The Development of Language Skills in Children – 2500 word essay

Critically discuss the factors that encourage the development of language skills in children

There are many factors that encourage the development language skills in children and these factors are a highly contested issue within developmental psychology. There is also great debate as to whether language development is caused by nature or nurture, whether children are born with innate mechanisms for language or that language is caused solely by environmental factors (Anisfeld, 1984; Bornstein & Lamb, 1984; Mitchell, 1992; Plomin & McClearn, 1993; Harley, 2001) and those that do not refute either side may have more explanatory power than those which deny one side of the argument. This paper will critically discuss the factors that encourage the development of language skills in children, such as imitation, normal cognitive development and parental influence.



One factor that has caused a lot of controversy within the field of language development is the role of imitation (Bandura, 1977; Anisfeld, 1984; Bornstein & Lamb, 1984). According to Harley (2001), imitation is the simplest theory of language development and it relies solely on environmental influences as explanation for development. Harley also argues that imitation alone cannot be the driving force of the development of language and that other factors are more important. For example, there are many instances where children cannot be imitating adults, such as when children make grammatical mistakes, as these mistakes would not occur if the language development was solely dependent on imitation. Ervin (1964, as cited by Anisfeld, 1984) stated that there is no evidence to show that adult language use is the product of overt imitation from childhood. Such arguments must be considered with caution, as researcher bias may have affected the conclusions drawn and evidence was overlooked, though, there is a lot of evidence that supports this finding and so the conclusions drawn can be said to have ecological validity and great explanatory power. Harley (2001) also argues against imitation as a major influencing factor involved in language development as language learning is based on learning rules rather than learning associations. Pawlby (1977, as cited by Anisfeld, 1984) found that mothers tend to imitate their children four times as much as the child would imitate them. This evidence would suggest that much of the development of language skills in children is not caused by imitation of parents and caregivers, though some of language could be learned from imitation. Therefore, there is reduced validity to arguments for imitation though such a factor does have usefulness in explaining how words and strings of words are acquired by children.

However, it is the case that imitation or observational learning, such as described in Social Learning Theory (SLT), is a tool for language development (Skinner, 1957; Whitehurst & Vasta, 1975) and it plays an important part in the acquisition of accent and basic words (Harley, 2001) thus it could be that imitation of basic words and strings of words serves as a learning tool to improve their comprehension and skills (Anisfeld, 1984; Krasnegar, Rumbaugh, Schiefelbusch & Studdart-Kennedy, 1991). In addition to this, Bandura, Ross & Ross (1961) demonstrated that children imitate the language or words used by a model, which would suggest that words can be learned through imitation. On the contrary, the extent to which this imitation could be demonstrated as learning is highly questionable in that this study did not show that this imitation was learned and used again outside the context of the experiment thus this study lacks ecological validity and external reliability and the conclusions drawn must be used with care. Furthermore, theories, such as SLT that involve imitation as its main learning tool, regard human learning as purely a product of reinforced imitation, and can be seen as being reductionist in its explanation, which enables phenomena like language development to be made simple and understandable but this can also result in other meaningful information being ignored, such as genetics or the socioeconomic status of their family, for example.

Therefore, from the evidence above, it appears that imitation alone cannot be the only or main factor that encourages development of language skills in children, yet, imitation does appear to facilitate a certain level of language comprehension and production.



There are many theories and explanations that attempt to explain language development. Modern behaviourism, for example, views children as having pre-programmed reflexes, such as babbling and crying, which are conditioned through experience (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984; Bates, et. al. 1998; Savelsbergh, 2005), whereas radical behaviourism represents the child as a passive receiver of information, reproducing language only as a result of conditioning (Skinner, 1957; Watson, 1959). This is similar to the use of imitation in the sense that language development is seen as being derived from repetition of reinforced behaviours, which more than likely have been modelled in the first place.

A problem with behaviourism, as with imitation and SLT, is that of the expression of newly formed sentences that the child has not been exposed (Anisfeld, 1984; Bornstein & Lamb, 1984) which cannot be explained by a purely behaviourist explanation, thus such theories lack construct validity.

Such theories of language development are useful in that they offer explanations regarding the factors that encourage the development of language in children; however, the usefulness is limited when these attempt to explain all of language development and ignore other, maybe more important factors.



