ERIC Identifier: ED301361
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Genishi, Celia
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Young Children's Oral Language Development. ERIC Digest.
The development of oral language is one of the child's most natural--and
impressive--accomplishments. This digest presents an overview of the process and
mechanics of language development, along with implications for practice.
WHEN AND HOW LANGUAGE IS LEARNED
Almost all children learn
the rules of their language at an early age through use, and over time, without
formal instruction. Thus one source for learning must be genetic. Humans beings
are born to speak; they have an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the
language used in their environment. The environment itself is also a significant
factor. Children learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the
important people around them speak.
Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them. We know
that children work through linguistic rules on their own because they use forms
that adults never use, such as "I goed there before" or "I see your feets."
Children eventually learn the conventional forms, "went" and "feet", as they
sort out for themselves the exceptions to the rules of English syntax. As with
learning to walk, learning to talk requires time for development and practice in
everyday situations. Constant correction of a child's speech is usually
Children seem born not just to speak, but also to interact socially. Even
before they use words, they use cries and gestures to convey meaning; they often
understand the meanings that others convey. The point of learning language and
interacting socially, then, is not to master rules, but to make connections with
other people and to make sense of experiences (Wells, 1986). In summary,
language occurs through an interaction among genes (which hold innate tendencies
to communicate and be sociable), environment, and the child's own thinking
When children develop abilities is always a difficult question to answer. In
general, children say their first words between 12 and 18 months of age. They
begin to use complex sentences by the age of 4 to 4 1/2 years. By the time they
start kindergarten, children know most of the fundamentals of their language, so
that they are able to converse easily with someone who speaks as they do (that
is, in their dialect). As with other aspects of development, language
acquisition is not predictable. One child may say her first word at 10 months,
another at 20 months. One child may use complex sentences at 5 1/2 years,
another at 3 years.
ORAL LANGUAGE COMPONENTS
Oral language, the complex system
that relates sounds to meanings, is made up of three components: the
phonological, semantic, and syntactic (Lindfors, 1987). The phonological
component involves the rules for combining sounds. Speakers of English, for
example, know that an English word can end, but not begin, with an "-ng" sound.
We are not aware of our knowledge of these rules, but our ability to understand
and pronounce English words demonstrates that we do know a vast number of rules.
The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning
that may be combined with each other to make up words (for example, "paper" +
"s" are the two morphemes that make up "papers"), and sentences (Brown, 1973). A
dictionary contains the semantic component of a language, and reflects not just
what words make up that language, but also what words (and meanings) are
important to the speakers of the language.
The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine
morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together, as in
"more cracker," she is using a syntactic rule about how morphemes are combined
to convey meaning. Like the rules making up the other components, syntactic
rules become increasingly complex as the child develops. From combining two
morphemes, the child goes on to combine words with suffixes or inflections ("-s"
or "-ing", as in "papers" and "eating") and eventually creates questions,
statements, commands, etc. She also learns to combine two ideas into one complex
sentence, as in "I'll share my crackers if you share your juice." Of course
speakers of a language constantly use these three components of language
together, usually in social situations.
Some language experts would add a fourth component: pragmatics, which deals
with rules of language use. Pragmatic rules are part of our communicative
competence, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations, for
example, in a conversational way at home and in a more formal way at a job
interview. Young children need to learn the ways of speaking in the day care
center or school where, for example, teachers often ask rhetorical questions.
Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning the rules of the other
components of language since people are perceived and judged based on both what
they say and how and when they say it.
NURTURING LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Parents and caregivers need
to remember that language in the great majority of individuals develops very
efficiently. Adults should try not to focus on "problems," such as the inability
to pronounce words as adults do (for example, when children pronounce r's like
w's). Most children naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of
the child's total repertoire of language. However, if a child appears not to
hear what others say to her; if family members and those closest to her find her
difficult to understand; or if she is noticeably different in her communicative
abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to seek advice from
specialists in children's speech, language and hearing.
Teachers can help sustain natural language development by providing
environments full of language development opportunities. Here are some general
guidelines for teachers, parents, and other caregivers:
Understand that every child's language or dialect is worthy of respect as a
valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and
experiences of the child's family and community.
Treat children as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not yet
talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking turns,
looking attentively, using facial expressions, etc.) as long as they have
experiences with conversing adults.
Encourage interaction among children. Peer learning is an important part of
language development, especially in mixed-age groups. Activities involving a
wide range of materials should promote talk. There should be a balance between
individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and discussion, such
as dramatic play, block-building, book-sharing, or carpentry.
Remember that parents, caregivers, teachers, and guardians are the chief
resources in language development. Children learn much from each other, but
adults are the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and
sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center or
classroom. Continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand
written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral
abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions, and
providing information in varied situations. Every area of the curriculum is
enhanced through language, so that classrooms full of active learners are hardly
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Brown, R. A FIRST LANGUAGE: THE EARLY
STAGES. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1973.
Cazden, C.B., ed. LANGUAGE IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. Washington, DC:
Fletcher, P., and M. Garman, eds. LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, 2nd ed. New York:
Genishi, C. "Children's Language: Learning Words From Experience." YOUNG
CHILDREN 44 (Nov., 1988): 16-23.
Genishi, C., and A. Haas Dyson. LANGUAGE ASSESSMENT IN THE EARLY YEARS.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1984.
Heath, S.B. WAYS WITH WORDS: LANGUAGE, LIFE, AND WORK IN COMMUNITIES AND
CLASSROOMS. New York: Cambridge, 1983.
Hough, R.A., Nurss, J.R., and D. Wood. "Tell Me a Story: Making Opportunities
for Elaborated Language in Early Childhood Classrooms." YOUNG CHILDREN 43 (Nov.,
Lindfors, J.W. CHILDREN'S LANGUAGE AND LEARNING, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Wells, G. THE MEANING MAKERS: CHILDREN LEARNING LANGUAGE AND USING LANGUAGE
TO LEARN. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.