Children’s Cognitive and Language Development

The book, Children’s Cognitive and Language Development written by V. Lee and P. D. Gupta (2005) discusses the problems of language development and acquisition during early childhood. The authors state that the process of language acquisition is a complex one based on cognitive and emotional factors. The book consists of 8 chapters devoted to different problems and issues including the main theories of child development, memory development, categorization, reasoning and intelligence development, scientific thinking, drawing, and reading development.

The first part of the book (including the first two chapters) discusses the main theories and the process of language development. Skinner’s view of language development is just one aspect of his general account of learning. It is based on the simple principle that behaviors which are rewarded are more likely to be produced in the future, whereas behavior not rewarded, or behavior that is followed by punishment, is less likely to be produced in the future. In ordinary parlance, ‘reward’ usually means money, sweets, or some other goody. Skinner means something much more general than this when he talks of reward. He means anything which happens to be gratifying to the individual. Skinner’s view is not that parents know all about the principles of reward and punishment, and apply these to train the child to speak. Rather, the parent’s excited reaction to the child’s attempt at speech is rewarding to the child, so the parent unwittingly trains the child in the skill of language. Skinner’s idea is that in a way, language development owes a great deal to serendipity.

Chomsky argues that babies are equipped with a ‘language acquisition device’, which identifies the specific features of the grammar of a language, and translates these into the innate deep structure. According to Chomsky, the idea of an innate deep structure, based on grammatical subject and object, casts a whole new light on the mystery of babies being able to master such a complex ability as language. The reason babies find it so easy to acquire language, according to this view, is that the rudiments of the language already exist inside their brains.

The expansion of vocabulary is slow, to begin with. Although the baby may use one or two words at 12 months, by 18 months it is likely that she only has a repertoire of ten words. After this, she will undergo a rapid increase in vocabulary to approximately fifty words. Then by 24 months, the baby is likely to have a vocabulary of around 300 words. In most cases, these early words are nouns-the names of objects around them. Following this, vocabulary expansion is of astronomical magnitude, giving the average 6-year-old a repertoire of 14,000 words. There are many individual children who do not conform closely to this pattern. That does not necessarily mean there is anything amiss.

The authors admit that during the first month following birth, the baby uses its voice for little other than crying. Between about 1 and 8 months, the baby develops an increasing repertoire of vocalizations, including laughing and cooing. Until 8 months, the baby makes little other than vowel sounds, and a developing variety of pitch is noticeable during this period. Then, at about 8 months, the baby’s vocalizations go through a sudden and radical alteration. One day the baby will begin babbling and will continue doing so periodically from that moment on. The babbling is actually a combination of vowels with consonants and sounds remarkably like speech but without meaning. There comes a point, perhaps two months after the first babbling, when the parents feel that some of the babbling is the baby’s first words. Unlike the onset of babbling, it is hard to identify when it is appropriate to say that a babbling sound the baby makes is a word. To qualify as a word, the baby has to make a sound, or sequence of sounds reliably used in relation to a thing. The first words are typically names of things, used to point something out or to catch the adult’s attention, for example, ‘pussie’ as the cat enters the room. The same ideas are expressed by Papalia et al (2008).

It is one thing for babies to use single words to refer to objects around them. It is quite something else for the child to use words in combination, that engenders the kind of meaning you might find in a sentence. Yet babies succeed in conveying sentence-like meaning via combinations of single words and gestures prior to the multi-word stage. For example, the baby might say ‘rattle’, whilst at the same time grasping out in the general direction of the rattle. As parents, we cannot help but interpret this as ‘pass me the rattle’. These single-word gesture combinations, which embody sentence-like meaning, are known as ‘holophrases’. Holophrases are characteristic of the baby in the second year of life. After this, the baby begins to use combinations of two, and then three and four words, making communication of the intended meaning not so highly dependent on gesture.

The second part (including chapters 3,4,5( shows that when the young child begins to use words in combination, we find that she has a very characteristic pattern of speech. This style of early language is known as ‘telegraphic speech’ for obvious reasons. The child’s telegraphic speech is highly ungrammatical in some respects. Many grammatical words are absent, such as ‘the’ and ‘is’. Also, words are not adapted to form grammatically correct sentences. For example, the child says ‘drink’ instead of ‘drinks’. However, in other respects, the young child does adhere to grammar, particularly with respect to word order. It is highly unlikely that the child would use a word order of the kind ‘Drink water big doggie’. This shows that although young children have a lot to learn about the way in which words must be modified, according to grammatical tense and so on, they already possess the rudiments of a grammar of word order. By the age of 3 years, the child’s speech is less telegraphic. The child begins to acquire some of the finer points of grammar, reflected in the use of grammatical words. She also begins to alter words in order to indicate past tense. For example, whereas the younger child may have said ‘Walk Mummy shop’, the older child may form the correct sentence, ‘I walked with Mummy to the shop’. Unlike the younger child, the older one has learned that a different form of the verb to walk is used for the past tense. Young children sometimes use irregular verbs correctly: ‘I ran with Mummy to the shop’. the child’s grammar seems to take a curious backward turn. It is common to find a 5-year-old who had a year previously said ran now saying run. This phenomenon is known as ‘over-regularization’, where the child treats all verbs as regular, adding ed to the end in order to form the past tense. It seems that whereas the younger child had learned the past forms of verbs individually, the older child has discovered the ed rule of verbs and has applied that rule to form the past tense right across the board. The trouble is, as we all know, some verbs are irregular in this respect, with the result that the child says ran instead of ran. We have to wait a couple more years to find the child once again using irregular verbs correctly. Although over-regularization is a kind of error, it also shows that the child is acquiring the principles or rules of grammar.

