ERIC Identifier: ED446336
Publication Date: 2000-10-00
Author: Lu, Mei-Yu
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading
English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Language Development in the Early Years. ERIC Digest D154.
This digest, written from a social interaction perspective, provides readers
an overview of children's language development in the first five years of their
life. The primary function of language, according to Vygotsky (1962), "in both
adults and children is communication, social contact" (p.19). Through daily
interaction with other language users, children learn how to use language to
convey messages, to express feelings, and to achieve intentions which enable
them to function in a society. Muspratt, Luke, and Freebody (1997) argue that
the language that members of a specific community use reflects the values and
beliefs that are embedded in their culture and ideologies; in the same way, the
culture and dominant ideologies within learning contexts also have a strong
impact on the learners' perceptions of the language learning process. In other
words, language is a cultural tool which provides the means for members of a
group to retain their shared identity and to relate with each other. Through the
process of language learning, parents socialize their children into socially and
culturally appropriate ways of behaving, speaking, and thinking.
The process of language acquisition for young children is built upon a
variety of experiences. From birth, parents and caregivers involve infants in
communicative exchanges. These exchanges accompany activities shared by adults
and infants, such as bathing, feeding, and dressing. During these activities,
parents and caregivers comment on the infants' actions and often repeat and
exaggerate their vocalizations (Fernald & Mazzie, 1991). Such communicative
exchanges between adults and infants function as a form of social interaction.
This social interaction helps build intimacy between adults and infants,
enhances infants' interests in their environment, and provides them with
stimulation for later language development (Burkato & Daehler, 1995).
THE FIRST YEAR
Crying is the earliest form of infant
vocalization. But after only a few weeks of experience with language, infants
begin to vocalize in addition to crying: they coo. Infants generally begin to
coo at about one month of age (Shaffer, 1999). Cooing is repeating vowel-like
sounds such as "oooooh" or "aaaaah." Infants coo when their parents or caregiver
interact with them. At around 3 or 4 months, infants start to add consonant
sounds to their cooing, and they begin to babble at between 4 and 6 months of
age. Babbling consists of consonant and vowel sounds. Infants are able to
combine these consonant and vowel sounds into syllable-like sequences, such as
mamama, kaka, and dadadada (Berk, 2000; Shaffer, 1999). Through interacting with
parents or caregivers by such cooing and babbling, infants develop a sense of
the role of language in communication by the end of the first year. The linkage
between communication and sound-making signals the onset of true language
(Glover & Bruning, 1987).
THE SECOND AND THIRD YEAR
In the beginning of the second
year, children's first words emerge. The first words are also called "holophrases" because children's productive vocabulary usually contains only one
or two very simple words at a time, and they seem to utter single words to
represent the whole meaning of an entire sentence (Shaffer, 1999). Children's
first words are usually very different from adults' speech in terms of the
pronunciation, and these first words are most frequently nominals--labels for
objects, people, or events (Bukatko & Daehler, 1995). In addition,
children's first words are quite contextual. They may use a single word to
identify something or somebody under different conditions (such as saying "ma"
when seeing mother entering the room), to label objects linked to someone
(saying "ma" when seeing mother's lipstick), or to express needs (saying "ma"
and extending arms for wanting a hug from the mother). In the initial stage of
the first-word utterance, children produce words slowly. However, once they have
achieved a productive vocabulary of ten words, children begin to add new words
at a faster rate, called "vocabulary spurt" (Barrett, 1985).
By their second birthday, children begin to combine words and to generate
simple sentences (Bukatko & Daehler, 1995). Initially, the first sentences
are often two-word sentences, gradually evolving into longer ones. Children's
first sentences have been called "telegraphic speech" because these sentences
resemble the abbreviated language of a telegram. Like the telegram, children's
first sentences contain mainly the essential content words, such as verbs and
nouns, but omit the function words, such as articles, prepositions, and
pronouns, auxiliary verbs (Berk, 2000).
Although children's first sentences seem to be ungrammatical in terms of
adult standards, they are far more than strings of random words combined.
Instead, they have a structure of their own. A characteristic of the structure
is that some words, called "pivot words," are used in a mostly fixed position,
and are combined with other less frequently used words referred to as "open
words," which can be easily replaced by other words (Braine, 1976). For example,
a child may use "more" as a pivot word, and create sentences such as, "more
cookie, "more car," and "more doggie."
Creativity also plays an important role in this first sentence stage.
Research has revealed that many of children's early sentences, such as "allgone
cookie," and "more read" are creative statements which do not appear in adult
speech (Shaffer, 1999). Like the first-word creation, context plays an important
role in understanding children's first sentences because both require context in
order that understanding can occur. As children's use of simple sentences
increases, the amount of single-word use declines, and their sentences become
increasingly elaborate and sophisticated. (Glover & Bruning, 1987).
THE PRESCHOOL YEARS
By the time children are 3 1/2 to 4
years of age, they have already acquired many important skills in language
learning. They have a fairly large working vocabulary and an understanding of
the function of words in referring to things and actions. They also have a
command of basic conversational skills, such as talking about a variety of
topics with different audiences. Nevertheless, language development, especially
vocabulary growth and conversational skills, continues (Glover & Bruning,
1987). It is generally agreed that vocabulary learning is not accomplished
through formal instruction. Instead, the meaning of new words is usually
acquired when children interact with other more skilled language users during
such natural situations as riding, eating, and playing (Beals & Tabors,
1995). From these activities, children are able to construct hypotheses when
hearing unfamiliar verbal strings. They then test these hypotheses by further
observation or by making up new sentences themselves. Finally, through feedback
and further exposure, children revise and confirm their hypotheses (Bukatko
& Daehler, 1995).
The development of conversational skills also requires children's active
interaction with other people. To communicate with others effectively, children
need to learn how to negotiate, take turns, and make relevant as well as
intelligible contributions (Schickedanz, Schickedanz, Forsyth, & Forsyth,
1998). Through interacting with other more experienced language users, children
modify and elaborate their sentences in response to requests for more
information (Peterson & McCabe, 1992). As children interact with their
playmates, their conversations usually include a series of turn-taking dialogues
(Glover & Bruning, 1987). In addition, young children learn to adjust their
messages to their listeners' level of understanding (Shatz & Gelman, 1973).
By the time children enter elementary school, their oral language is very
similar to that of adults (Shaffer, 1999). They have acquired the basic
syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic elements of their native language. Language
development will continue, however, from early childhood through adolescence and
In summary, language learning is both a social
and a developmental process. To acquire a language, children must interact with
other more competent language users as well as explore various aspects of the
linguistic system. During the early years of language learning, children also
create, test, and revise their hypotheses regarding the use of language. Parents
and early childhood educators should provide these young learners with
developmentally appropriate language activities, offer opportunities for them to
experiment with different aspects of language learning, and honor their
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