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Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development 1
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
Factors that Influence Language Development
JUDITH JOHNSTON, PhD
University of British Columbia, CANADA
(Published online February 2005)
(2
nd
edition September 2010)
Topic
Language development and literacy
Introduction
Learning to talk is one of the most visible and important achievements of early childhood.
In a matter of months, and without explicit teaching, toddlers move from hesitant single
words to fluent sentences, and from a small vocabulary to one that is growing by six new
words a day. New language tools mean new opportunities for social understanding, for
learning about the world, and for sharing experiences, pleasures and needs.
Subject
The nature of language knowledge
Language development is even more impressive when we consider the nature of what is
learned. It may seem that children merely need to remember what they hear and repeat it
at some later time. But as Chomsky
1
pointed out so many years ago, if this were the
essence of language learning, we would not be successful communicators. Verbal
communication requires productivity, i.e. the ability to create an infinite number of
utterances we have never heard before. This endless novelty requires that some aspects of
language knowledge be abstract. Ultimately, “rules” for combining words cannot be rules
about particular words, but must be rules about classes of words such as nouns, verbs or
prepositions. Once these abstract blueprints are available, the speaker can fill the “slots”
in a sentence with the words that best convey the message of the moment. Chomsky’s
key point was that since abstractions cannot ever be directly experienced, they must
emerge from the child’s own mental activity while listening to speech.
Problems and Context
The debate
The nature of the mental activity that underlies language learning is widely debated
among child language experts. One group of theorists argues that language input merely
triggers grammatical knowledge that is already genetically available.
2
The opposition
argues that grammatical knowledge results from the way the human mind analyzes and
organizes information and is not innate.
3
This debate reflects fundamentally different
beliefs about human development and is not likely to be resolved. However, there are at
least two areas in which there is a substantial consensus that can guide educators and
LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT AND LITERACY
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
2
policy-makers: (a) the predictability of the course of language acquisition; and (b) its
multi-determinate nature.
Research Results
Predictable language sequences
In broad strokes, the observable “facts” of language development are not in dispute. Most
children begin speaking during their second year and by age two are likely to know at
least 50 words and to be combining them in short phrases.
4
Once vocabulary size reaches
about 200 words, the rate of word learning increases dramatically and grammatical
function words such as articles and prepositions begin to appear with some consistency.
5
During the preschool years, sentence patterns become increasingly complex and
vocabulary diversifies to include relational terms that express notions of size, location,
quantity and time.
6
By the age of four to six or so, most children have acquired the basic
grammar of the sentence.
7
From that point onward, children learn to use language more
efficiently and more effectively. They also learn how to create, and maintain, larger
language units such as conversation or narrative.
8
Although there are individual
differences in rate of development, the sequence in which various forms appear is highly
predictable both within and across stages.
9
Determining factors
There is also considerable agreement that the course of language development reflects the
interplay of factors in at least five domains: social, perceptual, cognitive processing,
conceptual and linguistic. Theorists differ in the emphasis and degree of determination
posited for a given domain, but most would agree that each is relevant. There is a large
body of research supporting the view that language learning is influenced by many
aspects of human experience and capability. I will mention two findings in each area that
capture the flavour of the available evidence.
Social
1- Toddlers infer a speaker’s communicative intent and use that information to guide
their language learning. For example, as early as 24 months, they are able to infer
solely from an adult’s excited tone of voice and from the physical setting that a
new word must refer to an object that has been placed on the table while the adult
was away.
10
2- The verbal environment influences language learning. From ages one to three,
children from highly verbal “professional” families heard nearly three times as
many words per week as children from low verbal “welfare” families.
Longitudinal data show that aspects of this early parental language predict
language scores at age nine.
11
Perceptual
1- Infant perception sets the stage. Auditory perceptual skills at six or 12 months of
age can predict vocabulary size and syntactic complexity at 23 months of age.
12
2- Perceptibility matters. In English, the forms that are challenging for impaired
learners are forms with reduced perceptual salience, e.g. those that are unstressed
or lie united within a consonant cluster.
