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Language, a very complicated system, is very pivotal to human beings (Saffran & Thiessen, 2007). It allows people to express their thoughts, communicate with each other, and transmit knowledge (Scanlon, 1977). Its importance stimulates a lot of researchers to explore the development of language in children (Shatz, 2007). There are several reasonable theories explaining how children learn a language (Evans, 2007). Some suggests that social environment as an important element in shaping children's linguistic development; while Chomsky, a nativist theorist, argues that there is a Language Acquisition Device inherently born with us, and human beings can acquire language naturally (Meisel, 1995). According to Chomsky (1959), there is a poverty of stimulus that the linguistic input available in the social environment is so limited for children to develop a language system, and hence there must be some biological predisposed mechanism accounting for human linguistic development. The following essay is not attempting to argue against Chomsky's idea, but to illustrate how the social environment interacts with the innate linguistic ability and shape the development of language in children.
It has long been suggested that social environment plays a crucial role in children's linguistic development. Behaviorists, one of the earliest accounts of language development, consider language learning as a product of operant conditioning (Evans, 2007). Skinner, the proposer of behaviorist theory, stresses that the acquisition of language is also contingent upon the consequences of learning it (Shatz, 2007). For instance, when a child gains favorable attention from its parents (a kind of intangible reinforcement) after producing a particular sound, it is very likely that the child will reproduce that sound. The behaviorists have soon been heavily criticized for their oversimplified model of human language acquisition. There then comes the rise of empiricist and socio-pragmatic theorists which emphasize the importance of social and cognitive elements of language (Tomasello, 1998).
Tomasello (2003) proposed the usage-based theory and explained language acquisition using a functional approach (Tomasello, 2003). Language develops when children have the desire to communicate intentions with the others and when they realize the pragmatic functions of language in the society ((Inhelder & Piaget, 1980; Mueller Gathercole & Hoff, 2007). They learn the structures of language through observation (Tomasello, 2003) and accumulated language experiences (Lieven & Tomasello, 2008).
Baldwin and Meyer (2007) argued that language is inherently a social behavior. A word itself does not contain any meaning, it is the members of social community who use it and give it a meaning (Tomasello, 1999). Thus, to learn what a word is refer to, social interaction is indispensable.Language and society is closely linked, and societal factors heavily influence the language to be used (Evans, 2007). Clearly, the social environment plays a fundamental part in shaping the development of language in children.
We shall focus on the social environment in its broadest sense, not restricting to particular settings like home and school. The following essay mainly explores how the quantity and quality of social interaction and stimulation, cultural norms and expectations shapes children's linguistic development.
Social interaction and stimulation
The functional approach suggests that language develops through children's engagement in a social context (Robinson & Ellis, 2008) and through their active interaction with others (Inhelder & Piaget, 1980). The lack of social interaction or an appropriate social environment hinders normal development of language in children (Rice, 2007). For example, Genie, the girl who was kept alone and locked in a room for twelve years, failed to use language normally (Pines, 1981).
The most significant element of language development is the linguistic input. Both the quantity and quality of linguistic input are important. Quantity can be expressed as the frequency of exposure to language; while quality is expressed as the variety of input (Hoff, 2006).
Studies show that the more frequent the children are exposed to particular words or sentence structures, the earlier they can acquire and reproduce them. And the wider the range of vocabularies the children are exposed to, the more choices of word they have when constructing sentences (Naigles and Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998). Nonetheless, linguistic input is also a kind of corrective feedback (Mueller Gathercole & Hoff, 2007), so that children who engage in more social interaction have higher chances to be corrected when they make mistakes.
Exposing to different types of input can enhance the richness of the linguistic environmen. For example, if one wants to learn Cantonese, s/he can actively search for a Cantonese environment like watching Cantonese movies, visiting China Town, meeting Cantonese friends, etc. different types of linguistic input may help language development in different aspects.
The effect of frequency of exposure in language acquisition can also be shown in study that involves bilingual language learners. Bilingual language learners, having to learn two languages simultaneously, have less exposure to both the languages, comparing to monolingual children (Genesee & Nicoladis, 2007). It is found that bilingual children have a smaller vocabulary size in each language, and the kind of words they learn are quite different, as bilingual children receive different linguistic inputs from different communicative partners.
