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What roles do nature and nurture play in children’s language development?
Within this essay I am going to be looking at whether I think, ‘nature or nurture has the greatest impact on human development’, referring to cognitive development and language development. By looking at what different theorists from the human development field have discovered, I will come to the conclusion whether nature or nurture wins this debate. I will start off by explaining some of the key terms that I will be using, making it easier for myself to reference back to when needed. I will then move onto my first area of human development, which is cognitive development, and discuss the nature/nativist theories and the nurture/empiricist theories. By talking about a few different key issues, I will then focus on one main theorist for each. Then, moving on to the second area of human development; language development, I will do the same thing again. By starting off looking at the different nativist theories, and then focusing on one main theorist, and then looking into the empiricist theories, and focusing on one main theorist. After having looked at all the different views I will be able to conclude on whether I think ‘nature or nurture has the greatest impact on human development’.
Some of the key terms which will assist me in this essay are:
Cognition is basically the mental activities that are associated with thinking, knowing and remembering; any ideas and thoughts that a person has, or memories that are stored are all different types of cognitive processes. Reading and learning is also a type of cognition.
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Development can either be qualitative or quantitative. It can be qualitative in the sense that you can’t measure the change, but the change is still noticeable. You can develop quantitatively by an increase in height or weight etc. “Patterns of change over time which begin at conception and continue throughout the life span” (Keenan, 2006).
Cognitive Developmental Theory, which consists of many different theories, but I will start off by referring to Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory. In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, is a “stage theory” which consists of different stages of development. Within each stage of development, children are put before challenging situations which they must then deal with and overcome through their own abilities. After completing the challenge the child is then able to move on to the next stage of cognitive development.
Learningis when there is a change in behaviour or knowledge which has developed from previous experiences or training. The learning process could be innate, meaning that we are born with the knowledge, or it has been obtained through daily life. Hence, any knowledge or behaviour that we are now in hold of that we were not born with, was somehow “learned”. This has been studied by psychologists in many ways, Pavlov with his associative learning; he examined the salivation of dogs in response to meat powder; to Skinner with his reinforcement theory, that a learner will only repeat the desired behaviour if the behaviour is followed by positive reinforcement; rats press a lever in the quest of gaining some kind of reward.
Language is something that we use in everyday lives. Theoretically, language is a “formal system of communication which involves a combination of words and/or symbols, whether written or spoken. It is not necessary for another organism to comprehend the language, for it to actually be a language just that it meets the description given”.
Language Development is a process which starts early in human life, that begins when a person starts to acquire language by learning as it is spoken or by mimicking the person. By four months of age, babies are able to read lips and distinguish between different speech sounds. Language usually starts off as meaningless words by simply recalling what others are saying, but as a child grows, the words begin to acquire meaning creating connections between words being formed. “As a person gets older, new meanings and new associations are created and vocabulary increases as more words are learned”.
Nature is the genetics you receive, it’s something you have ever since you were born, e.g. eye colour. It is something that cannot be influenced by others.
Nurture is the effect that the people in your life have on you, and the environment you are in. It is things that have influenced you whilst growing up, e.g. the media or values taught by your parents.
Nature-Nurture is known to be one of the longest running debates; whether it’s or genes (nature) or our experiences (nurture) that make us who we are? E.g. “If a person commits a violent crime, did they do so because of their genetic makeup (they are genetically pre-wired to be violent) or because of their experiences (e.g., growing up in an impoverished area, not getting a good education, no parental guidance or some other experience)? This is the nature-nurture debate.”
‘Child development is a discipline which aims to identify, to describe and to predict patterns in children’s growth where growth includes intellectual (or cognitive), linguistic, physical, social, behavioural and emotional development.’ (Smidt, 2006), (ARU, 2009)
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The key theories that are mainly acknowledged within cognitive development include ‘The Stage Theory’, carried out by Piaget (nativist), and ‘Scaffolding’ by Bruner (empiricist). Piaget (1896-1980) researched into children’s learning and believed that they go through stages and learn in sequences when growing up. He thought that children were active learners and that they used their past experiences as their knowledge for the world and how to deal with previously experienced situations. Piaget’s theory was first published in 1952, which came from his observation of children, including his own, whom he observed in a natural environment. He imagined that a child’s knowledge was composed of schemas; knowledge which is used to organise previous experiences, which is referred back to when trying to understand new ones. Piaget’s theory states that cognitive development occurs in four stages, in which when they begin to take place, they follow the same order; you are only able to move onto the next stage once the previous stage has been completed. The four stages are:
Researchers have found that the advanced memory skills in children, mainly in the ‘Formal Operational Stage’, are due to memorisation techniques, such as repeating things in hope of memorising them, or categorising them, making it easier to pick out the information in future. Vygotsky (1978) states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” His theories were a mix of both nativist and empiricist views. One of Vygotsky’s central ideas was the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), which is the difference between the level of potential development and the actual development in a child. He emphasised how social interaction was vital for development from the beginning of their lives. He declared that before becoming internal, a function must go through a social stage when developing. Therefore, it is initially social, and then becomes an internal function which is known as internalisation (Vygotsky, 1962).