13
LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT AND LITERACY
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
3
Cognitive processes
1- Frequency affects rate of learning. Children who hear an unusually high
proportion of examples of a language form learn that form faster than children
who receive ordinary input.
14
2- “Trade-offs” among the different domains of language can occur when the total
targeted sentence requires more mental resources than the child has available. For
example, children make more errors on small grammatical forms such as verb
endings and prepositions in sentences with complex syntax than in sentences with
simple syntax.
15
Conceptual
1- Relational terms are linked to mental age.
Words that express notions of time,
causality, location, size and order are correlated with mental age much more than
words that simply refer to objects and events.
16
Moreover, children learning
different languages learn to talk about spatial locations such as in or next to in
much the same order, regardless of the grammatical devices of their particular
language.
17
2- Language skills are affected by world knowledge. Children who have difficulty
recalling a word also know less about the objects to which the word refers.
18
Linguistic
1- Verb endings are cues to verb meaning. If a verb ends in ing, three-year-olds
will decide that it refers to an activity, such as swim, rather than to a completed
change of state, such as push off.
19
2- Current vocabulary influences new learning. Toddlers usually decide that a new
word refers to the object for which they do not already have a label.
6
Conclusions
Nature and nurture
These are just some of the findings that, taken together, speak convincingly of the
interactive nature of development. Children come to the task of language learning with
perceptual mechanisms that function in a certain way and with finite attention and
memory capacities. These cognitive systems will, at the least, influence what is noticed in
the language input, and may well be central to the learning process. Similarly, children’s
prior experience with the material and social world provides the early bases for
interpreting the language they hear. Later, they will also make use of language cues. The
course of language acquisition is not, however, driven exclusively from within. The
structure of the language to be learned, and the frequency with which various forms are
heard, will also have an effect. Despite the theoretical debates, it seems clear that
language skills reflect knowledge and capabilities in virtually every domain and should
not be viewed in an insular fashion.
Educational and Policy Implications
Educators and policy-makers have often ignored preschoolers whose language seems to
be lagging behind development in other areas, arguing that such children are “just a bit
late” in talking. The research evidence suggests instead that language acquisition should
LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT AND LITERACY
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
4
be treated as an important barometer of success in complex integrative tasks. As we have
just seen, whenever language “fails” other domains are implicated as well as either
causes or consequences. Indeed, major epidemiological studies have now demonstrated
that children diagnosed with specific language disorders at age four (i.e. delays in
language acquisition without sensori-motor impairment, affective disorder or retardation)
are at high risk for academic failure and mental-health problems well into young
adulthood.
20,21
Fortunately, the research evidence also indicates that it is possible to
accelerate language learning.
22
Even though the child must be the one to create the
abstract patterns from the language data, we can facilitate this learning (a) by presenting
language examples that are in accord with the child’s perceptual, social and cognitive
resources; and (b) by choosing learning goals that are in harmony with the common
course of development.
REFERENCES
1. Chomsky N. A Review of Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner. Language
1959;35:26-58.
2. Pinker S. Language learnability and language development. Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard University Press; 1984.
3. Elman JL, Bates EA, Johnson MH, Karmiloff-Smith A, Parisi D, Plunkett K.
Rethinking innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press; 1996.
4. Rescorla L. The language development survey: A screening tool for delayed
language in toddlers. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 1989;54(4):587-
599.
5. Bates E, Goodman JC. On the inseparability of grammar and the lexicon:
Evidence from acquisition, aphasia, and real-time processing. Language and
Cognitive Processes 1997;12(5-6):507-584.
6. Clark EV. The lexicon in acquisition. New York, NY: Cambridge University
Press; 1993.
7. Paul R. Analyzing complex sentence development. In: Miller JF. Assessing
language production in children: experimental procedures. Baltimore, Md:
University Park Press; 1981:36-40.
8. Owens R. Language development: An introduction. 5
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ed. Boston, Mass: Allyn
and Bacon; 2001.
