Theories of Language Development

Which are learned first in the development of English: ‘content words’, or ‘function words’? Explain why this is so.

In the development of English language acquisition, content words are most naturally learned first before function words, primarily because content words are simpler in meaning and can be used in a rudimentary manner without the use of function words.

According to Ortega, “Child language acquisition happens in a predictable pattern… During their first year of life they learn to handle one word utterances. During the second year, two word utterances and exponential vocabulary growth occur.” This supports the view that content words are learned before function words, since only one word utterances such as nouns could be used in a meaningful way by a child with very limited vocabulary; function words could not be used meaningfully on their own, without accompanying content words since function words are used to specify a relationship between content words and do not refer to anything on their own.

In addition, according to Macaro (2003, p. 189), “Two-way information tasks can result in highly structured interaction, using a very limited range of vocabulary and few modifications.” This also supports the view that content words are learned first before function words, since content words can be used, for example, to make requests for an object without using accompanying function words.  According to Lightbown & Spada (2013, p. 11), language acquisition is a complex process. He states that the children learn the ‘wh-questions’ which they use when they want to establish certain things. They may begin to ask questions such as, ‘where’s mommy? Who’s that?’ though their vocabularies remain low.

As indicated before, language development is a continuous process that is affected by the current environment. This means that the children do not become fluent speakers immediately, but will have to learn more through interaction with the environment. In their early ages, children learn a lot of words, and a few phrases through imitating what they hear from adults. They begin by appreciating simple words before beginning to utter the more complex ones. In most cases, the children may mention words, or phrases, without necessarily understanding their meaning. With time, though, they learn to relate specific words with certain actions.

Children are also motivated by various factors. They need language to express their emotions, and to interact with their family members and friends. In his contribution to language development in children, Piaget asserted that children have active curiosity and also imitation behavior, especially during the sensory motor stage of development (0-2 years). However, the acquisition of language can also be delayed, especially where the children do not find a motivating environment. Different scholars have also undertaken studies to differentiate between the ‘content words’ and the ‘functional words.’ The main argument is that the content words develop first, which is mostly attributed by limited mental capacity of the children at the earliest age to learn the functional words.

It is asserted that the content words develop first, before the children can begin learning and using the functional words (Pinter, 2011, p.27). This assertion is similar to the Piaget’s developmental stage, which argues the language development begins slowly through learning a few words especially in the first and second year.

Ortega, one of the researchers in language development, contends that the nature of language development in children is predicable. According to him, the number of words (vocabulary) increases with the age of the children. However, he still maintains that the content words develop first, before the functional words. This means that the child can begin learning words such as ‘chair, cup, and computer’ and so on, but may not have the functional words that would facilitate the construction of a coherent statement. Nevertheless, he states that the content words are very imperative as they are the core vocabularies, which enhance effective communication later on.

One of the main reasons why the children develop the content words first and at a faster rate could be attributed to their environment. They are surrounded by various objects, and through their curiosity, they want to know the names of such objects. Further, due to their limited mental capacity, they may not be able to learn the functional words in their early ages.

In his pre-operational stage (2-7 years), Piaget argues that the children egocentric. This means that they have the tendency to see the world from their own view, and fail to appreciate others. This, in relation to language development at an early age would be observed when children refuse to accept any other change, and cling to what they already know. Further, Piaget uses the term centration to refer to the fact that the children can only attend to one task only. This, again in the learning perspective, means that the children can only acquire few words at a time.

Macaro, however, indicates that the children have the potential to learn few modifications that will enhance communication. As indicated before, one of the main reasons that motivate the children to learn language is to express their emotions, as well as interacting with their surroundings (family members and friends). This may be hampered by a lack of functional words that will make it possible for one to understand what the child is saying. To overcome this challenge, Macaro, asserts that the child begins to learn a few modifiers that will give meaning to the content words.

Explore Vygotsky’s assertion that: ‘through others, we become ourselves’.

In Vygotsky’s social cognitive theory, his assertion that “through others, we become ourselves” was part of his observation that knowledge is socially constructed through the interaction between a learner and the social environment of their community. This is supported by the fact that language is a primarily social process in which users of a language make meaning through the way they learn to use language in different contexts and as a collaborative process with different individuals.