Bruner (1981) believed that language development is a result of the interaction between nature and nurture. As suggested, social activities like 'play' are valuable sources of linguistic input. During the play time, children can actively engage in linguistic exchange and interactions with the adults (Shatz, 2007). It was found that children who possessed toys and engaged in creative play were more sophisticated in expressing themselves verbally and showed advancement in language acquisition (Scanlon, 1977). Other linguistics stimulations and activities like playing with picture cards and role-playing a story are also beneficial to the children's language development (Hoff & Tian, 2005).
Research studies showed that there is a birth-order difference in the development of language in children. First-born children are comparatively more advanced in syntax and lexicon; while later-born children have better conversational skill (Hoff, 1998; 1999). The reason account for such difference is closely linked with the differences in the type and quantity of linguistic input. First-born children have been the only children before the arrival of younger siblings. Fakouri (1974) suggested that the parents' love, care, and attention to the single child are undividable, and they possibly engage the child into a higher- quality interaction, and thus the exposure of linguistic input is greater. Upon the birth of a sibling, the chance of getting one-to-one communicative interaction with the parents is lessened for both children (Hoff, 2006). Yet, the later-born children have another source of linguistic input, which is from their elder siblings. However, the quality of the linguistic inputs provided by elder siblings is dissimilar to that by the parents, as they usually are less complex and consist more grammatical error.
A responsive partner
The functionalists believe that a responsive partner for communicative exchange is needed for language acquisition. Just like the other types of development, language learning also needs the scaffolding of adults.
A responsive partner should be aware of what the child is attending to in the here-and-now context and follow into that particular object or event (Karrass et al., 2002), so that the child can make use of this social cue to learn the language associated with that focused spot (Diesendruck, Gelman, & Lebowitz, 1998). The special type of social interaction is called joint attention, and it strongly correlates with word learning (Bruner, 1983). Children can learn new words efficiently when they are socially engaged or communicating with a responsive partner, and learn best if they jointly attend to perform some daily routines like bathing and dining (Tomasello, 1999). Research done by Tomasello and Todd (1983) showed that the duration of engagement in joint attention was positively correlated with vocabulary size.
Questioning and giving immediate responses to children can maintain their interest as well (Tomasello, 1999). Studies found that children who have adults engaging them in conversation and using more wh-questions during communication have comparatively better development in auxiliaries and verb use (Hoff, 1999).
Social-interactionist theorists believed that a good communicative partner of a child should make good use of child directed speech or motherese (Snow, 1979). Child-direct speech is a special form of talk that usually is quite simple, with the speakers uttering meaning-rich words like the names of objectives and verbs one-by-one clearly. Moreover, the speaker usually talks with higher pitch to capture the attention of the child (Mueller Gathercole & Hoff, 2007). Research studies on the utilization of child-direct speech show that it is associated with enhanced phonological awareness and word recognition. However, it should be noted that although child-direct speech is correlated with a wide range of positive outcomes, it is not essential for normal development of language in children. This unique type of speech is not universal, as in some countries, talking to babies with such a high-pitch and simple structure is considered as disrespect to them (Hoff, 2006).
There is evidence showing that children, whose communicative partners have higher educational level, possess wider range of vocabularies and are able to form relatively long and complicated sentences. They are also better in describing objects or evens that are not immediately present (Umek, Fekonja, Kranjc & Bajc, 2008). The difference in the caretakers' educational level may imply the difference in the richness of children's linguistic environment and intellectual stimulation. Higher educated caregivers possibly can provide more learning opportunities to their children than caretakers who are less educated. This shows how important linguistic input is for the favorable development of language in children. Cultural norms and expectations are another area that can make a huge effect of children's language learning.
Cultural norms and expectations
There are a lot of cultural norms and expectations invisibly hidden in a child's social environment (Inhelder & Piaget, 1980; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995). The impact of cultural norms and expectations on language development are more difficult to measure (Herschensohn, 2007), as children internalize these norms and gradually absorb them as one's own values (Inhelder & Piaget, 1980). The following part illustrates how social class, ethnicity, gender and peers shape the development of language in children.
Many research studies found differences in the ways and patterns of language development among children of different social classes. Caregivers in the upper class speak more to their children; and in turn greatly expand the vocabulary size of these children (Hoff, 2006). To be more precise, the children's vocabulary size is found to be positively correlated with the caregivers' or parents' number of words spoken to them. Besides a quantitative difference, there are also qualitative differences between the two social classes.
