie was found at age 12, she was not able to ever become proficient in language as a result of extreme abuse and neglect in her childhood.

A common question that goes along with the idea of the critical period is of course, when does it stop? I was able to find another on-line article that addressed this issue entitled, Co-Evolution of Language Size and the Critical Period, by James Hurford and Simon Kirby. The authors of this article identified the critical period to be before the onset of puberty. It was also noted that after this age it is nearly impossible for non-natives to learn a foreign language to the same degree as they would have been able to during the critical period.

Other factors include how much input children receive, active communication, and baby talk. Each of these factors plays a role in the development of language in children. The main point I was able to derive from Foster-Cohen’s analysis of these factors is that it is good for children to be engaged in active communication and receive input in order to function properly in a language.

Finally, I will briefly discuss some commonly asked questions about language acquisition. These questions come from chapter 8 in the textbook, An Introduction to Language. The first question is, do children learn by imitation? According to the text, imitation is involved to a certain extent, but children move beyond imitation and create their own sentences and phrases. Also, if children learned by imitation only, how would we account for the errors that they produce? Another question asks if children learn by reinforcement. It was noted that children’s grammar is rarely reinforced, but rather incorrect pronunciation or incorrect information. Also, correcting a child’s language is often a failure because children don’t seem to realize what they are doing wrong. The third question presented in this chapter asks if children learn by analogy. The text pointed out that this theory does not hold out because trying to figure out how children learn what is or is not a sentence by analogy. Basically if children learned by analogy only, they would not be able to know word order or what constitutes as a correct sentence.
In closing, I was able to learn quite a bit about child language acquisition, only to discover that there is so much to be learned. The vastness of this topic was a little overwhelming, but I was able to learn about the stages children go through in acquiring a language. I will also hopefully be able to use this information in the classroom if any of my students have speech problems, and I also hope to learn more about this topic as far as how to deal with problems that arise. I also found it interesting to investigate different factors involved in developing a language, as well as how important it is that children receive the interaction and kindness they deserve in order to develop their language properly.

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