Theories of Language Development in Children


1.0 Introduction

1.1 Statement of the Problem.

1.2 General Objective

1.3 Significance.

1.4 Background about theories.

2.0 Theories of Language Development

2.1 Behavioral Theory.

2.2 Nativist Linguistic Theories.

2.3 Social Interactionist theory.

2.4 Cognitive Theory of language development

3.0 Conclusion.

1.0 Introduction

There is no simple answer that explains where words come from. So, as parents and teachers help children to talk, they should understand that there is no clear theory that explains how children learn the language they need to become skillful in reading and communication. However, there are some key theories that have been developed to explain language learning: behavioral, linguistic, and interactional. Looking at the theories and the history of language theory development helps us think about language development from different points of view. The shortcomings of these theories illustrate that language is not easily explained.

1.1 Statement of the Problem

A major concern in understanding language acquisition is how these capacities are picked up by infants from what appears to be very little input. A range of theories of language acquisition has been created in order to explain this apparent problem. These theories differ but they form the basis of the mystery behind language development among children. Thus, this paper examined the major language development theories in children.

1.2 General Objective

The general objective that guided this paper was to examine various language development theories in children.  

1.3 Significance

Language acquisition forms a critical stage in development of children. Thus, an examination of various theories that are used to explain language development among children remain of great importance not only to teachers but also to parents and caretakers. These theories can unveil, though not wholly, the mysteries surrounding language development. 

1.4 Background about theories

The earliest theory about language development assumed that children

acquire language through imitation. While research has shown that children

who imitate the actions of those around them during their first year of life are

generally those who also learn to talk more quickly, there is also evidence.

that imitation alone cannot explain how children become talkers.

2.0 Theories of Language Development

There are various language development theories that have been propagated by various proponents. This section briefly examines four main theories. These include Behavioral Theory, Nativist linguistic theories, social interactionist theory and cognitive theory

2.1 Behavioral Theory

Behaviorists believe language is something that can be observed and measured. The need to use language is stimulated and language is uttered in response to stimuli. To the behaviorist, competence in the rules of language is not as important as the ability to speak it; speaking is what makes language real. Knowledge is a mental state and the structure of a language doesnít make it a language; it is the function of speaking words that makes a language a language.


B.F. Skinner is perhaps the best known behaviorist who posited that children are conditioned by their environment to respond to certain stimuli with language. When children speak the language of their parents they are rewarded and become more skillful. They grow in their ability to respond in a manner that responds to the environmental stimuli given by his parents. This shapes a childís language more than knowledge of rules. (Gleason and Ratner 2009).


While most would agree that a language-rich environment helps children achieve success in communication, experts havenít been able to prove this with experiments outside the lab. The behaviorists approach has been criticized for not taking into account the many and varied influences on a childís language learning.

2.2 Nativist Linguistic Theories

The manner in which a child acquires language is a matter long debated by linguists and child psychologists alike. The father of most nativist theories of language acquisition is Noam Chomsky, who brought greater attention to the innate capacity of children for learning language, which had widely been considered a purely cultural phenomenon based on imitation.


Nativist linguistic theories hold that children learn through their natural ability to organize the laws of language, but cannot fully utilize this talent without the presence of other humans. This does not mean, however, that the child requires formal tutelage of any sort. Chomsky claims that children are born with a hard-wired Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in their brains. They are born with the major principles of language in place, but with many parameters to set (such as whether sentences in the language(s) they are to acquire must have explicit subjects). According to nativist theory, when the young child is exposed to a language, their LAD makes it possible for them to set the parameters and deduce the grammatical principles, because the principles are innate. (Bigge and Shermis, 1998).


This is still a very controversial view, and many linguists and psychologists do not believe language is as innate as Chomsky argues. There are important arguments both for and against Chomsky's view of development. One idea central to the Chomskian view is the idea of Universal Grammar, which posits that all languages have the same basic underlying structure, and that specific languages have rules that transform these underlying structures into the specific patterns found in given languages. Another argument is that without a propensity for language, human infants would be unable to learn such complete speech patterns in a natural human environment where complete sentences are the exception

More recently, researchers have shown that parents react differently to childrenís grammatically correct and incorrect utterances. This shapes the childís behavior and therefore challenges the belief that language is innate. 

2.3 Social Interactionist theory

This theory is an approach to language acquisition that stresses the environment and the context in which the language is being learned. It focuses on the pragmatics of language rather than grammar, which should come later. In this approach, the beginning speaker and the experienced speaker--be they child and adult or second-language learner and fluent speaker--exist in a negotiated arrangement where feedback is always possible. The basic appeal of this approach is the importance it places on the home and the cultural environment in early-childhood language acquisition. Language, according to this theory, is not an innate ability. Rather, it develops in negotiating your environment. Hence, vocabulary is bound by context or, alternatively, by the culture within which speech is necessary and understandable.


This approach to language acquisition is based on culture and environment. Thus, it is not universal in scope. In fact, the theory holds that language is never universal, but always context- and time-bound. On one hand, this means that language seems to be provincial, but also utilitarian, because it develops in the environment where it is most needed and most likely to be understood. On the other hand, it keeps the level of basic comprehension solely on the level of the initial environment. Transitions to other environments, at least on the surface, seem to be a problem. (Lewis, 2010).


The primary reason to support interactionism is based largely on the idea that utterances make sense if the teacher is aware of the context. This is the primary feature of the interactionist view. In this case, thought does not make objects; it reflects them and the context in which they are found. Comprehensibility, rather than grammar, is the primary concern of early-childhood language acquisition. On the other hand, the mere absorption of words, in Chomsky's view, leads to nonsense phrases that must be corrected through the teaching of structure and grammar. One view stresses the relation between learner and culture; the other, between learner and arbitrary utterances of experienced speakers.

2.4 Cognitive Theory of language development

This theory was proposed by Jean Piaget. He theorized that language is made up of symbols and structures, but exhibits itself as a childís mental abilities mature. In addition, language is only one of many human mental or cognitive activities.


Piagetís view of how children's minds work and develop has been enormously influential, particularly in educational theory. His particular insight was the role of maturation (simply growing up) in children's increasing capacity to understand their world: they cannot undertake certain tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so. His research has spawned a great deal more, much of which has undermined the detail of his own, but like many other original investigators, his importance comes from his overall vision. (Wood, 1998).


Piaget proposed that children's thinking does not develop entirely smoothly: instead, there are certain points at which it "takes off" and moves into completely new areas and capabilities. He saw these transitions as taking place at about 18 months, 7 years and 11 or 12 years. This has been taken to mean that before these ages children are not capable (no matter how bright) of understanding things in certain ways, and has been used as the basis for scheduling the school curriculum. (Satterly, 1987).

3.0 Conclusion

Language development is a complex and a unique human quality that no theory is as yet able to completely explain. Newer theories will probably develop from what has already been explored. This could be taken from cognitive to interactionist approach where the  relationship of psychology and the environment needs to be explored in greater depth.

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KENPRO (2010). Theories of Language Development in Children. KENPRO Online Papers Portal. Available online at