Language development in children from birth to two years old
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Development in children refers to the acquisition of new capabilities and suggests positive readjustment of previous experiences and skills to new phenomena. Development of language refers specifically to the acquisition of skills necessary for the comprehension and use of language in its various forms – reading, speaking, listening and writing. Language development is an essential aspect of childhood development and falls into the general pattern of their gradual assimilation into the world. According to von Tetzchnera, Brekkeb, Sjøthun and Grindheim (2005, p. 82) “language development proceeds as a result of interactions between the biology and the experiences of the individual.” Language development proceeds from the child’s passive observance and analysis of the external environment, gradual exploration of this environment through imitation and repetition, and later more structured interactions with the environment.
Piaget, one of the foremost cognitive psychologists, situates the development of language in children within the general cognitive development process. He distinguishes four stages of cognitive development in children – the sensorimotor, the preoperational, the concrete operational and the formal operational stages (Slavin, 2000, p. 32). The earliest stage of development is the sensorimotor stage which spans from birth up to age 2. During this stage, it is important to note that children explore and interact with their environment by means of their senses and motor skills.
Piaget maintains that children are born with a naturally inquisitive nature, desiring to discover and interact with their environment. These innate behaviors, what Piaget refers to as reflexes, are the foundation upon which interaction and discovery will be possible (Slavin, 2000, p. 33). There are distinct changes in the way this sort of interaction and discovery occurs as children move within and through the stages of development.
Psychologists are perplexed to uncover the processes at work in the acquisition of oral language in children. The acquisition of language in children is very dynamic and very difficult to describe or predict. Children who have normal cognitive and physical functions quickly adopt syntactic and linguistic patterns in a way that befuddles psychologists. Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development prescribes an age demarcation for the acquisition of language to occur during the transition from the sensorimotor to the preoperational stage. Rice (1989, p. 150) reveals that language emerges when children are quite young. At around age one distinct language patterns can be picked up. However Nelson (1981, p. 183), on the other hand, does not believe that the development of language in children can be so clearly demarked since children go through this process in very unique ways and often at different times.
It is also important to understand the functioning of the brain at this stage in order to comprehend the language behaviors of children up to age two. Talay-Ongan (2000, p. 28) points to the linkage between proper brain functioning and the development of language in children. During the critical period of a child’s life up to around age two, the brain functions in a way that is unique to this stage of development. Because of this uniqueness there are certain advantages that a normal child has at this stage over any later stage. The early childhood years are believed to be the ideal time for sensory information. Additionally the brain at this stage is quite elastic and can recover rapidly from injury. The social environment in which the child lives is of relevance to proper development and this is the best time prescribe cognitive and language difficulties (Talay-Ongan, 2000, p. 28).
Evidently there is a close connection of language development with cognitive development and proper brain functioning. During the initial stages of language development cognitive development is, however, has the greatest impact (Rice, 1989, p. 151).
A closer examination of the processes involved in language development from birth to two years is essential. In Piaget’s stage theory there is an emphasis on associating meaning with actual objects in the child’s sphere of knowledge. From birth on to two years of age children use their reflexes to decipher meaning from their environment and construct their knowledge based on physical actions. Slaving (2000) highlights here that knowledge and understanding at this stage is limited to actual events that are still in progress or to events within the very immediate past. The use of thought and concepts to understand the world is not yet possible and will not be evident until the child begins to make the transition to the preoperational stage of development.
Ushakova (2000, p. 289) suggests that language use proceeds primarily in the form of imitation. Based on the acquisition of stimulus from the environment a child is able to make a mental connection with objects. Children use a variety of forms to represent these objects. Sounds, movements or things are used by children to represent objects in their environment. The question that psychologists have been unable to respond to is why, most often than not, children choose to use sounds (speech) to represent objects.
The ability to use sound to represent objects and images in the child’s social environment is usually well developed before entrance into formal schooling. Language development does not only involve oral communication but also refers to written forms of communication. For children up to age two written language is not yet developed and there is usually little focus on this. Various physical, cognitive and other factors attribute for the emphasis of writing skills in the preschool and later years of a child’s life rather than during infancy. Oral skills, on the other hand, develop very early and by age three children are very proficient speakers. Subsequently, during the preschool years, children have a very expansive vocabulary and possess deep understanding of sentences. They are also able to hold fluent conversations and are exposed to written language (Slavin, 2000, p. 77). Not all children of the same age will develop language skills at the same time. Slavin (2000) points out, however, that there is a particular sequence of language development which all children go through in the specified order, even if at different points in time. The development and use of symbols for language and communication development is both a complex and multifaceted process. For typically developing children, the path of symbol development is demarcated by major milestones (Sevcik, 2006, p. 159).
The first range of vocabulary that children concern themselves with are within their social environment. In essence children communicate on objects that are of specific importance to them. As Rice (1989, p. 151) elaborates, these children speak about what they know, about favorite people and things and the activities that are related with these. Examples of the initial vocabulary used by children include family members (particularly mommy and daddy), their bottle and a favorite toy. Nelson (1981, p. 172) adds that nouns and adjectives form the major components of oral language forms. These children also used simple phrasal constructions combining words, such as ‘more juice’ and ‘bad dog.’ There is a noticeable absence of function words, particularly verbs, in the speech patterns of these young children.
As previously mentioned not all children go through the process of language acquisition in the same way. Often the vocabulary that a child acquires is specific to the child’s home environment and since homes differ in the type of stimulus that would be evident, it is only logical that children will differ in the type and quality of vocabulary that they acquire up to age two (Nelson, 1981, p. 183).
