Language Development in Early Childhood

The development of language is an interesting topic as it seems to be consistent at all ages across cultures.  This topic will focus specifically on language development in early childhood by looking at some prominent theories, the stages of language development, environmental influences, and disorders in language and reading.

Language development falls under the category of growth and lifespan development, and is weighted at 12%. It is important for Psychologist to know as language delays may be a sign of other developmental concerns or environmental impacts. The study tips page can give you some advice on how to go about learning this information. This material is meant to be supplemented with the information you have already been taught in your degrees, your previous notes or textbooks, and additional study tools as needed.  In order top have the best possible chance of being successful on the EPPP, please take a look at the product reviews page for a variety of additional study tools available.

Theories of Language Development

Like many good theories in psychology, there are 2 main sides that theories fall on: The Nature vs Nurture argument.  And language development theories are no different, the debate is regarding whether we have an innate ability to learn language, or it is developed through interactions in our environment

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky

Nativist Theory: Developed by Noam Chomsky who holds the belief that language is something unique to humans. This uniqueness is a result of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), or basically a brain already set up to learn language that needs only limited environmental input in order to fully understand grammar.  This argument is supported in that newborns have an ability to tell the difference between language and other sounds.  Also regardless of the language being learned, children all around the world seem to learn language in the same way and go through the same developmental milestones.  Also to learn solely from the environment would involve significant instruction and coaching, and children appear to learn language with only minimal support.

Empiricist Theory: Otherwise known as the nurturist view, the assumption is that language is learned through interaction with the environment, imitation, and reinforcement. The theory believes that children randomly make sounds at first, the imitate sounds they hear other people making, and only those reinforced by adults are repeated. It is necessary for children to engage with their environment to learn language, and unlike Chomsky’s theory empiricist do not believes in a specific LAD.

Interactionist Perspective: This is the most favored view and believes that language is a combination of nature and nurture.  While there is an innate ability to learn language, it is necessary to interact with the environment (most often the parents) in order to fully develop.  Parent figures or other significant adults often repeat children’s word in order to correct pronunciation, or expand on what the child is trying to say to teach sentence structure.

Stages of Language Development

While there is some small variation, language development has a typical course seen in most children across cultures.

Newborn: The only means of communication is crying.

6 Weeks to 3 months: This is the time that cooing starts to develop.  Babies can laugh, squeal, gurgle and make a “coo” sound.

4-6 Months: Repeating simple one syllable consonant and vowel combinations, such as “ma ma ma” or “da da da”. By about 6 months there is a difference in babbling depending on the language being spoken in the home, and babies start to develop sounds more similar to the language they are exposed to.

9-10 Months: There are 2 important things that happen during this time:

  • Word Comprehension: A child can understand simple words or phrases such as their name or “come here”.
  • Echolalia: Deliberately imitating sounds with out comprehension.  They can string together sounds that may sound like they are talking, but the sounds have no real meaning.

10-14 Months: Typically children will say their first real word in this time.language

12-18 Months: This is when Holophrasic Speech develops and  a baby will use one word to express a whole thought, such as “Bubu” to say they want something to drink. By 18 months typically a toddler has a vocabulary of 50 words, although there is significant variation in this number.

18-24 months: A Toddler should be learning to put 2 or more words together known as Telegraphic Speech in order to
communicate a specific idea.  By 24 months the median vocabulary is 200 words, again this varies significantly.

2.5-3 Years: A time of rapid language development and expansion in vocabulary.

Noteworthy Findings

Gestures: The development of gestures as a form of communication typically occurs before language.  At around 8 months of age babies can be taught baby sign language as an effective means of early communication.

Gender Differences: In observation of children between the ages of 16 and 22 months interacting with their mothers, it appears that females showed a higher vocabulary development than males.  some studies indicate that mothers tend to talk to their daughters more than they talk to their sons.

Environmental Influences: While babies seem to learn language at the same rate, there are some differences.  Homes that spend more time speaking directly to the infant help the child to develop language at a quicker pace.  A specific type of communication known as “motherese” is when the parent speaks to the child in a slow high pitched voice.  This is thought to capture the child’s attention and increase focus on language.