Another factor that encourages development of language skills in children is that of normal cognitive development. Language development is the product of the development of many skills and cognitive processes that may be due to evolutionary adaptation employed to help an organism reproduce (Geary & Bjorklund, 2000; Harley, 2001) and so any interruption of the natural development of such skills and processes will lead to impaired language development. Fishbein (1984) concluded that the children’s development of language is closely tied to that of their intellectual development. Fishbein highlights the fact that the central nervous system is important in this case as damage or problems with such areas can severely limit a child’s ability to develop language, such as with instances of children with Down’s syndrome (Fishbein, 1984). Language has been shown to be among the most impaired aspects of functioning in children with Down’s syndrome (Abbeduto, Warren & Conners, 2007; Chapman, 1998; Krasnegor, Rumbaugh, Schiefelbusch & Studdart-Kennedy, 1991). Smith & Von Tetzchner (1986, as cited by Krasnegor, Rumbaugh, Schiefelbusch & Studdart-Kennedy, 1991) supported such ideas by finding that children with Down’s syndrome produced significantly less declarative acts than non-handicapped children.

On a similar note, language impairment or delay is present in children with autism and as such, problems with language development are used in order to diagnose autism spectrum disorders (Luyster, Kadlec, Carter & Tager-Flusberg, 2007).

Such cases of impairment of language development may be viewed as reductionist in their approach; however, this is certainly not the case as the explanation that normal cognitive development is crucial for the development of language skills in children allows for other influences following normal development, such as environmental influences, as children with normal cognitive development are fitted with the mechanisms needed to acquired language (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984; Fishbein, 1984; Luyster, Kadlec, Carter & Tager-Flusberg, 2007). As such this explanation is different to those of behaviourism or SLT, as it takes into account other contributing factors.

There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that uninterrupted, normal cognitive development is certainly a factor that encourages the development of language skills in children and may be a form of evolutionary adaptation (Geary & Bjorklund, 2000). This suggests that language has a biological basis and is influenced by innate mechanisms, which is disrupted or damaged can lead to serious problems with language development.



It has been found that children who have been isolated from all meaningful human contact and/or interaction fail to develop language at all but that any interaction from that point onwards can lead to language acquisition (Crawford & Krebs, 1998).Thus, the influence of parents and caregivers is another factor that encourages development of language skills and has been extensively researched. Much of this research focuses on the influence of the mother but the influence of fathers and other caregivers has been found to be just as important also (Anisfeld, 1984; Bornstein & Lamb, 1984). For example, gender differences found in the development of language skills may be explained, in some part, by parental investment in daughters’ language development than of sons, which is seen to be due to parents placing more importance on the language development of female children (McCarthy, 1954, as cited by Wells, 1985).

Parents and caregivers employ a series of behaviours that facilitate language development, such as motherese, which refers to way in which mothers to talk to their infants, and the term has recently been changed to child-directed-speech (CDS) to be inclusive of fathers and other caregivers (Anisfeld, 1984;Bornstein & Lamb 1984). Ninio (1980, as cited by Anisfeld, 1984) found that mothers changed their speech in order for their children to understand. Snow (1972, as cited by Harris, 1992) found that mothers’ speech changes as children grow older. In addition, Snow also claimed that motherese involves simplified syntax and short utterances which facilitate learning of language. Furrow et. al. (1979, as cited by Harris, 1992) found significant relationships between maternal speech and children’s language comprehension and production. On the other hand, Anisfeld (1984) has highlighted the fact that not all mothers have the necessary skill or interest in order to help teach vocabulary to their children. On a similar note, Fernald (1985) states that motherese has been found cross-culturally but not universally, in the sense that motherese is not found in every society and thus is not needed for the development of language skills. Newport et. al. (1977, as cited by Harris, 1992) argue against motherese. Newport et. al. state that motherese does not determine the development of language, merely facilitating the speed at which items were learned.