From the birth of the child up to when the child is a month old language for the child is represented primarily through crying. Ushakova (2000, p. 287) argues that crying in a child is an innate phenomena. He suggests that this outward manifestation of the child’s mental state by crying, is a very rudimentary speech. Ushakova (2000) goes on to argue that infants at this stage are also able to recognize speech even though they can’t distinguish or decipher it.
Children between the ages of one and four months old are better able to communicate. Ushakova (2000) suggests that this type of communication is now distinct and clear. This is the point at which a child responds physically in reaction to stimulus introduced by an adult. What Ushakova (2000) calls an ‘animation’ complex is demonstrated at this stage. A baby gets excited, smiles and displays other body movements representative of pleasure, whenever a particularly adult(s) approaches.
Other expressive forms of language are evidenced during this stage. Babbling, which is a child’s attempt at imitating repeated vocal patterns, now becomes distinct. Ushakova (2000) again suggests that this type of language production is innate. He reasons that worldwide, across language and cultural borders, babbling is a noticeable form of infant communicative pattern.
From four months up to eight months the child’s range of communication seems to widen and the duration of communication also increases. Children still use crying and babbling to communicate their feelings but this is done in a more structured way. Even crying may take several forms depending on the message the child wishes to communicate such as hunger, protest at being left alone, need to change diapers etc. Furthermore babbling takes on a more mature and a bit more structured. A combination of babbled syllables come to represent an object or a person and the child will adopt standard babbling structures consistently to refer to these objects such as boo – boo. A further characteristic of children at this age is that they are now able to recognize some features of adult speech. It is based on this recognition that attempts are made to babble in imitation of aural phrases (Ushakova, 2000, p. 288).
Ages eight months up to twelve months have been argued to be the most critical months for language development in children as this is the stage at which more conventional forms of communication are usually developed (Ushakova, 2000). At this age children not only use words to represent their thoughts but also begin to employ gestures in order to transfer meaning. Often these gestures are rudimentary but soon develop into structured patterns.
By the time children have reached between ages twelve and fifteen they have developed a reasonable amount of vocabulary. Sevcik (2006, p. 159) believes that children at this stage have acquired approximate 50 words. A child first develops comprehension skills through observation before productive language skills are employed. At 12 to 15, however, a child’s ability to comprehend language, gestures and images, is far more developed than productive skills.
The development of competence in speech is also influenced by social factors within the child’s environment. One factor that has been found to have a great impact on the rate and quality of language development in children is the influence of the home and parent(s). One study proved that children from lower class families had a significantly lower number of words in their vocabulary than children from middle-income families (Slavin, 2000, p. 72). This may be due to the fact that middle class parents talked and interacted a lot more with their children. Talay-Ongan (2000, p. 30) also came to the conclusion that children of mothers who speak to them more develop a wider vocabulary range. The findings of the above researches reveal that socioeconomic status as well as parents’ interaction with their children has an impact on the language development of their children. Talay-Ongan (2000, p. 29) further supports this point by highlighting a case where a child, Genie, who had been cut off from interaction during the first thirteen years of her life, was later unable to develop linguistic competence despite interventions.
Language disabilities however, often hinder the effective development of language in children. Because language is primarily represented through speech, children who are either deaf or simply unable to decipher and comprehend sounds are at a disadvantage. Gartland and Strosnider (2007, p. 66) add that these disabilities prevent children from achieving certain development milestones particularly limiting their receptive and productive vocabulary. Von Tetzchnera, Brekkeb, Sjøthun and Grindheim (2005, p. 82) emphasize that such learning deficiencies do not have to be terminal but, once they are picked up early, that alternative forms need to be sourced and employed to develop the language competence of these students in the ways possible.
Sevcik (2006, p. 160) also recommends that, for children with developmental disabilities who are unable to speak the language, that effective alternative modes of communication be sourced and used to facilitate their development. Gartland and Strosnider (2007, p. 68) recommend a variety of avenues to explore in seeking help for children with language difficulties, including consulting a speech language pathologists who would conduct assessment and then give a useful diagnosis of problem as well as offer treatment solutions.
Language development is indeed a very complex phenomenon. Several theorists have proposed a position from which to examine how language is acquired in children. Some general views and predictions have been proposed. However, these propositions are not comprehensive and do not cover the variety of ways that language develops individually in children and across cultures. Additionally the varieties of factors that may be at work influencing or hinder language development have not been totally examined. Social situations in the home impact cognitive development as well as cognitive disabilities. Nevertheless the process of language development is an interesting one to examine.
Gartland, D. & Strosnider, R. (2007, Winter). Learning disabilities and young children: Identification and intervention. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30(1), 63-72.
Nelson, K. (1981). Individual differences in language development: Implications for development and language. Developmental Psychology, 17(2), 170-187.
Rice, M. L. (1989, Feb). Children’s language acquisition. American Psychologist, 44(2), 149-156.
Slavin, R.E. (2000). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice. (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Sevcik, R. A. (2006, Feb). Comprehension: An overlooked component in augmented language development. Disability and Rehabilitation, 28(3), 159-167.
Talay-Ongan, A. (2000, June). Neuroscience and early childhood: A necessary partnership. 5(2).
Ushakova, T. N. (2000, Dec). Language emergence in infants. European Psychologist, 5(4), 285-292.
von Tetzchnera, S., Brekke, K. M., Sjøthun, B. & Grindheim, E. (2005, June). Constructing preschool communities of learners that afford alternative language development. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21(2), 82-100.