The empiricist views would include Vygotsky’s theory on the role of culture and social interaction. He stated that socio-cultural environment was important for cognitive development. Being able to experience different contexts creates different forms of development; cognitive processes such as thoughts and your imagination develop through social interaction. The matter of social interaction relates back to ZPD, as communicating with other people develops your knowledge further. Bruner (1915- ) developed further on Vygotsky’s early work, and came up with ‘Scaffolding’, which was outlining how an adult assists a child in learning. Adults can aid children to move from where they are, to where they want to go. This is only possible if the child is interested in the situation initially, then they are able to be supported by the adult to further their learning. This is demonstrated in 5 stages, shown in the table below: (ARU, 2009)
When an adult is assisting a child they are using previous experiences as their knowledge to do so. This is known as the ‘Socio-Cognitive Stage Theory’, in which recall is processed in 3 ways. The Enactive Mode, is when things are represented by doing them, the process used to get to the end product. The Iconic Mode is when children are encouraged to record their experiences, therefore making them more memorable. Lastly, the Symbolic Mode, which is where children use symbols and codes to represent and specify the meaning of what they are trying to represent. E.g. writing the number ‘5’ instead of writing ‘five’; it’s a symbol representing the number. Skinner (1905-1990) is another example, who has practiced the importance of empirical learning in development. According to him, learning is characterised by the way a person processes their behaviour, which is then shaped into an experience. He doesn’t completely eliminate the role of innate factors, but does argue that the external environment has a higher influence on development. Skinner suggested that if a person is positively reinforced (rewarded) for carrying out a certain action, they are more likely to repeat it again and recall it as a good experience. If a child was to be negatively reinforced (punished) they are highly likely not to repeat the behaviour again as they don’t want to be punished, therefore remembering it as a bad experience.
I believe that a person has to experience an event physically for them to be able to remember it better and recall it. Therefore, the environment plays a crucial role in cognitive development as it gives you knowledge of whether something is right or wrong, and then this experience is moved into the innate as a memory. Like Skinner suggested, before carrying out an action the child will remember the last time they carried it out, how they had approached the task set ahead of them then, what they have learnt since then, and how they can improve on it now with their recent learning; hence the social interaction has led the child to think back using their innate memory. Cognitive development requires both nativist and empiricist approaches to help a child develop their learning.
The key theories that are mainly acknowledged within language development include Chomsky’s ‘Language Acquisition Device’, Skinner’s ‘Reinforcement’ and Bandura’s ‘Social Learning Theory’ (SLT). The nativist theory deals with language being an innate feature of a child. Chomsky (1928- ) promotes this theory and came up with his own Language Acquisition Device (LAD). He declared that the ability to learn language is inborn, suggesting that nature is more important than nurture. His work contributed to the thought that children’s language development is more complex than what is declared by behaviourists, who believe that children can learn language by being rewarded for imitating. However, Chomsky’s theory does not take into account the influence that cognition and language have on each other’s development. Nativists believe that if children surrounded by poverty, and brought up in a poverty constricted environment, children are still learning to speak due to their language acquisition device. This leads them to believe that the study of learning focuses on events that can be ‘observed and measured’.
Empiricist views of Skinner and Watson, shows that they believed that children come into this world as a ‘blank slate’. Therefore, meaning that when a child is born, they have no knowledge at all, and are incapable of doing or knowing anything. They believe that this theory applies to all species. Behaviourist views like this suggest that the role of the environment is vital, and that the process of learning is only successful if there has been a change in behaviour. Moving onto Bandura’s (1924- ) Social Learning Theory, which suggests people learn from one another by observing their actions and imitating them. This theory is known to be a link between nativist and empiricist views as nativist learning is needed when trying to memorise what you are seeing and embarking on motivation. “Most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura). The conditions which are necessary for this model to take place include, ‘Attention’, there are various points which will either increase or decrease the amount of attention you are paying to a situation. This could relate back to Skinner and his Reinforcement theory. ‘Retention’, being the second condition, is remembering what you were paying attention to. This can be remembered in different ways such as, images, symbols, coding, or just rehearsing. ‘Reproduction’, is being able to reproduce the image, which then leads to ‘Motivation’, which occurs when you have a good reason to imitate the previous sequence. Other reasons for this motivation may be incentives, or the speculation enforced by the reinforcement theory. Skinner suggested that the associations between a stimuli and the response could explain the behaviour and interaction of a being. He tried to apply his ‘Operant Conditioning’ to the way language is learnt. ‘The probability of a verbal response was contingent on four things: reinforcement, stimulus control, deprivation, and aversive stimulation. The interaction of these things in a child’s environment would lead to particular associations, the basis of all language’ (Skinner 1957).
I believe that ‘nurture’, is a more effective form of language development. This is because language is a gradual process; you need to go through various stages of development until you are at a level of individual learning. By watching what an adult is doing, at a young age you observe them and imitate them. It’s like watching a carer and a baby having a conversation; CARER: Hello, what are you doing?
When talking to the baby, they’ll try and converse back, and as they grow older they learn words and their meanings and are able to create sentences. This all comes from some form of social interaction. The ‘nature’ side of things is important in this matter too as; once a child has learnt a word, it needs to be stored and recalled again when needed to. Therefore, both nature and nurture work together in an effort to create language development.
To conclude overall, I believe that both nature and nurture play a vital role in the development of cognitive and language development. The nurture may come first at times to experience the situation or process, which you then will remember and will store it, and then when needed to use again the experience becomes innate and is remembered through the cognition of your brain, becoming your nature. There are many studies that have been carried out to prove that nurture is more vital in the development of these processes, but from my point of view, I don’t think there is as much information available on the nature side of things as there is on nurture. There are well known nature theorists out known, taking Piaget for example, but nature theories need to be backed up more strongly with more research being carried out. Reinforcement plays a big role in no matter what you do, if you are negatively reinforced towards a situation, you are likely to not want to go through it again and put that experience at the back of your mind; but still have it in your memory for you to be reminded to not recreate the scenario. The nature-nurture debate has been studied over for many years, and will probably continue to be for many more years to come; but this is strong debate which I believe works together as a pair, and the one needs the other for it to be able to function appropriately.
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