The Effects of Environment and Culture on Language Development

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  • 0:05 Examples
  • 1:53 The Behaviorist Perspective
  • 3:26 The Interactionist Perspective
  • 4:45 Language Styles
  • 6:20 Supportive Environments
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Both environmental and cultural factors have an impact on early language development. This lesson will provide examples to consider and discuss possible reasons for this impact.

Experiences, Culture and Language Development

Imagine the following three children: Katie, Billy and Kim. First, let's meet Katie. Katie's environment is full of stimulation. She has two older siblings who interact with her regularly, and Katie's mother is at home with her during the day. They often go on outings together. Katie also attends an educational daycare program three mornings a week.

Now, let's meet Billy. Billy's environment is less stimulating. He's an only child, and his mother suffers from depression. No extended family lives in the area, and he does not attend a daycare program. Billy's basic needs are met, but he has very little interaction with others. Most of Billy's day is spent in front of a TV.

Finally, we are introduced to Kim. Katie and Billy are growing up in the United States, but Kim lives in China. Kim has loving parents and grandparents who give him lots of attention. He does not attend daycare, but time is spent teaching him daily at home, and he often interacts with other children in his neighborhood. Katie, Billy and Kim are all of the same age and ability, but their experiences and culture are different. Do you think that this might have an effect on their language development?

The answer to this question is yes! While we may not be able to completely predict future outcomes for each child, we do know that the rates and styles of language development and language acquisition will be different. Since most researchers believe that language acquisition is learned, the different environments and cultural circumstances will be a factor in their individual language development.

The Behaviorist Perspective

One theory that explains the impact of environment and culture on language development is the behaviorist theory. One of the main proponents of this theory, B.F. Skinner, proposed that language is acquired in the same way as any other behavior, through operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, learning is defined as changes in behavior as a result of experiences that occur after a response.

Skinner said that operant conditioning occurs in language development when sounds are made by a child and then reinforced by their parents' reactions. An example of this reinforcement would be an excited smile, hugs and attention whenever a sound resembling a word is made. This makes the child more likely to repeat the word and associate it with a corresponding object or event. This operant conditioning combines with imitation to allow rapid language development to occur.

Remember Katie? According to the behaviorist perspective, her language acquisition would look something like this: Katie begins babbling something similar to 'cawa-cawa-rrrr-caw-carrr-aaa.' She does this one day while watching her father pull the car into the driveway. Katie's mother becomes excited. She points to the car and says 'car.' Katie imitates her mother and repeats 'carrr-aaa.' Soon, Katie is saying 'carrr-aaa' every time she sees a car to get attention and begins to associate the word 'car' with the object.

The Interactionist Perspective

Now that you know a little about the behaviorist perspective, let's look at language development through the interactionist perspective. This point of view emphasizes the interactions between innate ability and environmental influences. Two main subgroups exist within the interactionist perspective: the information-processing perspective of language development and the social interaction perspective of language development.

Some information-processing theorists assume that children make sense of complex language through instinctive cognitive abilities combined with their environmental experiences. They agree with the biological theories that infants are born with an amazing ability to analyze language. However, they also argue that these capabilities are probably not sufficient to account for all of their language development.

Proponents of social interaction theories emphasize that social skills and language experiences are essential to language development. According to this view, any active child with the ability to develop language will attempt to communicate. When the child makes these attempts at language development, caregivers will begin to provide experiences that will assist the process. In this way, the child learns to relate language development to its social meaning.

Language Styles

Another interesting fact is that young children learn language development in two distinct styles: referential style and expressive style. In referential style language learning, vocabularies consist mainly of words that name objects. Expressive style language learning produces many more social formalities and pronouns.

Which style a child uses to learn language is dependent upon their beliefs about the purpose of language. Referential style children understand the purpose of language to be naming things. Expressive style children understand the purpose of language to be talking about people's feelings and needs.

These ideas are largely determined by cultural teachings. For example, object words are particularly common in the language of toddlers who speak English, but toddlers who speak Chinese or Japanese have more words for actions and social routines in their vocabulary. Let's use Katie and Kim again to illustrate the different language learning styles.

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