The oral language of children from lower socio-economic standing was worse than those from higher socio-economic status (Hoff, 2006). Upper class parents talk to their children usually because they want and plan to engage in a conversation with them; while lower class parents usually talk to their children for some practical reasons like giving them instructions to work[(Hoff, 2006). Children of from the upper class are exposed to a wider range of vocabularies, especially the productive vocabularies (Hoff, 2003). Children usually spend most of the time with the people from the same social class; the mutual influence reinforces the children to act and talk in the same way as the other members of the social class do. And because of the self-fulfilling prophecy, children might have acted according to what the others expect (Edwards, 1979). Therefore, even the children of different social classes go to the same school, their language development might yet be very different.
People from different nations experience different progress in language development. People's choice of vocabularies can highly reflect their cultural expectations and norms. People from an individualist culture have a different language attitudes and vocabulary choice as people from a collectivist-oriented nation (Gudykunst & Schmidt, 1987).
As stated by Ayyash-Abdo (2001), people believing in individualism concern more about their own beliefs, needs and rights; while people with a collectivist mindset consider themselves as a part of the whole community, and place the group's needs on a higher priority than their own needs. Collectivist seeks harmony and emphasizes cooperation. Wu and Rubin (2000) found that, in terms of language use, individualists' style of expressing their ideas is more direct and assertive, and they use "I" more often to phrase their sentences. Conversely, collectivists like to use "we", and there are much more relational nouns in the Chinese language that helps to make fine distinctions between different relatives. For example, in English, "uncles" can mean one's mothers' elder or younger brothers, and also one's father elder or younger brothers. But in Chinese, there are four different nouns for those four different types of "uncles".
Several studies attempted to compare the language development in American toddlers with Japanese toddlers. The former, in general, represents individualism; while the latter represents collectivism. it was discovered that the American babies knew a wide range of productive and receptive vocabularies; while Japanese babies were good at symbolic play (Tamis-LeMonda, Bornstein, Cyphers, Toda & Ogino, 1992). To account for the difference, Tamis-LeMonda, et al. (1992) found that American mothers tend to label objects and events more regularly, stress the need of independence; arouse the children's interest in the external word; and are more information-oriented when they talk to their children. On the other hand, Japanese mothers always engage their children in group play and dyadic activities; promote a sense of dependence; and are more affect-oriented. Ethnicity does not only influence the children's size of vocabularies, but also in a lot of ways such as the language attitude, choice of words and ways to opinions.
The geographical characteristics of a nation also have an impact on children's exposure to different types of words. For example, in Hong Kong and other cities which are closer to the equator, snowing is not possible. In Cantonese, we only have one noun to describe "snow", without any other vocabularies that could describe the different types and intensity of "snow". In contrast, there are many words created to distinguish the various kinds of "snow", e.g. blizzards, snow squalls, flurries, graupel, sleet, dendrites, needles, snow pellets, etc.
Quite a lot of research studies on the gender difference in language development of children show that girls, between one to three years old, could process language and reading at a faster rate and produce syntactically more complicated sentences than boys of the same age (Umek et al., 2008). Boys, alternatively, could understand the meaning of words better (Wolf & Gow, 1986). It appears that boys are less well-developed in language acquisition in the early years. Karrass et al. (2002) suggested that this might well be the influence of gender stereotypes. It is commonly taught and believed that boys are more active and girls are more gentle and elegant. It is found that parents of boys are less sensitive to their language skills, but shows greater concern to the son's motor development (Eaton & Enns, 1986). For girls, the parents tend to talk to their daughters more often, and engage them in communicative activities like story-telling.
Peers become progressively important as the children grow up (Fortman, 2003). Youngsters further develop their language and social skills through interacting with their peers. By that time, in order to seek group identification and maintain affiliation with the group, different group norms and group 'language' like hip-hop may emerge to represent group membership (Giles, 1979). The specific kind of language is created for the group to acknowledge each other and exclude the out-group members. Children at this age may alter their language attitude and ways of expressing ideas to create a positive self-image obtain a desirable group identity (Ryan, 1979).
A lot of aspects within the social environment play important roles in shaping the development of language in children. Yet, as stated in the introduction, Chomsky's nativist theory is also very reasonable and influential. A well-developed language system is in fact a product of rich social environment and the child's willingness and skills to respond to the social input.