Another example of this view of Vygotsky’s theory being put into practice is with “The Quebec curriculum” which “is also in line with Vygotsky’s notion of cultural historical development. Cultural-historical development theories states that, “through others, we become ourselves” This shows how some national and state curriculums, such as Quebecs, have adopted Vygotsky’s perspective on psychosocial development as a theory for informing learning and teaching on a practical level.

In addition, as stated by Vygotsky, “The path from object to child and from child to object pass through another person” as “the product of a developmental process deeply rooted in the links between individual and social history.”. This further demonstrates why object words are learned prior to function words, since object words have a directly social role in language.

In his phrase, ‘through others, we become ourselves,’ Vygotsky sought to reinforce the fact that the cognitive and language development were both dependent on social interactions. His assertion is similar to that of Piaget’s theory of child development, who argued that the child learns and imitates the environment.

Vygotsky believes that without a proper environment, language development in children may be adversely affected. For the cognitive development to take place, the child also needs to be exposed to an intellectual environment, which will prompt the child to think. It is possible to have children of the same age, but with different times of language acquisition. Some will learn the language much faster, while others will struggle. This, according to Vygotsky can be understood by focusing on the environment upon which the child is exposed.

In the families that are social and engage the children in conversation and play, language development becomes much faster. This is also true, where the child interacts with other children, especially those already with language development prowess. The opposite is also true. Children who mostly struggle in their language acquisition, and have fewer vocabularies, are probably brought up in an environment that is does not motivate them to learn. This kind of environment may also hamper the cognitive development in children, which may slow down their reasoning capacity.

Language development in children is a continuous process, which is also predictable. With the right kind of environment, children are able to develop intellectually, emotionally and socially. All these factors are imperative in language development, which is determined by the kind of environment on which the children are exposed. When raised up in a warm family that also encourages the child to communicate, language development is fast. Researchers, such as Vygotsky indicate that there is a positive correlation between language development and nature. This means that the environment acts as the main motivator to the acquisition of language and communication.

In his explanation to the development of language has a direct correlation with the environment, Vygotsky contends that language is a social process. It is an integral part of the society, hence forming part of its culture. This means that the language can only be learnt through the interactions with the same members of the community. Further, Gibbons reiterates the importance of social interactions in the acquisition of the second language.

While some critics say that language acquisition involves only the mental processes, the social interactions has been cited as one of the most important force. However, Swain, Kirkpatrick, & Cummins indicated that for the child to acquire the second language, there is need for the maximum exposure. The more the child speaks the second language, the more they are likely to become eloquent and effective. These sentiments are also echoed by Emmitt, M., Zbaracki, M., Komesaroff, L. & Pollock who stated that for the children to gain competence in the second language, they must learn the systems of speech, including the patterns of sound, words and sentences.

While both Vygotsky and Piaget have contributed immensely to the language development in children, they differ in their explanations. According to Piaget, there are distinctive stages that explain the nature of language development in children. In each stage, Piaget focuses on the level of mental and social development, and how these affects language acquisition and communication. For this reason, there appears to be a discontinuity in language development, which is brought up by the presence of stages.

On the contrary, though, Vygotsky perceives language development as a continuous process, with no such confinements and time specifications. This means a child of 5 years, for instance, may have same language development and mental capacity as a 10 year old, depending on the different environments upon which they are brought. Nevertheless, Vygotsky argues that the children must have competent models that will facilitate language and cognitive development.

From the theories of language development, it is apparent that the society plays an imperative role. Children need to be provided with an environment that will motivate them to learn more vocabularies as this will play a huge role in becoming a fluent speaker in the future. Parents need to be good role models, as children learn more through imitation. Further, the children need to be assisted in their curiosity to try out different things in their early ages. This kind of curiosity assists in the children’s cognitive development. Providing children with mentally challenging environments, such as games, will also ensure that they develop mentally .

In conclusion, Language development is a continuous process that sees children increases their vocabulary exponentially. There is a positive correlation between language development in children and the environment. The latter plays a huge role in ensuring that the children learn both the content and the functional words. As imitators, children learn vocabularies from the models in the society. Lack of an environment that fosters language and cognitive development explains why some children will have problems in communication. The role models must ensure that the children are supported as this will foster both cognitive and language development skills.

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