There are some cultural differences, for instance North American culture tends to focus on grammatically correct speaking and parent/child vocal interactions.  Japanese cultures on the other hand tend to focus more on physical interaction and nonsense sounds as a way of interacting.

Also it is found that middle class families are often higher educated and tend to utilize more grammatically complex vocabulary and focus on verbal interactions.  Lower socioeconomic class tend to show a difference in interactions and children are often verbally interacting more with peers and siblings than parents.

Bilingualism: There is debate as to whether learning a second language is helpful or not.  There is some early evidence that suggests that by learning 2 languages there are early deficits in both languages rather than overall mastery of language.  Some studies also show delays in mathematics is bilingual children as opposed to monolinguistic children.  On the other hand, children that know 2 languages show a higher level of cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch back and forth between 2 cognitive functions.bilingual

Sapir-Whorf HypothesisBelieve that language influences the way we think. So since languages are structured differently, there can be a difference in the way people think depending on the language they speak.  For example in English there is one word for snow, but in Inuit Native languages there are multiple words to describe different types of snow thereby influencing the way people that speak that language think.

Language Disorders

While not all children develop language in the exact same way and there are always a few outliers, early delays in language could be indications of other disorders that could benefit from early intervention.  The language delays could include small vocabulary, delay in comprehension, limited babbling, limited vocal imitations, or limited gestures.  This could be indicative of a few conditions that could benefit from early intervention such as:

  • ADHD
  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Verbal Dyspraxia
  • Otitis Media

Reading Disorders

The most common type of reading disorder is Dyslexia, and is estimated to affect anywhere from 3-20% of school populations.  It is characterized by the difficulty matching the written word with sounds of speech, but there are a variety of different types of dyslexia.

  • readingSurface Dyslexia: The person is unable to recognize words by sight and instead sounds them out.  Irregular words such as “psychology” may be difficult as they are not pronounced the way they are spelled.
  • Phonological Dyslexia: Reading non-words aloud is difficult, specifically non-words that may be used to describe a sound or a made up concept.  Such as “Schwilsky”.
  • Deep Dyslexia: A person may mistakenly read a word as a similar word instead of what is written.  For example reading the word “hat” as “cap”.
  • Pure Dyslexia: Difficulty in reading a sequence of words or letters as they are written
  • Hemianopic Dyslexia: Often due to partial visual loss, and while the letters and word can be read fine the individual will often complain of very slow reading.
  • Attentional Dyslexia: Often misreading the first or last half of a word, and readers often complain that letters seem to be migrating or crowding.  For example reading the word “jump” as “bump”.


***After reading this information, anything interesting about language that you would like to comment about?  Were you aware that there are so many different forms of dyslexia?  If you are a parent or have had significant interaction with a young person, did your child develop language similar to the stages outlined?  Please leave any comments related to this topic below in order as discussion can help in the study process.  Also let us know if there is anything else you think is important to note on this topic!

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4 thoughts on “Language Development in Early Childhood

  1. Love the info, and Noam Chomsky. You mentioned that females showed a higher vocabulary development than males. Something to do with mothers tend to talk to their daughters more than sons. Is this why girls mature faster than boys? Or is it purely physiological?Also do you know what causes Dyslexia?

    1. It is just a theory that mothers talk more to their daughters than sons, some other research shows that this may not be true. But it is an interesting concept, and may be part of the reason why generally girls tend to develop quicker than boys. As far as I am aware there is not a firm agreement as to what causes dyslexia, many very good theories out there though. I tend to gravitate toward theories that utilize a biological explanation. Thanks for your contribution.

  2. Hey Joy,
    Wow interesting article, bilingual all the way! I’m into language studies and I gave up my French halfway because they’ve stopped my French classes after I reached the advanced level due to the insufficient number of students in my level.

    I’m having a niece on the way and I’m certainly gonna teach her French and grow up bilingual so I’ll have someone to talk always practice with, it’ll be so fun 😀

    1. That is such as great way to have some uncle and niece bonding time! There are some excellent studies that show great developmental advances for children that are bilingual, and this is a skill that may increase brain development in ways we can’t really even comprehend. Since you will be such an important presence in her life be sure to check out the Piaget’s stages of development, may be something interesting to learn here.

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