The third part of the book (including chapters 6.7.8 ) shows that it takes many years for the child to acquire most of the subtleties of grammar, apart from failure to use irregular verbs correctly. The acquisition process can extend well into the school years. For example, it seems that not until age 8 or 9 do children have a good comprehension of passive sentences, Prior to this age, children hearing this sentence often have difficulty identifying whether it was John or Mary who did the hitting. Despite the continuing development of grammar at this older age, there can be no doubt that the biggest leaps in the acquisition of grammar occur before the child is 5 years old. The acquisition of grammar is only one aspect of language development. The child also has to learn the meaning of words, and a great deal of attention has been devoted to young children’s developing use of nouns. Researchers have studied this in the hope that it might give insight into the relationship between cognitive.

Overextension is at the same time illuminating cognitive development and suggestive of it not being determined by language development. Perhaps it is illuminating about cognitive development in that it suggests young children understand their environment in terms of broad classes of things, and only later in development come to distinguish between subclasses of items. For example, maybe the young child is inclined to pick up the word ball in relation to any round or spherical object because she thinks of her environment in terms of broad categories such as ’round’, ‘square’, ‘living’, ‘big’ and so on. This kind of cognition may then be reflected in the child’s use of nouns, particularly in the error of overextension.

Since young children clearly have a strong urge to communicate, combined with a limited vocabulary for communicating about things, perhaps they use the best words at their disposal which gives rise to the impression that they overextend word categories. So, for example, the young child may be well aware that although the moon is like a ball in that it is circular, it is different in important ways: it is not possible to play ‘piggy in the middle with the moon or to put it away in a toy cupboard. The child could recognize this, yet call the moon ‘ball’ for no other reason than that she does not know the word ‘moon’. In that case, the phenomenon of overextension would not be revealing a tendency to lump together things in broad categories, but instead would be a symptom of trying to make the best communicative use of a limited vocabulary. Therefore, all we can say is that as yet we do not know what the cognitive-developmental implications are as regards the phenomenon of overextension. A common-sense explanation for this is that perhaps the children’s parents provided the initiative, by generating gestures for their children to imitate in the first place, and in terms of using gestures in certain combinations.

Anyone not acquainted with sign language may view this as a peculiar question, but it is not. Deaf people without speech who use a formal gestural code to communicate combine gestural units as ‘words’ according to rules of grammar to form ‘sentences, and for this reason, we can say that such languages are every bit as deserving of that label as are spoken languages. It was certainly the case that the children used gestures to name things, and therefore, their gestures qualified as words. Also, they used gestures in combination, and these did appear in certain orders rather than others. A common-sense explanation for this is that perhaps the children’s parents provided the initiative, by generating gestures for their children to imitate in the first place, and in terms of using gestures in certain combinations.

Although children may be born with the knowledge that communication takes place via patterned units of meaning, as yet no one has shown that most aspects of language acquisition are dependent upon a specific innate process or mechanism. Indeed, it may never be possible to show this, and it may always remain that we have to juggle with ideas to help determine the contributions of heredity and environment. In other words, there is no need to think that there might be an innate language acquisition device. In that case, why did Chomsky’s theory ever seem so appealing? Perhaps its appeal came from a peculiarity in the development of the two disciplines of linguistics and psychology. Prior to Chomsky, the dominant account of learning was Skinner’s theory about reward and punishment. Because that could not explain language acquisition adequately, it gave Chomsky’s theory a niche to provide an explanation on innate grounds. That is, perhaps Chomsky’s strength lay largely in Skinner’s weakness. Now that we have a better environmental account, perhaps there is no longer reason to think that innate factors feature quite so prominently in language acquisition.

In sum, the book describes and analyses the main issues of child development and language acquisition processes. It portrays that when speaking to babies and young children, adults usually speak shorter and simpler sentences. These typically have simpler grammar and are more likely to be grammatically correct, compared with speech to other adults. Adult talk to babies and young children is generally slower, with longer pauses at the end of each sentence. The talk is nearly always about concrete things which are present, and therefore which the child can see. Also, the pattern of adult speech seems to be well-tailored to the child’s linguistic level. As the child speaks longer and more complex sentences, so the adult talks to the child in a more mature manner. It seems that the adult usually pitches her speech at a slightly more advanced level than the children. This distinctive style of adult speech to children is known as ‘motherese’, not because it is used exclusively by mothers, but because mothers are usually caregivers of babies and young children, and therefore the ones who use this style most.


Lee, V., Gupta, P. D. (2005). Children’s Cognitive and Language Development. WileyBlackwell, 300pg.

Papalia, D.E., Olds, S.W., & Feldman, R.D. (2008). A child’s world: Infancy through adolescence (11th ed.) Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill.

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