Linguistics: Language Development in Children

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  • 0:04 How Does Language Develop?
  • 0:52 Background
  • 1:35 Theoretical Approaches
  • 2:54 Components of Language
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst
How does a baby's babble turn into intelligible speech? Are there underlining innate traits that drive language development in children? Or is it the social interaction with others that encourages language development? This lesson will explore these questions and discuss how aspects of language change over time.

How Does Language Develop?

A cry, a gesture, a babble. These are all examples of a child's first attempt at speaking. As the child grows, his or her linguistic abilities develop as well. The babble turns into a syllable, then a word and then a sentence. Do these changes occur because of innate traits that all humans are born with? Or is language development based on a social process in which interaction between the child and adult drives growth and developmental changes? This lesson will discuss the theoretical perspectives of language development and the various aspects of how language changes as a child develops and ages.


Similar to cognitive development, language development of children is thought to proceed by processes of learning in which children acquire the basic forms, meanings and uses of words in order to communicate ideas and interact with others. Linguistics, the scientific study of human language, is an important component of educational psychology. Many theories of language development exist, but the major theoretical debate of language development surrounds the process of how the rules of syntax are acquired. There are two major theoretical perspectives of language development: those that offer social-integrationist approaches and those that offer a nativist approach.

Theoretical Approaches

The most widely known nativist approach is the nativist theory, developed by Noam Chomsky. The nativist approach views language as biological and instinctive to a newborn. Chomsky argues that all children have what is called an innate language acquisition device (LAD). Chomsky called this a language organ. It allows children to produce consistent sentences once vocabulary is learned. His claim is based on the view that what children hear through interaction with others is insufficient to explain how they learn language.

Other theorists offer a different perspective. The interactionist approach consists of social-interactionist theories of language development. These theories propose that children learn language through interaction and social experiences. Lev Vygotsky, a well-known social-cognitive psychologist, proposed a theory of speech and language development that embraces the idea that speech begins as a means of communication and socializing and later becomes a tool of thinking. His research led to the identification of four major stages of speech development and two subtypes, which are covered in another lesson.

Components of Language

There are four main components of language. These components will be defined and explained through the changes that occur as a child develops and ages.

The first component is phonology. Phonology involves the rules about the structure and sequence of speech sounds. Phonological development occurs in periods. From birth to around 1 year of age, the child starts to make sounds resembling speech. Examples include cooing and babbling. From 1-2 years of age, the baby will start to simplify word pronunciation through the use of single syllable sounds, such as 'ba' for bottle. By the age of 6, most children can master multiple syllable words.

The second component of language is semantics. Semantics consists of vocabulary and how concepts are expressed through words. Semantic development occurs in periods as well. From birth to around 1 year of age, babies begin to understand that language is used to communicate. From 1-2 years of age, the child's vocabulary grows exponentially. From 3-5 years of age, children use vocabulary, but sometimes incorrectly. For example a child will say 'doggie' for all animals with four legs. After the age of 6, most children can understand word meanings based on their definitions and can understand multiple definitions for words that sound the same, like 'hear' for hearing and 'here' as in 'come here.'

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