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 Remember primary circular reactions? That was Piagetās idea that children in the earliest stage of cognitive development repeat certain actions over and over (hence the term Īcircularā as in Īround and round we goā) and that these actions involve their own bodies. One example of this is sucking their own fists or toes. My daughter, Julia, is so excited about sucking on her own toes at the moment (at age four months) that the pleasure she takes in it is almost obscene. We are fairly reassured by Piagetās research that she will get over it before becoming involved in a scandal in a cheap hotel room with some elected official. Piaget assures us that this fascination with oneās own body is a short substage in the first few months of development.

What does this all have to do with language development? Well, cooing (the production of vowel sounds) and, particularly, babbling (the production of consonant-vowel blends) occur in the first few months. By age eight months, normal infants, regardless of their language or country, have begun frequent babbling, making sounds such as ba-ba-ba-ba , da, or Julia's favorite - hi. They seem to do this for no other reason than pleasure in hearing the noise they make.
(It could be argued that we all know adults who are still in this same stage.)

All of the above seems to indicate that language occurs naturally, and that is true - and it isn't. Like most topics in developmental psychology, it seems that both nature and nurture plays a role.


ONE: All children, regardless of their language, learn it in the same stages which occur in the same order and around the same ages. These are:

1. Crying 2. Cooing
3. Babbling 4. Holophrases (that is, using a single word to stand for a whole phrase, such as "Up" for "Pick me up" or "Milk" for "I want some milk." When he was just learning to talk, the son of a friend of ours would go to the door and say "Pretty" which meant that he wanted to go out and look at the Christmas lights. Yes, we have Christmas lights in California, and no, I do not see anything unusual about having Christmas tree lights on palm trees. It seems perfectly normal to me.)
5. Telegraphic speech: when all unnecessary words are left out, such as "Light on" for "Leave the light on in my room" or "Me milk" for "Please give me some milk." The phrase comes from telegraphs, which used to charge by the word, so people used only the words absolutely essential to get their meaning across. I find I have to explain that now because, in our modern society with faxes, Internet and cell phones, there are fewer and fewer ancient dinosaur people like me who have actually ever received a telegram in their lives - or even seen one 6. Whole sentences. (Kind of self-explanatory, isn't it?)

 TWO: Children seemed to be "preprogrammed" to interpret language in a way that makes the most sense.
clownfishCognitive bias- when children are learning language for the first time and they hear a word, such as "fish", they assume that it means the whole fish, not its fins, not that particular fish, not the color of the fish, not the action of the fish swimming, and so on. All of those are possibilities, but children tend to have a bias toward interpreting a word a certain way. 

Children learn nouns first, and more basic nouns, such as fish, before they learn general ones, like animal. 

    One statistic in your textbook which I found fascinating was the fact that a ten-word sentence can be arranged in over 3,000,000 different ways, and, yet, somehow, we learn to arrange those ten words in the ONE sequence which is grammatically correct and make sense. Okay, maybe you and I are amazed by different things, but I still think that it is amazing.

THREE: Most people, even children, seemed "preprogrammed" to speak to young children in a way that makes the most sense.

Most people, when interacting with infants and young children, intuitively understand this. Every morning, Julia and I have a conversation with Daddy's fish that sits on the desk. [No, the fish does not talk back.]
I do not say, "Look at the Siamese fighting fish." When her sister showed her the fish in the tank at the restaurant where we ate last week, she didn't say, "Look at the Garibaldis". Instead, we both say , 

"Fish. Look at the fish. See? Fish."

People speaking with infants and young children tend to use a higher-pitched tone of voice, short sentences, basic nouns and verbs and repeat themselves frequently. This type of speech is referred to as motherese. Now people are calling it "caretaker speech" or "infant-drected speech" because motherese is sexist!

Okay, Okay, I admit it. In fact, fathers, unrelated adults and even children only slightly older will modify their speech in this way.

FOUR: Language develops extremely rapidly in early childhood, faster than can be explained by behaviorist theories of learning.

Click here if you want to find out a little about the behaviorists' theory of language development.

    As Chomsky once said, even if all that ever happened in a day from the time a child woke up until he/she went to sleep was reinforcemet for sounds approximating words in the culture's language, there STILL wouldn't be enough hours for the behaviorists' theory of language development to work. Language doesn't develop so much as it explodes. As shown in the chart below, the average child zooms from almost no words to a speaking vocabulary of over 1,000 words within one year - usually the year from two to three.


FIVE: There seems to be a critical period for language development.

This is one of the few areas for which there does seem to be evidence of a critical period, where if you don't learn language early in life, you don't learn it, or, at least not as well. Of course, you would have to be in a very extreme circumstance to not be exposed to language at all in our society. Typically, these are the cases of abuse and neglect, where a child has been locked away from almost all human contact.


    When I was in graduate school, I worked at a residential facility for children with mental retardation. Two of the children had spent many the first eight to ten years of their lives in a foster home where several children with Down syndrome were kept - and kept is certainly the appropriate word. It was run by a woman who did not believe that children with Down syndrome could learn anything. She changed their diapers regularly, kept them in cribs and fed them from bottles. When these two children were aged eight and ten, the state came in and closed the facility down for neglect, and sent children to various other programs, including ours. When they came to us, the children could not walk, talk or feed themselves. They were not toilet-trained and had basically no self-care skills or any other kind of skills.
    Within five years, both children had become toilet-trained, learned to walk, run, swim, feed themselves, dress themselves, make their beds, cook simple meals, identify basic signs (such as STOP) but neither one ever learned to speak more than a few words. They did both learn to  use sign language and used dozens of signs, and signed three and four-word sentences, but they never learned to talk. Besides the suggestion that there may be a critical or sensitive period for language development, there is another moral to this story, and that is the importance of education regarding child development. The woman who ran the foster home where the children were for years failed to see that she had done anything wrong. She hadn't beaten the children; she had fed them and kept them clean. She even went to the state to try to get her license back, and some of the children's parents supported her. This was not an evil person but a very ignorant one, whose ignorance damaged irreparably the children in her care - and she didn't even know it. Pretty sad, huh? I still want to go back and slap her.

Does that mean that  environment doesn't matter? NO!!

SPEECH AND LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT milestones and warning signs (mildly interesting).
OPTIONAL site for you to check out which gives milestons and signs for concern in language development.Good place to go if you have a specific child you are wondering about and would like more information on what he/she should be doing at a certain age.

Click here for information on the importance of environment in language development.Not an optional site. This is the next lesson.!

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