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Approaches to Studying Human Language Development

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Understanding how humans develop language can be an important part of learning linguistics, as well as psychology and anthropology. This lesson discusses four major approaches to understanding human language development.

Why Language Development Matters

Jonathan has become really interested in language. Every time he visits with his young niece and nephew, he is fascinated by watching them learn to talk and express their needs and feelings through words.

As a student of anthropology, Jonathan is starting to realize that language development is a really big part of what makes human societies and relationships unique. He wonders how language developed in the first place.

When he looks into it, Jonathan realizes that there are many different theories on human language development, which refers to how and why humans came to language. He starts to learn more about the different theoretical approaches to this question.

Continuity Theory

Many of the theories having to do with the development of language are continuity theories. Proponents of continuity theory look at the tremendous complexity of human language and the different ways humans use language for survival.

Continuity theorists argue that because of this complexity and richness, language must have evolved from other pre-verbal forms of communication. In other words, language development is continuous, and language is simply a more sophisticated evolutionary tool for communication than some of the pre-verbal forms.

Some of the information that matters to continuity theorists have to do with the capacity for communication in primates and the role that nonverbal communication continues to play for humans today. Continuity theorists also look at the evolution of song and music as forms of human communication over time.

To believe in continuity theory is to believe, Jonathan now understands, that there is a more primitive drive to communicate, and language is the current apex of the evolution of this drive into behavior.

Critics of continuity theory have noted that it does not account for the tremendous difference in sophistication between language and other forms of communication.

Discontinuity Theory

A converse set of theories are often known as discontinuity theories. Discontinuity theorists maintain that language is actually quite different from any other capacity or feature in humans or any other species. In other words, language did not evolve out of other modes of communication; instead, it is a completely separate system and appeared very suddenly and relatively recently in the evolutionary time scale.

Discontinuity theories see the language faculties of the brain as separate, sophisticated neurological faculties that enabled language development only once they fully evolved into their current, almost perfect and very complicated form.

Criticisms of discontinuity theory point out that it does not take nonverbal and primate forms of communication as seriously as it perhaps should.

Cultural Theories

After thinking about the differences between continuity and discontinuity theories, Jonathan reflects on his own experiences with language and the differences he knows that exist between different human languages. He learns about cultural theories of language development, which argue that language develops out of specific cultural and interactional needs among and within humans.

Cultural theorists believe that language is learned in relation to other people and in the context of culture and the need to communicate certain needs, ideas and feelings. These theorists think it is important to look at the different semantic and syntactical structures between languages that have grown out of different human societies, geographies, and cultural belief systems.

Cultural theorists are critiqued for their emphasis on differences between language from different cultures and contexts, rather than looking at universalities and similarities.

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