9. Crystal D, Fletcher P, Garman M. The grammatical analysis of language
disability: a procedure for assessment and remediation. London, United
Kingdom: Edward Arnold; 1976.
10. Akhtar N, Carpenter M, Tomasello M. The role of discourse novelty in early word
learning. Child Development 1996;67(2):635-645.
11. Hart B, Risley TR. Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young
American children. Baltimore, Md: P.H. Brookes; 1995.
12. Trehub SE, Henderson JL. Temporal resolution and subsequent language
development. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 1996;39(6):1315-1320.
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Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
5
13. Leonard L. The use of morphology by children with specific language
impairment: Evidence from three languages. In: Chapman RS, ed. Processes in
language acquisition and disorders. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Year book; 1992:186-
201.
14. Nelson KE, Camarata SM, Welsh J, Butkovsky L, Camarata M. Effects of
imitative and conversational recasting treatment on the acquisition of grammar in
children with specific language impairment and younger language-normal
children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 1996;39(4):850-859.
15. Namazi M, Johnston J. Language performance and development in SLI. Paper
presented at: Symposium for Research in Child Language Disorders; 1997;
Madison, Wis.
16. Johnston JR, Slobin DI. The development of locative expressions in English,
Italian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish. Journal of Child Language 1979;6(3):529-
545.
17. McGregor KK, Friedman RM, Reilly RM, Newman RM. Semantic representation
and naming in young children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing
Research 2002;45(2):332-346.
18. Carr L, Johnston J. Morphological cues to verb meaning. Applied
Psycholinguistics 2001;22(4):601-618.
19. Fazio BB, Johnston JR, Brandl L. Relation between mental age and vocabulary
development among children with mild mental retardation. American Journal of
Mental Retardation 1993;97(5):541-546.
20. Beitchman JH, Wilson B, Johnson CJ, Atkinson L, Young A, Adlaf E, Escobar
M, Douglas L. Fourteen year follow-up of speech/language-impaired and control
children: psychiatric outcome. Journal of the American Academy of Child and
Adolescent Psychiatry 2001;40(1):75- 82.
21. Young AR, Beitchman JH, Johnson C, Douglas L, Atkinson L, Escobar M,
Wilson B. Young adult academic outcomes in a longitudinal sample of early
identified language impaired and control children. Journal of Child Psychology
and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 2002;43(5):635-645.
22. Nye C, Foster SH, Seaman D. Effectiveness of language intervention with the
language/learning disabled. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders
1987;52(4):348-357.
To cite this document:
Johnston J. Factors that influence language development. 2
nd
ed. Rvachew S, topic ed. In:
Tremblay RE,
Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec:
Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development and Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child
Development; 2010:1-6. Available at:
http://www.child-
encyclopedia.com/documents/JohnstonANGxp.pdf. Accessed [insert date].
LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT AND LITERACY
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
6
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I had intended this review not specifically as a criticism of Skinner's speculations regarding language, but rather as a more general critique of behaviorist (I would now prefer to say "empiricist") speculation as to the nature of higher mental processes. My reason for discussing Skinner's book in such detail was that it was the most careful and thoroughgoing presentation of such speculations, an evaluation that I feel is still accurate. Therefore, if the conclusions I attempted to substantiate in the review are correct, as I believe they are, then Skinner's work can be regarded as, in effect, a reductio ad absurdum of behaviorist assumptions. My personal view is that it is a definite merit, not a defect, of Skinner's work that it can be used for this purpose, and it was for this reason that I tried to deal with it fairly exhaustively. I do not see how his proposals can be improved upon, aside from occasional details and oversights, within the framework of the general assumptions that he accepts. I do not, in other words, see any way in which his proposals can be substantially improved within the general framework of behaviorist or neobehaviorist, or, more generally, empiricist ideas that has dominated much of modern linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. The conclusion that I hoped to establish in the review, by discussing these speculations in their most explicit and detailed form, was that the general point of view was largely mythology, and that its widespread acceptance is not the result of empirical support, persuasive reasoning, or the absence of a plausible alternative.