“The acquisition of language and speech seems deceptively simple. Young children learn their mother tongue rapidly and effortlessly, from babbling at six months of age to full sentences by the end of three years, and follow the same developmental path regardless of culture.” (Kuhl 2004, 831)
As is true of human development in infancy overall, language development occurs in the context of relationships. Emotion and language development in the early years are linked, as “much of the form and content of communication between infants and their caregivers in the first year of life depends upon affective expression” (Bloom and Capatides 1987, 1513). The relationship basis of early language development appears right at the beginning of life. Newborns prefer the sounds of their mothers’ voices (DeCasper and Fifer 1980). They also prefer the language spoken by their mother during her pregnancy (Moon, Cooper, and Fifer 1993).
Adults typically modify their speech when communicating with young infants. Research suggests that infant-directed speech (also referred to as “parentese” or “motherese”) has qualities, notably its pitch or tone and sing-song-like rhythm, that distinguish it from adult-directed speech (Cooper and others 1997). Preverbal infants communicate through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and sounds. Understanding language precedes speaking it (Bloom and others 1996). In addition, before being able to use language effectively, infants acquire some understanding of the social processes involved in communication. They learn about the social aspects of communication through engaging in turn-taking behavior in proto-conversations with their parents or infant care teachers. In proto-conversations, the adult usually says something to the preverbal infant, and the infant responds by making eye contact, cooing, smiling, showing lip and tongue movements, or waving arms. These “conversation-like” conversations go back and forth between the adult and the infant for several turns.
There is broad variability in language development in its pattern and pace (Bloom and Capatides 1987). However, the process of early language development is fundamentally the same across cultures and languages. In describing early language development, Kuhl (2002, 115) states: “One of the puzzles in language development is to explain the orderly transition that all infants go through during development. Infants the world over achieve certain milestones in linguistic development at roughly the same time, regardless of the language they are exposed to.”
Perceptual processes play an important role in language development. As Gogate, Walker-Andrews, and Bahrick (2001, 13) note: “A diverse set of experimental findings suggests that early lexical comprehension owes much to infants’ developing ability to perceive intersensory relations in auditory-visual events,” [for example, speech]. Experience also affects language development from very early in life. One of the ways experience influences language development is through its impact on perception early in infancy. Prior to infants’ first spoken words, or word comprehension, they have already “come to recognize the perceptual properties of their native language” (Kuhl 2002, 119). Infants are learning about the prosodic or sound characteristics of their native language: by nine months of age, English-speaking infants demonstrate a preference for the sound stress pattern characteristic of words in the English language (Jusczyk, Cutler, and Redanz 1993). Kuhl (2002, 112) concludes: “At age one—prior to the time infants begin to master higher levels of language, such as sound-meaning correspondences, contrastive phonology, and grammatical rules—infants’ perceptual and perceptual-motor systems have been altered by linguistic experience. Phonetic perception has changed dramatically to conform to the native-language pattern, and language-specific speech production has emerged.”
Infants excel at detecting patterns in spoken language (Kuhl 2000). The literature indicates that infants’ speech perception abilities are strong. Not only do infants understand more vocabulary than they are able to produce, but they also demonstrate awareness of the properties of the language or languages they are exposed to before they acquire words (Ingram 1999). During the first six months of life, infants are better than adults at perceiving various types of contrasts in speech (Plunkett and Schafer 1999). Infants improve in their ability to discriminate the sounds characteristic of their native language while losing their abilities to discriminate some sounds characteristic of languages other than their native language (Cheour and others 1998). According to Kuhl (2004), the way in which the infant’s brain processes repeated experiences with speech explains language acquisition in a social and biological context. According to this view, from early infancy young children use a mental filter to orient, with greater efficiency and accuracy, to the speech sounds characteristic of their native language. This strategy enables infants to identify the phonemic units most useful to them in their native language and serves as a building block to later word acquisition (Kuhl 2004).
Infants use their expressive language skills to make sounds or use gestures or speech to begin to communicate. Even preverbal infants use vocalizing or babbling to express themselves. They also imitate the sounds and rhythm of adult speech. As they develop, infants generate increasingly understandable sounds or verbal communication. They demonstrate their expressive language abilities by asking questions and responding to them and repeating of sounds or rhymes. Children typically acquire their first 50 words between the ages of one and two (Ingram 1999). Kuczaj (1999, 145) notes: “The 24-month-old child with a productive vocabulary between 50 and 600 words will easily quadruple or quintuple her vocabulary in the next year, and then add between 3000 and 4000 words per year to her productive vocabulary until she graduates from high school.”
Infants’ use of nonverbal gestures as a form of communication appears to be a typical feature of early language development, although there is considerable variability among children (Acredolo and Goodwyn 1988). The use of communicative gestures appears to generally precede the child’s first words (Carpenter, Nagell, and Tomasello 1998). Commenting on the infant’s motivation to use gestures, Acredolo and Goodwyn (1997, 30) state that the human infant has a special capacity to communicate with gestures. Acredolo and Goodwyn (1997) go on to say that typically developing infants seem so intent on communicating once they realize there is somebody out there “listening” that they find creative ways to do so before they have mastered words.
Sensitivity to the timing of conversational exchanges has been demonstrated through research on back-and-forth communication involving young infants (Rochat, Querido, and Striano 1999). Infants use speech, gestures, and facial expressions as well as direct their attention to communicate to others. As they grow, they increasingly understand the rules or conventions of social communication. Infants also gain an expanded vocabulary that helps them express themselves through words. As they develop, infants benefit from communicating with both peers and adults, very different conversational partners. According to Pan and Snow (1999, 231), “Interaction with peers, who are less competent and usually less cooperative partners than adults, requires use of more sophisticated conversational skills, such as knowing how and when to interrupt, how to remedy overlaps and interruptions by others, and how to make topic-relevant moves.” One type of environment that typically offers abundant opportunities for communication with both adult and child conversational partners is high-quality child care settings.
Infants show an interest in print at first through physically exploring, such as putting books in their mouths, handling books, or focusing on print in the environment around them. Turning the pages of books, looking at books or pictures, asking for a favorite book or telling a favorite story with an adult are other indicators of interest in print. As infants grow older, making intentional marks on paper with a crayon or marker, pretending to read and write, repeating stories, repeating rhymes, recognizing images in books, noticing common symbols and words, and enjoying books are all related to interest in print. Interest in print can be considered one aspect of emergent literacy, the idea that literacy develops from early childhood rather than something that becomes relevant only upon school entry (Whitehurst and Lonigan 1998). Because early experiences with print contribute to later literacy, shared book reading is recommended as a valuable way to promote emergent literacy (Whitehurst and Lonigan 1998).
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