Children's Oral Language Development
By Celia Genishi
The development of oral language is one of the child's most natural--and
impressive--accomplishments. This [Eric] digest presents an overview of
the process and mechanics of language development, along with implications
When and How Language is Learned
Almost all children learn the rules of their language at an early age
through use, and over time, without formal instruction. Thus one source
for learning must be genetic. Humans beings are born to speak; they have
an innate gift for figuring out the rules of the language used in their
environment. The environment itself is also a significant factor. Children
learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the important people
around them speak.
Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them. We
know that children work through linguistic rules on their own because
they use forms that adults never use, such as "I goed there before"
or "I see your feets." Children eventually learn the conventional
forms, "went" and "feet", as they sort out for themselves
the exceptions to the rules of English syntax. As with learning to walk,
learning to talk requires time for development and practice in everyday
situations. Constant correction of a child's speech is usually unproductive.
Children seem born not just to speak, but also to interact socially. Even
before they use words, they use cries and gestures to convey meaning;
they often understand the meanings that others convey. The point of learning
language and interacting socially, then, is not to master rules, but to
make connections with other people and to make sense of experiences (Wells,
1986). In summary, language occurs through an interaction among genes
(which hold innate tendencies to communicate and be sociable), environment,
and the child's own thinking abilities.
When children develop abilities is always a difficult question to answer.
In general, children say their first words between 12 and 18 months of
age. They begin to use complex sentences by the age of 4 to 4 1/2 years.
By the time they start kindergarten, children know most of the fundamentals
of their language, so that they are able to converse easily with someone
who speaks as they do (that is, in their dialect). As with other aspects
of development, language acquisition is not predictable. One child may
say her first word at 10 months, another at 20 months. One child may use
complex sentences at 5 1/2 years, another at 3 years.
Oral Language Components
Oral language, the complex system that relates sounds to meanings, is
made up of three components: the phonological, semantic, and syntactic
(Lindfors, 1987). The phonological component involves the rules for combining
sounds. Speakers of English, for example, know that an English word can
end, but not begin, with an "-ng" sound. We are not aware of
our knowledge of these rules, but our ability to understand and pronounce
English words demonstrates that we do know a vast number of rules.
The semantic component is made up of morphemes, the smallest units of
meaning that may be combined with each other to make up words (for example,
"paper" + "s" are the two morphemes that make up "papers"),
and sentences (Brown, 1973). A dictionary contains the semantic component
of a language, and reflects not just what words make up that language,
but also what words (and meanings) are important to the speakers of the
The syntactic component consists of the rules that enable us to combine
morphemes into sentences. As soon as a child uses two morphemes together,
as in "more cracker," she is using a syntactic rule about how
morphemes are combined to convey meaning. Like the rules making up the
other components, syntactic rules become increasingly complex as the child
develops. From combining two morphemes, the child goes on to combine words
with suffixes or inflections ("-s" or "-ing", as in
"papers" and "eating") and eventually creates questions,
statements, commands, etc. She also learns to combine two ideas into one
complex sentence, as in "I'll share my crackers if you share your
juice." Of course speakers of a language constantly use these three
components of language together, usually in social situations.
Some language experts would add a fourth component: pragmatics, which
deals with rules of language use. Pragmatic rules are part of our communicative
competence, our ability to speak appropriately in different situations,
for example, in a conversational way at home and in a more formal way
at a job interview. Young children need to learn the ways of speaking
in the day care center or school where, for example, teachers often ask
rhetorical questions. Learning pragmatic rules is as important as learning
the rules of the other components of language since people are perceived
and judged based on both what they say and how and when they say it.
Nurturing Language Development
Parents and caregivers need to remember that language in the great majority
of individuals develops very efficiently. Adults should try not to focus
on "problems," such as the inability to pronounce words as adults
do (for example, when children pronounce r's like w's). Most children
naturally outgrow such things, which are a tiny segment of the child's
total repertoire of language. However, if a child appears not to hear
what others say to her; if family members and those closest to her find
her difficult to understand; or if she is noticeably different in her
communicative abilities from those in her age range, adults may want to
seek advice from specialists in children's speech, language and hearing.
Teachers can help sustain natural language development by providing environments
full of language development opportunities. Here are some general guidelines
for teachers, parents, and other caregivers:
Understand that every child's language or dialect is worthy of respect
as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values,
and experiences of the child's family and community.
Treat children as if they are conversationalists, even if they are not
yet talking. Children learn very early about how conversations work (taking
turns, looking attentively, using facial expressions, etc.) as long as
they have experiences with conversing adults.
Encourage interaction among children. Peer learning is an important part
of language development, especially in mixed-age groups. Activities involving
a wide range of materials should promote talk. There should be a balance
between individual activities and those that nurture collaboration and
discussion, such as dramatic play, block-building, book-sharing, or carpentry.
Remember that parents, caregivers, teachers, and guardians are the chief
resources in language development. Children learn much from each other,
but adults are the main conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders,
and sustainers of language development and growth in the child-care center
or classroom. Continue to encourage interaction as children come to understand
written language. Children in the primary grades can keep developing oral
abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions,
and providing information in varied situations. Every area of the curriculum
is enhanced through language, so that classrooms full of active learners
are hardly ever silent.
See reviews of recommended speech books.
Young Children's Oral Language Development. ERIC Digest. 1988. ERIC
Identifier: ED301361. This document is available from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service. http://ericae.net/