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Enhancing the Language Development of Young Children
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

When we first brought our daughter home from the hospital I was inexperienced. Mother came to help and in her always wise and gentle way said, "Honey, you need to talk to that baby." What wonderful advice! Mother's counsel paid great dividends and I remembered it when our granddaughter was born. As the nurse measured and cleaned and dressed that brand new soul, I talked to her...and she paid attention. She was interested in this talking thing.

Kenzie is one year old now, and she is already an expert at communicating her wants and needs. She uses the tools she has-her eyes, arms and hands, legs, posture, intonation, volume, pitch, facial expressions, and half a dozen English words-to interact with the people in her world. By the time Kenzie is two and a half, she will have 600 words in her vocabulary and by age five or six she will know thousands of words (Gleitman & Landau, 1994). How does language develop so rapidly and naturally? What can early childhood professionals do to promote language development?

How Do Children Learn Language?
There are several theoretical approaches to explain how children learn to speak and understand language. It is most likely that no one theory can explain the entire language development process. However, important insights can be gained by examining several major theoretical approaches.

Nativist Theory
Nativists argue that children have an inborn desire to make sense of the world. With their natural drive to attend to the spoken word and sort out meanings, children can use language as a way to make sense of their world.

Waddington (1957) explains that certain behaviors are learned easily or canalized by members of a species. These canalized behaviors are genetic; the members of a species are prepared to learn them with little effort. In humans, canalized behaviors include learning to use tools and language.

Noam Chomsky (1972) took the nativist explanation a bit further. He proposed that there is an inborn language acquisition device (LAD) somewhere in the brain that facilitates language acquisition. Because young children learn language so effortlessly, yet lack the mental ability to analyze the rules and structure of the language logically, he proposed that there must be a mechanism that allows children to acquire the structure of language naturally. Anyone who has studied a second language understands the difficulty of mastering the complexities of grammar, usage, meanings, and word order that are part of any language system. Though Chomsky's LAD has never been located, it is generally accepted among the experts that the brain comes hardwired for language to develop and biologically human beings are programmed for learning language (Bickerton, 1984; Pinker, 1994; Lust, Suner, & Whitman, 1994; and Slobin, 1985).

When children are born they have the ability to differentiate any sound in any language system (Werker & Lalonde, 1988). By the end of the first year the unused sounds tend to drop out of the repertoire so that babbling tends to take on the sound of French or the sound of Russian or the sound of English. The babbling, however, ends up sounding like an English sentence even though meaning is missing (Boyson-Bardies, deHalle, Sagart, & Duranc, 1989).

Social Learning Theory
If children have a desire to learn and that learning comes without great difficulty, is that all there is to the development of language? Social learning theory explains that children imitate the words and language patterns they hear by watching and listening to the models, caregivers, and family members in their life (Bandura, 1989). Some children imitate German words, others imitate Japanese words, and still others imitate English words. They repeat those sounds that are rewarded with smiles and praise (dada and mama) and drop out those sounds that are not rewarded (ngaaw) (Skinner, 1957; Whitehurst & Valdez-Menchaca, 1988).

But this explanation creates a problem. If human beings simply imitate what others around them have said, what accounts for the ability to speak novel sentences, create an original poem, or write new lyrics to a song? In addition, if human beings only imitate what they have heard, doesn't that mean that they memorize everything they hear and then repeat it back at the appropriate time? Do young children have the ability to memorize that great amount of language?

Interactionist Theory
Proponents of the interactionist theory argue that children need more than a desire to speak, more than an inborn LAD, and more than a model to imitate. Interactionists suggest that children need to interact with others (Bohannon & Bonvillian, 1997). They need to speak and be spoken to. Neither one, alone, is enough.

A normal infant born to deaf and mute parents provided scientists the opportunity to observe a child's attempts to learn language in an environment where spoken language interaction was not possible. Could a child learn language by listening to TV? If a child only needs models to imitate, he or she should be able to learn to speak and understand the spoken word by watching TV. If a child needs to interact (speak and be spoken to), then watching TV would not enable him or her to learn language.

What happened? The child watched TV, but he did not learn to speak. Communication is a two-way process that needs to be experienced.

Brain Research
New advances in brain research have allowed scientists to understand how the physiology of the brain enables human beings to learn language. It appears that the brain is most plastic, or flexible, in young children. This plasticity is connected to a critical period for learning language easily. This critical period makes it easiest to acquire language before age eight or nine, when the ability begins to shut down.

A typically developing child tends to achieve language fluency around age three. However, children who live in an environment characterized by trauma, neglect, stress, or abuse may experience abnormal physical changes in the structure of the brain which interfere with normal language acquisition. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are increased. Those hormones "...wash over the tender brain like acid" (Begley, 1997, p. 32). In some abused or neglected children vital areas of the brain appear like black holes-dark, undeveloped, and inactive.

