Term Paper: Language Development Among the Very Young

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Language Acquisition

The ways in which young people go about learning how to talk have been the subject of an increasing amount of research in recent years. The research to date suggests that there are some commonalities involved that can help better understand how language acquisition operates and what educators and parents can do to facilitate the process. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of language acquisition among very young people, as well as what steps can be taken to help them along the way and what interventions should be avoided. A description of the research design is followed by a discussion of the findings. A summary of the research is provided in the conclusion.

Language Development among the Very Young

Introduction

Although all children are unique, of course, some researchers have suggested that they all use some of the same techniques to acquire language no matter what the setting or culture involved (Levy, 1994). For example, according to Nowak-Fabrykowski and Shkandrij (2004), children in every society are generally able to easily learn the meaning of symbols, and this process is accelerated through the acquisition of language. "Each child is born into a society where he/she learns to recognize the patterns of behavior and the way of life called culture," they add (Nowak-Fabrykowski & Shkandrij, 2004, p. 284). According to Tager-Flusberg (1994), "To the extent that parallel patterns are found, they reflect constraints of the structure of the language itself or inherent language acquisition processes that all children bring to the task of acquiring a first language" (p. 10). Likewise, any dissimilarities that are identified in the manner in which young children acquire language could potentially be attributed to any of the effects of variations in the context in which language is acquired or differences in cognitive maturity (Tager-Flusberg, 1994). Furthermore, Dixon and Smith (2000) report that developmental researchers have recently investigated the relationship between children's temperamental characteristics and their linguistic and cognitive abilities. Other researchers have identified constraints to language acquisition among low-income households as well (Danby, 2002).

While many aspects of language acquisition remain better described in the literature than they are understood, the research to date indicates that early temperamental variation may contribute to developmental or stylistic differences that affects later linguistic ability and may be an indication of individual differences in early information processing; early temperamental functioning may also contribute to later cognitive functioning ability (Dixon & Smith, 2000). These authors conclude that as a result, a child's temperament could potentially contribute to subsequent cognitive and linguistic development, while reflecting current cognitive-developmental status. Therefore, understanding what common cognitive abilities and patterns of language acquisition exist among the very young can help educators and parents alike facilitate these processes and avoid the potential pitfalls that might otherwise constrain language development. These issues have assumed new importance in an increasingly multicultural society where a second language has become more important than ever; therefore, helping children learn how to acquire their first language effectively may be able to help them recognize the importance of the initiative and may well help them learn additional languages thereafter as well. Furthermore, as Birdsong (1999) points out, "the attainment of full linguistic competence is the birthright of all normal children" (p. 1).

Research Design

The study used an exploratory literature review methodology to research the guiding research question concerning how language is acquired among the very young. For this purpose, peer-reviewed and scholarly sources were consulted, as well as organizational and governmental Web sites where appropriate. Serendipitously identified sources were also incorporated when they were relevant and timely. According to Wood and Ellis (2003), the following are some of the important outcomes of a well conducted literature review for this purpose:

It helps describe a topic of interest and refine either research questions or directions in which to look;

It presents a clear description and evaluation of the theories and concepts that have informed research into the topic of interest;

It clarifies the relationship to previous research and highlights where new research may contribute by identifying research possibilities which have been overlooked so far in the literature;

It provides insights into the topic of interest that are both methodological and substantive;

It demonstrates powers of critical analysis by, for instance, exposing taken for granted assumptions underpinning previous research and identifying the possibilities of replacing them with alternative assumptions;

It justifies any new research through a coherent critique of what has gone before and demonstrates why new research is both timely and important.

Discussion of Findings

Because of the wide range of sensory inputs that very young children receive, scientists have sought to understand how they sort out what they need to develop meaningful language from this babble of sights and sounds. In this regard, Mcdonald (1997) reports that some researchers have suggested that very young children employ prosodic and phonological information to step into syntax formulation in a process termed "phonological bootstrapping." In other words, "Meaning and meaning commonalities are used as a basis for initial linguistic categories and serve learners in gaining access into language structure. This viewpoint has been well documented elsewhere" (Mcdonald, 1997, p. 215). This author emphasizes that such prosodic and phonological data are abundant in young people's worlds and they are able to take advantage of it from an early age to identify increasingly smaller segments of speech that they can understand and use (Mcdonald, 1997).

Studies have shown that infants who are younger than one year already possess a significant amount of expertise concerning the prosodic and phonological characteristics of their native language and are able to exploit this information to help segment the input into smaller units (Mcdonald, 1997). "The ability to segment the speech stream using prosodic and phonological cues may be only one example of a general segmentation ability. For example, four-and-a-half-month-old infants prefer music with pauses inserted at musical phrase boundaries over pauses inserted elsewhere. These boundaries are marked by specific acoustic cues such as a drop in pitch height and an increase in duration before the boundary" (Mcdonald, 1997, p. 216).

While these young learners are getting a handle on the elements of speech at a very early age, there are other important factors that may come into play as well. According to Dixon and Smith (2000), there are two fundamental factors that contribute to the acquisition of language in the very young: (a) attentional control, and (b) stability of neutral affect. "Attentional control appears intrinsically crucial," they advise, "not only for its role in permitting children to attend to linguistic input, but also for minimizing distractions while the input is matched to preexisting semantic networks. Children with more finely developed attentional control also may be better able to enter into bouts of mother-child joint attention" (Dixon & Smith, 2000, p. 417). The authors cite a number of studies to date that have determined that the amount of time devoted to joint attention during free play times in early infancy has been positively related to language productivity in later toddlerhood, and add that maternal utterances that were designed to complement an infant's attentional focus were particularly indicative of linguistic productivity at 13 to 15 months (Dixon & Smith, 2000).

One of the more interesting issues to emerge from the research was that very young children are apparently able to naturally acquire language more readily while they are young, but as their cognitive abilities mature, this ability is diminished. In this regard, Birdsong (1999) reports that "the language acquisition capacity remains intact, but as children mature beyond the ages of four or five its function is impeded by the child's increasingly sophisticated cognitive abilities" (p. 5). The author suggests that this phenomenon might be attributable to the focus of very young learners in contrast to their older counterparts. "Initial language acquisition takes place when the child is highly centered [i.e., in stages prior to Formal Operations]. He is not only egocentric at this time, but when faced with a problem he can focus (and then only fleetingly) on one dimension at a time. This lack of flexibility and lack of decentration may well be a necessity for language acquisition" (Birdsong, 1999, p. 5). This phenomenon was also cited by Costa, Mcilvane and Wilkinson (2001), who found in their study of 52 children aged 3 to 13 years that, "Also found were apparent developmental differences between older and younger children. Although all children tended to relate novel stimuli, the tendency appeared to decline as children aged" (p. 343).

Conclusion

The ability to make sense out of the relentless stream of information that confronts these young learners would suggest that they do in fact come "hard-wired" for the purpose, but some young learners are more successful than others. In this regard, the research showed that virtually all normal children acquire language successfully, but some do so more rapidly than others for a variety of reasons, including cognitive ability, parental participation and ability, and the quality of the interactions between caregivers and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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