Language Development in Children
Mary Reed Todd
Athens State University
Theories & Stages in Language Development
Language Development Paper
July 25, 2011
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Language Development in Children
At the age of 18 months children begin to use two-word sentences to communicate their ideas, and by 24-30 months these children are avid language users. The process by which children acquire language is a complex process that is still not completely understood. Many developmental psychologists and linguists offer theories to account for children’s rapid acquisition of language, but there is still a large nature versus nurture debate concerning this process. As defined in the Dictionary of Theories, the nature versus nurture idea “refers to the separate influences of heredity (nature) and environment (nurture) on a living thing” (365). This paper addresses the concerns and problems of language development that language theorists try to account for, and presents the major theories behind the phenomenon of language development.
Mysteries and Problems of the Study of Language Development Children’s use of language occurs several months after they are able to understand language, which according to Pinker, occurs before the first birthday. Studies have shown that at birth infants are predisposed to language; they prefer to listen to language rather than random sounds (Cole and Cole). At birth infants are able to distinguish between all the world’s phonemes, a phenomenon that lasts until 10-12 months (Kuhl). This ability is crucial for the children to acquire the language that is spoken in the environment which they live, since the ability to distinguish the phonemes of one’s language environment is crucial to language acquisition. It is this ability which allows French children adopted by Japanese parents to speak the language of their environment (Jackendoff).
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Exposure to language thus influences infants’ acquisition of language. Kuhl’s Native Language Magnet theory suggests that exposure to a specific language influences children’s perception of speech by six months of age (Kuhl). The magnet theory suggests that children’s brains organize phonetic boundaries according to native-language speech, hence the language heard in the child’s environment is the one for which the magnets will make boundaries. This theory accounts for the development in the first year of life, before children really acquire word meanings. After these boundaries form, children become unable to distinguish the phonemes of all the world’s languages, rather they focus on the phonemes present in their language environment. At this point of environmental-specific language acquisition, children are acquiring a database of words and word meanings. The ability to distinguish between phonemes at birth, is lost by 10-12 months (Kuhl) suggesting the idea that there is a critical period for language development. In fact, case studies have shown that this critical period for language acquisition lasts until puberty (Curtiss). Traditionally there has been two ways to test this theory: situations where language development is delayed, as is sometimes the case of deaf children being born to hearing parents who do not know sign language and situations of extreme neglect or isolation (Cole and Cole). In Curtiss’s case study of Genie, a girl who was isolated and beaten by a deranged father (Cole and Cole, Curtiss), it was shown...