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Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development 1
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
Factors that Influence Language Development
University of British Columbia, CANADA
(Published online February 2005)
edition September 2010)
Language development and literacy
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.
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
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.
The opposition
argues that grammatical knowledge results from the way the human mind analyzes and
organizes information and is not innate.
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
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
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.
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.
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.
By the age of four to six or so, most children have acquired the basic
grammar of the sentence.
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.
Although there are individual
differences in rate of development, the sequence in which various forms appear is highly
predictable both within and across stages.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
©2005-2010 CEECD / SKC-ECD
Johnston J
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
Fortunately, the research evidence also indicates that it is possible to
accelerate language learning.
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.
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To cite this document:
Johnston J. Factors that influence language development. 2
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- Accessed [insert date].
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
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Johnston J
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Many of the categories of different demographic and socioeconomic groups—age/sex groups, race/ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, marital and household types, and social networks--differ from one another in their linguistic behavior and characteristics, as do the inhabitants of different geographic areas and particular populations over time. The former variations are described as social variations, as distinguished from geographic variations in space and variations in time. Demographic and socioeconomic variables and linguistic variables may be associated with one another. A linguistic variable is a linguistic measure that has recognizable variants, such as proficiency in English (very good, good, etc.), literacy (yes or no), language spoken at home (e.g., Japanese, Italian, French, etc.), and degree of coherence in speech (Wardhaugh 1992). Linguistic differences between the categories of the social groups may be expressed also in any of the different structural features of a language, i.e., its phonology, vocabulary, or syntax. In this chapter I identify and describe the principal social variations in language that distinguish the leading categories of demographic and socioeconomic groups.
Two experiments investigated the role of inflections in verb learning. In Study I, 3- to 5-year-olds with typical language development were asked to extend novel verbs to new instances. They heard the verbs inflected with either -ed or -ing and were given a forced choice between events that maintained either the activity or the result of the original event. The younger children selected events according to the verb inflection: same-activity events for -ing and same-result events for -ed. Older preschoolers chose same-result events throughout. Study II was conducted to investigate the nature of this causal bias. A group of 4- to 5-year-olds with specific language impairment completed the same verb extension task. They were equivalent to the older Study I children in age and IQ but were at lower language levels than the younger group. Children in the SLI group used neither the inflectional strategy nor the same-result strategy. Findings from the two studies point to a developmental period during which children treat inflectional cues as reliable guides to verb meaning. The discussion focuses on the rise and fall of such inflectional bootstrapping and the linguistic character of the same-result bias that replaces it.
2 studies of word learning are reported. In Study 1, 24-month-old children and 2 adults played with 3 nameless objects. These objects were placed in a clear box along with a novel nameless object. The adults then displayed excitement about the contents of the box and modeled a new word. Comparison with a control condition indicated significant learning of the new word for the novel object. Study 2 followed the same procedure with one difference: the children played with the novel object while the adults were absent. Thus, at the time of the language model the target object was novel only to the adults, not to the children. Again subjects displayed significant learning of the new word. This last finding suggests that 24-month-old children understand that adults use language for things that are novel to the discourse context and that this novelty is determined from the speaker's point of view.
General lexical development in children, including extensive studies of word-formation
In this influential study, Steven Pinker develops a new approach to the problem of language learning. Now reprinted with new commentary by the author, this classic work continues to be an indispensable resource in developmental psycholinguistics. Reviews of this book: "The contribution of [Pinker's] book lies not just in its carefully argued section on learnability theory and acquisition, but in its detailed analysis of the empirical consequences of his assumptions." --Paul Fletcher, Times Higher Education Supplement "One of those rare books which every serious worker in the field should read, both for its stock of particular hypotheses and analyses, and for the way it forces one to re-examine basic assumptions as to how one's work should be done. Its criticisms of other approaches to language acquisition...often go to the heart of the difficulties." --Michael Maratsos, Language "[A] new edition, with a new preface from the author, of the influential monograph originally published in 1984 in which Pinker proposed one of the most detailed (and according to some, best) theories of language development based upon the sequential activation of different language-acquisition algorithms. In his new preface, the author reaches the not very modest conclusion that, despite the time elapsed, his continues to be the most complete theory of language development ever developed. A classic of the study of language acquisition, in any case." -- Infancia y Aprendizaje [Italy]
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.