Research has demonstrated that the role of the father is significant in language development (Rebelsky & Hanks, 1971; Ronald, 1980; Pancsofar & Vemon-Feagans, 2006). In addition to this, it may be that maternal and paternal speech may have a complementary influence on the development of language skills in children (Ronald, 1980) though there is a very little research to further support these findings, as children can successfully develop language with the absence of the father (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984). It has also been found to the contrary that paternal input is less than maternal in the first few years of the child’s development but paternal use of different words to the mother was a significant predictor of language development (Pancsofar & Vemon-Feagans, 2006). With this in mind, the validity of research into the role of the father may come under scrutiny with regards to validity, and should generate further research in order to clear up these inconsistencies.

As with parents, caregivers are also an important factor besides the parents in encouraging the development of language in children. Children that receive high levels of interactions and speech from caregiver in day care centres have been found to perform better on tests of language than others who do not receive such high levels (McCartney, 1984). This study has been supported by many other studies and so the findings have external reliability, which gives weight and validity to the argument that caregivers encourage language development (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984; Pancsofar & Vemon-Feagans, 2006).

The educational level of parents can also be seen as an influencing factor in language development (Anisfeld, 1984; Wells, 1985; Pancsofar & Vemon-Feagans, 2006). It has been shown that the higher the level of maternal education the greater the language development (Dollaghan, et. al. 1999) thus development of language skills in children may vary due to differences in maternal education (Yoder & Warren, 2001), supporting Anisfeld’s (1984) claims.

From this evidence, the influences of parents and others in the child’s life can be seen as very important factors in encouraging the development of language in children. Moreover, children need to be exposed to environmental influences, such as family members or caregivers in order for them to development any language skills at all.



A common theme is that language is outside influence and is the result of usage in the social environment, using innate learning mechanisms to facilitate this learning (Bates et. al. 1998; Henriques et. al. 1998; MacWhinney, 1987). The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) is a theory that children are born with an innate structure to help them acquire language in conjunction with environmental exposure to language, such as adult speech (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984; Harris, 2001). This theory involves both genetic and environmental explanations for language development and as such it can be said that LAD is more holistic than some other theories and perspectives, such as SLT or behaviourism, and so could be said to have more explanatory power and more use in explaining how language skill develops in children, as it takes into account innate mechanisms for language and the influence of the environment, as is the case with factors regarding normal cognitive development (Fishbein, 1984; Luyster, Kadlec, Carter & Tager-Flusberg, 2007).

Bates et. al. (1998) highlights the fact that the LAD is unsupported by evolutionary anthropology in that it views, and has shown, language development as a gradual adaptation. A further problem with this concept is that it has been difficult to find examples of the parameters of the LAD and how much this accounts for language development (Maratsos, 1998, as cited by Harris, 2001). These arguments against LAD have been supported by Mitchell (1992) who claims that children by be born with knowledge of communication but that no one has demonstrated that language development is dependent on specific innate processes.

In light of this, it may be that innate mechanisms cannot solely explain how children develop language skills but that language development is the product of a combination of innate factors and environmental influences (MacWhinney, 1987).



Socioeconomic status (SES) of the family unit in which the child is brought up has been highlighted as an important factor in language development (Hoff, 2003; Hoff & Tian, 2005) and is similar to that of the influence of parents on language development but can be considered as a separate factor (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984). It has been found that children from high-SES background grew a larger, more advanced vocabulary than those children from a mid-SES background. It is also the case that children from lower SES tend to develop their vocabularies at a slower rate than those children from high-SES. Such findings are high in ecological validity and external reliability due to the fact that the findings have been demonstrated in several different studies (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998; Hoff, 2003). There is a lot of support for such a factor however such an explanation cannot explain the few instances of children from low-SES backgrounds having better developed language skills (Bornstein & Lamb, 1984) thus the validity and reliability for high-SES backgrounds and greater language developed may be reduced and so further research is needed in order to explain such instances.



In conclusion, it can be said that there are many factors that encourage language development in children, such as imitation, normal cognitive development, environmental and biological influences. Each factor has both explanatory strength and weaknesses in that the factors can explain elements of language development but individually they cannot explain the whole field alone. It certainly could be the case that we will never know whether language development is due to nature or nurture (Mitchell, 1992). Regardless of researcher favouritism for their field of research, language development is a wide scope and thus cannot be explained by one theory or field. Language development is the product of many different intertwining factors from genetics to the environment, resulting in our comprehension, production and thought.