It is important at this point to define the terms with which we are working. Child development is defined as the "â€¦ continual process of change in which children become able to handle ever more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling, and relating to others" (Boston College, 2009). The development of a child covers a number of skills: Gross Motor - the ability to use large muscle groups in the body to stand, walk and run, Fine Motor - dexterous use of the hands for eating, dressing and playing, Language - using speech, body language and gestures in order to communicate with and to understand others, Cognitive - thinking, reasoning and problem solving and Social - interacting, co-operating and responding to others (University of Michigan Health System, 2009). Language is described as the "communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds and words, gestures [hand and body movements/postures], or written symbols" (The Free Dictionary, 2009).
Theories about the ways in which children develop have evolved as our studies and understanding of the human condition have deepened. Early ideas, such as that of Behaviourists like Skinner, proposed that children acquired language by means of imitation which was reinforced by their parents and carers. "In other words, when a parent or carer shows enthusiasm for something a child tries to say, this should encourage the child to repeat the utterance" (David et al, 2003, P. 49). Their behaviour, including the development of language, was thought to be a reaction to stimuli, reinforcement and rewards (Van Wagner, 2009). This notion does have its merits but does not explain the often heard 'kiddie speak' or invented language that young children often use. It is clearly important for young children to hear language in order to be able to acquire it and research has concentrated on the closest relationship that they have at the earliest stages of their development which is with their mother - "the concentration on maternal speech input implies that mothers share a unique relationship with their children as they learn language, that mothers are programmed to respond to children's sounds in a way that reinforces early language development and â€¦ that the child has an innate capacity for learning language" (East Sussex LA and University of Sussex Consortium, n.d, P. 1).
Chomsky puts forward this idea that all children posses a naturally inbuilt 'Language Acquisition Device' (LAD) which is in direct contrast to Skinner; he argues that children are still able to learn language in spite of the poor quality of the data and support that they receive from adults and that they must have a means through which to access and develop their language skills. It is through this 'device' that they are able to assimilate new data, compare it to their existing knowledge, make sense of it and then add it to their knowledge base in order to use it. As far as he is concerned this is completely innate and does not rely on any experience or general learning ability for a child to learn their native or any other language. He believes therefore that there specific knowledge about language is contained within the LAD and that children work out things like the endings of words in the past tense using this knowledge. This sometimes leads to errors due to things like irregular verbs where the child relies on the usual rules which in some instances do not apply, for example 'drink' being termed as 'drinked' in the past tense as opposed to 'drank.' The work of Slobin reinforced Chomsky's ideas arguing that humans were born with a form of mechanism for processing what they hear in order to make sense of it; he also commented that the human body is unique in the animal kingdom in that it has adapted in order to for the voice box to be able to produce a huge variety of sounds. The difficulty with these ideas is that they fail to make allowance for or take account of the interaction which takes place between a child and his parents or carers (Theories of Language Acquisition, n.d).
At the other end of the spectrum is Bruner (1983) who believes that it is the interaction that takes place between the child and their carer which is the most important factor in the development of a child's language. He acknowledges that there may well be an LAD but contends that adults adapt their speech to help to accommodate the learning needs of the child which becomes a form of scaffolding; he also was the first to use the term Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) which can be used to describe the process through which adults and those around the child interact with them; the rituals and processes that are associated with things like a family meal or bath time allow the language that is used to become embedded in their consciousness and help them to become aware of how language is used (Mason, 2009). Macnamara (1972) goes further suggesting that children have a natural in built ability to interpret meaning on social situations, giving them an ability to understand language and therefore learn it with relative ease.
It would appear from my observations that the ways in which children acquire language are a combination of the theories that are highlighted above. How often have we watched a small child at home or in the playground act out or imitate the language and behaviour of either a parent or a character from the television? How often have we watched or participated in the introduction of babies and toddlers to language through the uttering and repetition of words that we want them to say or correcting a child and having them repeat it in order for them to learn? This is a tried and tested method of teaching and learning which seems to have worked through the generations but it does not explain how we learn. Chomsky's ideas go some way to helping us to understand this but his ideas, as logical as they are, fail to take in the 'human' factor - which is that we all interact with, and learn from each other and are therefore affected by each other. This is where the social learning ideas that are put forward by Bruner take over, in that the influence that interaction between people has been taken into account. No single one of these ideas can stand on their own as a definitive explanation but collectively they work towards a greater understanding of how children learn languages.
Observation also tells us that without the skill of communication, either through articulated language, body language, gestures or signing a child is less likely to be able to fit into a role within society. As a child it is essential to be able to communicate in order to be able to play with others, to work and to share with others. Those who have difficulties with their hearing or their sight develop and are taught ways that enable them to cope with their situation. Communication is a key to being able to gain a foothold in every aspect of life as we know it. If a child is unable to communicate in any form of language their development as an individual is severely held back as in the case of Genie a girl who was discovered in 1970, aged thirteen; she had been "kept in a state of severe sensory and social deprivation," (Genie, a modern day wild child, 2009) isolated from other people and had not learnt the art of language because she had nobody to teach her. Once she began to interact with those who took over her care her ability to communicate rapidly improved. This is obviously a severe case but it illustrates the point that without the development of communication and language the overall development of any child will be hampered. Children need to be able to use language properly in order that they can grow as individuals and interact in all the situations with which they are faced in everyday life.