Language Development: ‘Communication’




Language Development - ‘Communication’
It may be a uniquely human capacity to have ‘language’: the “flexible and creative shaping of sounds and symbols to communicate”.

As we grow, the world opens up to us as we have more experiences and one of the most significant and most profound is that acquisition of Language and the ability to communicate.
As well as learning the sounds and symbols of a language, children must master the use of these to communicate with meaning, thought and feeling which requires skill. These skills are defined by four areas:
  1. Phonology - structure and sequence for speech sounds (phonemes are the different individual sounds and these differ between cultures and languages )
  2. Semantics - how concepts are expressed in words/word combinations.
  3. Grammar - relationship between words.
  4. Syntax - the rules for arranging words and sentences.
Individuals, it is hoped, become skilled at ‘Morphology’: adapting words to indicate number, tense, person, gender etc. I will now offer a chronological description of ‘expected’ language development, irrelevant of culture.
Aged 6-12months: perception of variations in speech sounds. This is termed ‘categorical speech perception’ *(Kuhl). Babies are able to distinguish between different types of sounds because of cues - physical, tonal - in adjacent sounds. It is assumed that because of this, babies know words before their meaning. From 6months it is believed that babies understand some words but don’t say them until later, aged 12months+.
Aged 10months: a baby makes sounds that reflect their ‘own language’.
Aged 1year: form ‘real words’.
Toddlers: pronunciation improves - strategies are learnt by the child: cues are taken from perceptual and social.
Aged 2: most children are able to communicate and have the capability to understand object and some more abstract things.
Aged 3year: the combination of meaningful words begins to follow grammar rules of that language. Morphology begins to emerge in three word utterances.
Aged 5years: phonological development is complete.
From the age of 1-6, children learn on average 10,000words, that’s about 5/day. These words are primarily object and are taken from linguistic cues (syntax and intonation). By primary school age children learn at a rate of 20words/day. This is greater if they can read.
From the age of 2+ skills in vocabulary, working memory and the ability to sustain attention, interaction and to stay on a topic emerges and improves. In this way, there are clear links between a child’s language development and brain development. 
Linking to the theory of the mind it is important to note when a child develops their awareness of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The development of these areas is very much influenced by the stimulating environment they have.

Further reading: ‘Cracking the speech code’, P. K. Kuhl (2007)
“Speech is a deeply encrypted code”.
Researchers are able to define the different stages of development but they are unable to explain why the stages happen in this order or at this age.
Kuhl outlines that the more “exposure to language” an individual’s gets, which is “unique to humans”, combines with their “computational abilities (or statistical learning), with special social skills”. He saw that language was a composite but also a prerequisite to other types of learning within each society. Exploring the use of brain scan technology, it becomes clear that you are able to trace the development of the brain with the language acquisition; “language acquisition involves a neural commitment of the brains circuits.” As a result it has been hypothesized that there might be a “clinical” or sensitive period of language acquisition. This might explain why it is more difficult to learn languages later in life.
Kuhl also believed, based on studies, that “speech learning may be gated by the social brain.” Why? We each have motivations when we are going to speak and also use a specific mechanism for bringing information together to speak, hence there may be a correlation between what we know and understand about words, meanings (semantics) and the associated effect it might have on the listener, which requires an ability to understand others and effects that language can have.
Conversely, “social deprivation has a sever negative impact on language development, to the extent that a normal language skill is never acquired.”
  • Categorical speech persecution - changes in acoustics at the “phonetic boundaries between categories.” Kuhl believed this also showed that infant perception is “constrained” and a “building block for language, it is not unique to humans.”

Media Messages -  ‘Media Literacy’
What is Media Literacy? According to Hobbs and Moore (2013)
- The competence in accessing, understanding, analyzing and evaluating media messages
- The ability to create media messages
  • Participating and reflecting.
Potters (1998, 2013) defined the concept of Media Literacy as the adoption of “ developmental perspective”. He outlined it by age as such: Children between the age of
    • 3-5 years: develop “rudimentary skills”, such as reading, identifying meaning and patterns.
  • 5-9years: develop “critical evaluation skills”.
  • Adolescence and adulthood: “advanced skills” are acquired.
The measure of these stages off development is achieved by tracking or testing a individual’s Media sign Literacy - MSL: “the ability to use symbols and understand that symbols refer to something other than themselves”. DeLoache (2002) termed this “representational insight”. This is not an innate skill and has to be developed in the individual, based on exposure to images, photographs, symbols, and so on.

There is a clear and definite link between UNDERSTANDING and COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT. 

For instance, from the age of 2 children can identify that there is a difference between reality and the television. But they are better at this by the age of 11.
With regards to the use of computers, children are more frequently exposed to tablets and phones from a younger age. Consequently, their “finger-based interface” allows young children to perform “simple tasks”. The development of these skills is fairly rapid between. 3-5years, such as dragging, tapping and so on.
Interestingly, gender has a significant influence on computer literacy development (Sackes, Trundle and Bell 2011), where boys showed a greater capacity and “larger growth” for learning skills than girls.

Can learning from Media help in an Education setting?
Research has broadly “confirmed” that it is effective. There is a positive impact on reading, mathematics, and with the use of apps used for learning vocabulary.
By watching films on specific topics, children can “acquire long-term domain-specific knowledge” (2007). This is particular true for older children because they have a more secure development of the cognitive processes demanded of them (spatial relations, continuity of actions (Smith, Anderson and Fischer 1985), and emotional development such as empathy).
Fish (2000) outlined this further in his ‘Capacity Model’ where by the age of the child, or more accurately the level of their development, affects their “comprehension of content” and “how efficiently they allocated cognitive resources.”
In practical terms, if a child has a greater capacity for identifying symbol systems, they have less of a strain on their cognition. As a result, children who are shown age appropriate materials that fit within their ZPD are going to be more likely to have a greater age of learning. MSL is important here: children who develop higher MSL ability, are more likely to learn more easily and cope with challenging materials than those with a low MSL.

LANGUAGE, COGNITION AND CULTURE - is it embodied or nurtured?
There are two conflicting theories on language development. 
Many theorists believe that humans have an innate capability to learn ‘general’ language and that ‘embodied language depends on context’.
However, others believe that language and cognition DO NOT develop separately and therefore we are NOT born with language processing skills, they develop as the brain develops and as such can be influenced by different factors. As such, Language IS Cognition.


It is important when working with children to consider or assess their cognitive ability in order to understand how developed their language is and also their capacity for learning new language or anything. Then the learning needs to be designed to fit within their ZPD: in order for them to maximize their learning and reduce “cognitive load, the educational content should be embedded minimally in a narrative” (Fish 2000).

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