Language Acquisition
The Development of Children (5th ed.)
Cole, Cole & Lightfoot
Chapter 8
Early Childhood (ages 2-6)
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Explosive growth in ability to comprehend
and use language
Learn several new words
per day
By the age of 6, a child’s
vocabulary is between
8,000 and 14,000 words
Totally transforms their
mental and social lives
Overview of the Journey
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Puzzle of Language
Development
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Language
Subsystems
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Explanations of
Language Acquisition
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Essential Ingredients
for Acquisition
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Relation of Language
and Thought
The Puzzle of
Language
Development
Prelinguistic Development
Problem of Reference
Problem of Grammar
Prelinguistic Developments
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Birth: Preference for
language over other kinds
of sounds; can
differentiate basic
phonemes characteristic
of world’s languages
Neonate: Can distinguish
sounds of their native
language from those of a
foreign language
2½ months: Social
smiling; cooing 
babbling ( jargoning
 words by 1 year old)
Prelinguistic Developments
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3 months: Match behavior
to that of another person
(primary intersubjectivity)
9 months: Social
referencing and pointing
at an object (evidences of
secondary intersubjectivity)
18 months: Will not point
unless caregiver is present
Problem of Reference
How do children discover what
words mean?
“Smotri
sinochik!
Tam sidit
ptitsa.”
“Look, son!
There sits a
ptitsa.”
Problem of Reference
“Look, Sarah! That’s a _________.”
Problem of Grammar
How do children learn to arrange words and parts
of words in a way that has meaning to others?
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Grammar: Rules of a given language for the
sequencing of words in a sentence
and the ordering of parts of words
7 months: Sensitive to ordering of
words in simple sentences and can
abstract patterns of word usage
from such sentences
Later: “My doggy runned away” –
significant, because have not been
taught to say this and have not
learned it from imitation
Language
Subsystems
(1) Sounds
(2) Words
(3) Sentences
(4) Uses of Language
1: Sounds
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Phonemes: Basic sounds in a language
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Newborn: Can perceive the differences between
the phonemes of language
Shortly afterward, will cease to differentiate
sounds that are not a part of their native language
(Japanese: /l/ and /y/; Spanish: /b/ and /v/)
Morphemes: Smallest units of meaning in
the words of a language
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“Transplanted”  [trans] [plant] [ed]
By 8-9 years, can use morpheme knowledge to
figure out meanings of new words (e.g., “treelet”)
2: Words
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Genuine words appear around first birthday
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Aided by adult interpretation of vocalizations
Words as mediators that allow a child to
operate indirectly on
an object via
an adult
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Conversely,
allows the child
to be influenced
by others (e.g.,
a command)
2: Words
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Growth of vocabulary…
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Receptive vocabulary (i.e., what
they understand) is much larger
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14 months: 10 words
18 months: 50 words
24 months: 300 words
14 months: 100 words
Mostly nouns (closely linked to
actions they accomplish, or that change and move)
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24 months: By then, nouns account for less than half
Verbs, relational words (e.g., “gone” “here” “no”), comments
on attainments (e.g., “There!” “Hooray!” “Uh-oh”)
Vocabulary Development
2: Words
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Problems of referential ambiguity
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Overextensions: Applying
a verbal label too broadly
(e.g., “Daddy” to all men)
Underextensions:
Applying the label too
narrowly (e.g., “cat” only to
the family’s cat)
Levels of abstractions:
Children between ages of 2
and 4 seem to label all sets
at the same intermediate
level of generality…
Levels of Abstractness
Word
Meanings
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For a young child, word
meanings are dominated by
the contexts of action in
which the words have
played a role
As the child acquires formal
conceptual categories of
language, the structure of
word meanings changes
accordingly
Assessed by “What kind of
thing is a _____?”
Holophrases
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Simple-word utterances of
babies that some believe stand
for entire phrases or sentences
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“Up” “Bottle”
However, are almost always
accompanied by nonverbal
elements (e.g., gestures,
distinctive facial expressions)
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Consequently, single word in
conjunction with gestures and
facial expressions is equivalent of
a whole sentence
3: Sentences
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Utterances of 2+ words: Language milestone
at end of infancy (age 2 years)
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Can vary order of words to create different
meanings (early understanding of grammar)
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“Want do” “More sing” “Water off” “Mail come”
“Chase Daddy” vs. “Daddy chase”
Increasing complexity…
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Measured in number of morphemes (units of
meaning): MLU (mean length of utterance)
“Boys aren’t playing” = 3 words, but 6 morphemes
(boy, s, are, not, play, ing)
Rapidly
Increasing
Complexity
3: Sentences
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Grammatical
morphemes: Units that
create meaning by
showing relations
between other elements
within sentence
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Present progressive
(-ing) first to appear
Followed by location,
number, possession,
past tense
3: Sentences
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Complex
constructions
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Words added to end of
a sentence to turn it
into a question  “You
will come, won’t you?”