All languages are composed of phonemes, the smallest units of sound-consonants and vowels. Phonemes combine to form the smallest meaningful units of language, or morphemes. Therefore, it is necessary for the brain to distinguish the phonemes of a given language in order for a child to differentiate the sounds of his or her native language. This differentiation is accomplished by neurons in the auditory cortex. During the first year of life, when the infant hears the same phoneme repeatedly, a cluster of neurons becomes wired to respond to that phoneme. Subsequently, when the ear carries that particular phoneme to the brain, the assigned neuron cluster automatically fires. This process forms a brain map for the sound of the language or languages spoken in an infant's environment (Begley, 1996). By the end of the first year, a child will differentiate those phonemes which have been assigned to neural clusters but will not identify unused phonemes such as those used in other languages. Connections used the most are retained while unused connections are eliminated.

Are There Steps to Language Acquisition?
The rate that children acquire language is quite varied in the normal range of development. Just as some children crawl or stand earlier than others, some children gain control over language earlier than others. Within the normal range there appear to be some shared steps to language learning regardless of the child's culture or native language. The communication process begins with what works-eye contact, looking at a desired object, reaching, and vocalizing. The prelinguistic part of language development begins with playing with saliva, blowing bubbles, vocalizations, and crying. It is pragmatic: Do what works.

The first word may be a noun. (Dada is easier to say than mama.) However, first words are more than labels for objects. First words are communicative like "Bye-bye" and "uh oh." Some single words are used to convey a whole sentence. These words are called holophrases, whole phrases which are full of meaning, because they are self-contained. "Up," for example, may mean "Pick me up now. I need to be held." The child's word for water or drink may be used as a holophrase meaning, "I am very thirsty and need a drink of water."

After the holophrase stage children begin using words in a telegraphic fashion. Before e-mail and telephone, people sent telegrams to communicate quickly. Because senders were charged by the word, extraneous words were omitted-only the most important words were selected to communicate the meaning. Telegraphic speech in children performs the same function. Cookie Monster is a telegraphic speaker: "Me want cookie." Most often telegraphic speech involves the pattern of noun/verb or noun/verb/object. Examples include: more apple; doggie sleep; and baby go.

Language seems to expand dramatically after the telegraphic stage. Two-year-olds, for example, often learn two to three new words each day (Craig & Kermis, 1995). But during the preschool years, parents and caregivers sometimes think that children regress rather than make linguistic progress. That is because preschoolers are learning that language has rules. As children learn these rules they tend to make errors because they overregularize the rules. Therefore, children generalize that if houses means more than one house, then mouses must mean more than one mouse. Similarly, if we played and hopped, we must have also have runned and falled. The errors actually represent progress because the child is thinking about the structure of the language.

Language acquisition continues rapidly throughout the preschool period with children revising simple sentence structures to form questions, make commands, and express negatives using words like "didn't" and "won't" (Klima & Bellugi, 1966). Three-year-olds are frequently perplexed by the use of pronouns (Me want cookie). But most pronouns are mastered by the time a child is four or five years old. Four-year-olds can also use complex and compound sentences and create their own words when they can't think of a real word to express their meaning. Difficulty with some pronunciations, however, may continue into the early school years, particularly with pronunciation of the sounds that are most difficult to produce-s, ch, sh, z, j, v, th, zh (Rathus & Favaro, 1988).

Throughout life our receptive vocabularies, spoken or written language we understand, tend to be greater than the language we produce. We use contextual and gestural cues to help us understand the meanings of new words even though they might not be part of our spoken, or expressive vocabularies. Thus vocabulary can continue to increase over a lifetime. While vocabulary continues to increase, most children have acquired control over most con- structions by age ten (Craig & Kermis, 1995).

Ways to Encourage Language Development
In most cultures adults and even older children tend to use a particular style of speech when interacting with infants. This style of speech is called parentese (Gelman & Shatz, 1977; Pine, 1994), and it provides a scaffold for the learning of language. Parentese is not baby talk. Instead, parentese resembles the way some adults speak to pets and involves the use of slightly higher than normal pitch, exaggerated vowel sounds, short and simple sentences, repetition, exaggerated stress, and pauses between sentences. While talking about ongoing events, the speaker simplifies the speech.

However, communication is not always initiated by adults. Infants can initiate social communication. Adults can then take their cues from the infant's efforts by taking turns vocalizing, smiling, and cooing while maintaining eye contact.

A child's environment is the most critical component to language development. An environment free of abuse and excess stress frees the brain to create the necessary language connections. In such an environment, adults need to provide a language-rich, nurturing world in which attentive caregivers encourage a child's language efforts, however primitive. The following suggestions will help you encourage language development in infants as well as toddlers and preschoolers.


  • Infants are engaged by rhymes, simple word games, and songs like "So Big," "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," or original songs and games made up by the caregiver. Rhymes and songs that are repetitive and involve moving the infant's body easily and rhythmically are particularly good for feeling the words.

  • Books are for babies, too. Books with either black and white or colorful pictures of familiar objects stimulate infants. While the infant cannot follow a story line, he or she is neurologically stimulated by the flow of the language that accompanies book reading.

