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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Language Development

Language Development is the sixth program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program outlines the development of language in children. It highlights linguist Noam Chomsky's theories about the human brain's predisposition to understand language, and then profiles three scientists working on aspects of psycholinguistics.

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Interview Excerpt: Daniel Slobin on Patterns in Language Development

Dr. Slobin discusses how grammatical errors offer insights into how children use patterns in language development.

One of our main concerns as psycholinguists is figuring out the strategies that children use to discover the grammar of their languages. If you ask ordinary parents how their child learned to talk, they would probably say, “He just imitated. What’s the problem?” Well, one problem is that if you listen to what children say, they often say things they couldn’t have imitated. So a child might say something like “I breaked the glass” or “I falled down.”

Adults don’t say things like “breaked” and “falled,” but children do. These errors are to us the best evidence that the child is doing something creative. The child is in fact working out the structure of the grammar. When you hear a child saying things like “breaked” and “falled,” this means that the child has worked out the pattern for forming the past tense in English. English doesn’t always follow that pattern, but the child has discovered a pattern.

All through the years of language learning, the child is struggling between two opposite problems. On the one hand, he or she wants to adapt language, a particular language, to the natural patterns of thought. On the other hand, the child has to accommodate to the particular grammar of that language. The result, of course, is our adult linguistic capabilities. But along the way, if you look carefully, you can see the interplay between these two factors.

Language is perhaps the most complex cognitive product we have. It’s something that all human beings acquire within the first few years of life, regardless of the circumstances in which they grow up, and to a great extent regardless even of their intelligence. Language reflects something about the basic nature of the human mind. The fact that language is universally so patterned, and that it universally follows such stages of development in its acquisition by children, raises deep questions about the organization of knowledge.


Developmental Psycholinguistics: The study of language and its development in children, as seen from a psychological point of view.

Language Acquisition Device (LAD): Proposed biologically-based mental structure that theorists believe plays a major role in children’s language learning. Linguist Noam Chomsky revolutionized the idea that an infant’s innate ability to understand a language structurally, before actually being able to speak it, allows for the possibility that children can learn any language intuitively before a certain age.

One-Word Stage: The stage in a child’s language development when the elemental aspects of speech have been mastered, and complete words are used to express relationships between people and objects. In other words, the understanding and use of words as symbols, usually at the end of a baby’s first year.

Telegraphic Stage: The last stage in early language development, when a child begins to form simple sentences and maintains a cognitive word order that can be understood as reflecting a native language.

Two-Word Stage: The early stage of language development when a child begins to use phrases to express common functions, such as locating and naming objects, demanding and desiring things, questioning, modifying, and qualifying.

Universal Adaptability: In linguistics, the point (believed to be before the age of one) when an infant can distinguish sounds from any language and reproduce them. This flexibility is lost after the child begins to specialize in his or her native language.