Acquire grammar rules
that even most adults
can’t explain 
evidence of high level
of abstraction
4: Uses of Language
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Conversational acts
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Proto-imperatives:
Engage another person to
achieve a desired objective
(e.g., “More”)
Proto-declaratives:
Initiate/maintain dialogue
with another person (e.g.,
point and “Doggie”; giving)
Conversational conventions (pragmatics)
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Cooperative principle: Make contributions to
conversation at required time and for accepted purpose
of the talk exchange
4: Uses of Language
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Taking the listener into account
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3½ years: Provide more information to someone who
is blindfolded; use simpler language with younger
child or a baby doll (but not a grown-up doll)
Use of metaphors (creative process)
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Beginning of metaphorical language
coincides with the onset of symbolic
play (e.g., yellow bat becomes an
ear of “corn”)
In middle childhood, still have
difficulty with metaphors that link
physical terms to people (e.g.,
“That kid is a bulldozer”)
Explanations of
Language Acquisition
Learning-Theory Explanation
Nativist Explanation
Interactionist Explanation
Learning-Theory Explanation
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Major causal factor
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Mechanisms
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Environment (nurture)
Conditioning: Classical
(sum of all experiences) &
operant (parental enthusiasm
over closer approximations to
correct sound of the word)
Imitation: Abstract modeling
(Bandura) for grammar
Major phenomenon explained
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Word meaning
Nativist Explanation
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Major causal factor
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Mechanism
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Heredity (nature): Innate ability
(Chomsky)
Triggering: Via Language
Acquisition Device (LAD)
programmed to recognize the
deep structures that underlie any
particular language that the child
may hear
Major phenomenon explained
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Syntax
Interactionist Explanation
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Major causal factor
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Mechanisms
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Cognitive hypothesis (derived from
Piaget’s constructivism): Interaction
of social and biological factors
Cultural-context approach (based
on Bruner’s formats – peekaboo &
routines): Cultural mediation of socialbiological interaction
Cognitive hypothesis: Assimilationaccommodation
Cultural-context approach: Cultural
scripts – Language Acquisition Support
System (LASS)
Major phenomenon explained
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Language-thought relationships
Vocabulary Size & Grammatical
Complexity Linked
The fact that grammatical
growth is more closely
correlated with vocabulary
growth than either of those
are with age lends support
to the constructivist
framework.
Bates & Goodman, 1999
Essential Ingredients
for Acquisition
Biological Prerequisites
Role of the Environment
Language Requirements
Biological Prerequisites
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Chimpanzees
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Down syndrome
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After years of hard work, chimpanzees can learn several
dozen signs, in combinations similar to a 2-year-old; but
children with no special training learn thousands of words in
a relatively short time span
Restricted vocabulary and simple grammar suggest that
normal language development requires normal cognitive
function, at least in certain key areas
Williams syndrome
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Although mentally retarded, relatively normal vocabulary and
grammar use suggest that at least some aspects of language
develop independently of general cognitive function
Role of the Environment
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Deaf children (whose parents won’t sign or who
“home sign”) and hearing children raised by deaf
parents
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Develop basic rudiments of grammar (2- or 3-word phrases),
but not more complex ones
Fast Mapping
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Children hear an unfamiliar word in a familiar, structured, and
meaningful social interaction (e.g., taking a bath routine)
Whole-object principle: Assume word (“cup”) applies to
whole object
Categorizing principle: Assume that object labels (“dog”)
extend to classes of similar objects
Mutual-Exclusivity principle: Assume that an object can
have only one name (“zebra” refers to the animal that’s
different in a group of cows – “cow” already known)
Language Requirements
1.
2.
3.
4.
Biologically programmed sensitivity to language
present at birth, which develops as the child matures
(Nativist view)
Ability to learn from and imitate the language of
others (Environmental-learning view)
Acquisition of basic cognitive capacities – schemas
for actions with objects, ability to represent the world
mentally, presence of lexical principles
(Interactionist view – Constructivist version)
Inclusion of children in familiar routines in which
language is one of many forms of interaction
(Interactionist view – Cultural-context version)
Relation of
Language & Thought
Language becomes an
intellectual function, while
thinking becomes verbal
Vygotsky
Progress of Language Development
Age
Birth
3 months
6 months
9 months
12 months
18 months
24 months
30 months
Early child.
Middle child.
Adolescence
Typical Behavior
Phoneme perception; crying
Cooing
Babbling; lose discrim. non-native phonemes
First words; holophrases
Use of words to attract adults’ attention
Vocabulary spurt; telegraphic speech (2-word)
Response to indirect request (“Is door shut?”)
Create indirect request; take listener account
Increase grammatical complex. (overgeneral.)
Understand passive forms; acquire written
Acquire specialized language functions
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Chapter 8: Language Acquisition