  • Family snapshots are favorites of older infants who love to have family members pointed out, named, and talked about. Ask parents to send small photo albums to child care for such purposes. Snapshots taken at child care could be posted on walls, as well. As children are carried about, take a moment to stop and talk about the photos.





  • Toddlers, too, love to look at books with adults who talk about the pictures. While they are learning new words every day, toddlers' speaking vocabularies are still limited. However, they can understand a great deal of the spoken language they are not yet able to produce. Therefore, adults can facilitate language growth as they talk with the toddler while "reading."

  • Books that picture common objects and everyday events are particularly appealing. For example, Helen Oxenbury's All Fall Down is fun for toddlers because it pictures very young children engaged in movements that are easy for the toddler to imitate and name.

  • Outings, even simple walks in the grass, open up possibilities for learning new words and concepts. Talk about the rough bark, soft grass, tickly ant, hungry birds, and splashy puddles. Take advantage of every opportunity to enlarge the child's world because each new adventure brims with language possibilities.




  • Experts advise that adults use an interactive reading style with preschoolers (Senechal, Thomas, & Monker, 1955). Interactive reading encourages children to make comments, predict events, and ask questions about the story and illustrations during reading. When we tell children to be quiet and listen until the story is finished, we are actually interfering with language development. We need to encourage children to talk about the story while it is being read.

  • Preschool-age children are able to follow a story line and like to talk about characters and events in their books. Rereadings of favorite stories facilitate the preschooler's language development. As children hear the story language time and again they come to anticipate words and phrases and will insert the vocabulary if the reader pauses at key points.

  • Seek out good children's literature. Most public libraries make it easy for teachers to check out collections for long periods of time. Choose literature with strong story lines and good poetry as well as factual books and interesting magazines. Make the literature available to children and read, read, read. Make up different endings, play with the words, and encourage children to retell the stories and act them out. Make simple props and costumes for the acting out. Supply poster board characters with holes for arms and faces to peek through. Props need to be kept simple, just suggestions to engage the imagination.

  • Three- and four-year-olds are questioners. They have learned how to ask questions about what and who. However, they also ask why and how questions, especially if they are encouraged. Preschoolers have developed the cognitive and linguistic abilities to ask questions for clarification. "What does island mean?" "What is a bracket?" "How did you make that?" By encouraging questions, teachers promote language.

Importance of Play
It appears that certain types of play are particularly beneficial for promoting language. O'Brien and Nagle (1987) observed parents playing with their children with a variety of toys-shape sorters, toy vehicles, and dolls. Neither boys nor girls spoke much when playing with the toy vehicles. The most language interaction and exposure occurred as children played with dolls. That makes sense...dolls invite talk. So do puppets, block people, and stuffed animals.

Yet, the best way to facilitate language development requires no props or expensive equipment. Language can be promoted by simply talking with children. Get on the child's physical level, make eye contact, give undivided attention, and have a conversation. Because children need to speak and be spoken to, we need to engage them in conversation. People who study the nature of adult/child interaction tell us that adults tend to talk at children, not with them. Adults tend to give directives such as "Pick up your toys"; "Wash your hands"; and "Come with me." But children need two-way communication with turn taking, real talking, and real listening.

  • Caregivers can promote language development by making available playthings that encourage talk. Try placing telephones in several different centers. Add little people to the toy car collection. Place attractive puppets in a gutted TV cabinet. Give dolls baths in the water table. Make stick puppets, bag puppets, and sock puppets. Change the dramatic play area frequently and help children learn to use the special and technical vocabulary of a shoe store, gas station, campground, stuffed animal clinic, pizza parlor, or workout gym.


  • Make language props like a pretend microphone, walkie talkie, cordless phone, or megaphone. Invite children to talk or sing with a karaoke machine or tape recorder. Play back taped mystery voices and guess which friend was speaking. Set up a listening center where children may comfortably listen to books on tape.


  • Expand vocabulary by playing instrumental music and inviting children to slither, leap, or waddle. Use fun, big words like exhausted, rotate, hilarious, enormous, and whirl. Set up an obstacle course and entice children to move under, beside, over, through, between, or around. Move high, low, quickly, or slowly. Use strong movements like gliding, sliding, stomping, marching, tiptoeing, galloping, lunging, twisting, twirling, and flopping.

Too often early childhood professionals are busy with what needs to be done, busy with the important things of life. When children try to engage us in conversation we might be tempted to listen with half an ear, give an inane response, and get on with the important work. In fact, when researchers studied the interactions of fathers and children, they discovered that fathers spoke with their children for only minutes per day (Lewis & Weinraub, 1974). Is it any wonder that preschoolers often rush and stumble in their attempts to say it all quickly before the adult stops paying attention? Confidence is built when we give a child our full attention.

When we understand how language develops, we are in a better position to promote that development. By first ensuring that every child has a safe, secure environment and then by providing appropriate materials and activities to facilitate language development, teachers can maximize each child's innate potential. Children need to speak and be spoken to, and engaged in conversation from the very first.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is a professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

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