Language Development in Young Children

Language development is the cognitive process that all human beings go through to learn how to verbally communicate using the language within their environment and use their innate linguistic skills to do so. Although this process starts at birth and continues until puberty, the most important period of development occurs during the first 4 to 5 years of a child’s life.

Language development is closely linked to cognitive and emotional processes and is initially accompanied by gestures and imitations which disappear almost as quickly as they develop. In light of this, there are two main stages:

Pre-linguistic stage:

In this stage, children play with their vocals using their sound organs and muscular sensations as well as vibrations and things they hear. They initially do it simply for their own enjoyment.

Later on, their sounds begin to take on meaning and are linked to things like needs, hunger, asking for something and getting someone’s attention.

Adults play an important role in this stage because children need to hear them speak and see their repeated actions while speaking (it is helpful to speak with them while eating, when they are being changed, etc.). It is important to keep in mind that it is never too soon to explain what we are doing to children even if they do not understand.

 Linguistic stage:

This stage is characterised by starting to use language and normally begins at about 1 year old.

 Language is acquired progressively in line with the following levels:

  1. Phonological level: emitting and perfecting sounds
  2. Semantic level: acquiring words with meaning
  3. Morphosyntactic level: forming sentences

Language initially begins with monologues or without speaking to be social. Children speak to reinforce their actions and to accompany something that they are doing. When there are other children around, there is generally a collective monologue.

Later on, language is then used to help make themselves understood and to socialise with others.

Linguistic Expression

  • Children first express themselves using words instead of phrases like “baba” instead of “I want a bottle of milk”, in this case it is important to understand the context in order to understand what they are referring to. Children also give meaning to their expression through their gestures, imitation, tone, attitude, etc. This helps to complement their lack of vocabulary, for example the child reaches for the bottle and says “baba” indicating that they want the bottle of milk.
  • Around 15-18 months there is a large gap between what they are capable of understanding and their capacity to express themselves. Phonologically, they are learning new words and begin to recognise their own name and the names of their family, even if they do not pronounce them correctly.
  • Around 2 years old they start to associate words together in their vocabulary and can even manage around 400 words they pick up from their immediate environment. In this stage, it is common to experience overextension, or calling all things by the same name based on a single quality, for example calling all men daddy. It is also common to experience underextension, essentially the opposite, where a child uses a very restricted vocabulary and knows one word but does not extend that to other similar objects. For example, they are able to recognise their own ball as a ball but they do not use that term for every other ball.

At this age children continue to simplify adult words and eliminate the consonants l and r in words or they replace them with others: “bwue” instead of “blue” or they even eliminate consonants in long words altogether: “banana” becomes “nana”.

  • At 3 years old, children can form sentences that include nouns and verbs as well as adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, articles and even prepositions. They even start to form question sentences.
  • At 4 years old, their language is fairly structured, they ask a lot of questions and this is when they start to play with their language.
  • After 5, they have a lot to say and can form long sentences even though they still confuse certain tenses like the passive. They start to learn how to follow directions and social interaction skills.

Although language development happens naturally when children interact with their environment, it is important to keep the following methodological strategies in mind for productive language development:

  • It is a good idea to talk with children. Routines should be set up so that they can anticipate what will happen next like “now it’s time to put on your pyjamas”. It is also helpful to give a name to the things they normally use and ask them questions, get them to ask you questions and give adequate explanations when they do ask.
  • Show interest in getting children to express themselves by creating situations where they can communicate. Give them the time they need and do not finishing their sentences for them. Correcting pronunciation or sentence structure never gets old.

It is common to speak in childish language to younger children but that should be avoided and eliminated as they start get older. Some common characteristics of childish language include the following:

  • Slowing down when speaking so that they understand
  • Using a higher tone of voice
  • Enunciating more than usual
  • Exaggerating intonation
  • Using gestures, noise onomatopoeia and miming to get the message across to them
  • Using short and simple sentences

Around ages 3-4 it is important to stop using childish language. To do this, one should speak with more precision and clarity, one should encourage them to ask more open questions instead of questions with yes or no answers, make sure they understood everything after explaining it, etc. One should speak slower and with more intonation but not repeating the same way that they speak, use new expressions and words so that they can continue learning.

To correct the words that children say incorrectly, they should be lightly corrected instead of scolded or ignored. It is most effective to correct them indirectly by repeating the word they said incorrectly by using it correctly in a sentence. Laughing or joking with them about how they say things is also unhelpful for their development because they will then tend to repeat it to get our attention or get us to laugh again.

As a final recommendation, reading out loud to small children is not only one of the best activities for cultivating their language development but it also encourages their motivation, curiosity, educates their values and most importantly  creates a time for everyone to spend learning together.

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