Language Development: Meaning, Trends, Definition, Factors and Educational Implications…


Language Development: Meaning, Trends, Definition, Factors and Educational Implications…

Everybody uses language to communicate. It might be to communicate a thought; to give directives or command or to make a request or complaint. Language is so important in our lives; it differentiates humans from non-humans.

Human beings are said to be social animals primarily because they are able to communicate in diverse ways. We trace how language develops from childhood to adolescence. We discuss the major factors that influence language development. We also examine the educational importance of language.


Meaning of Language

Language is a form of communication. It is a systematic, meaningful arrangement of symbols which provides the basis for communication.

Language may be spoken, written, or signed.

All human languages are generative. This means that there is no end to the ways in which new meaningful or novel sentences can be generated using a finite number of words and rules. It is for this reason that human languages are said to be very creative.

Language serves a number of purposes. It enables the child to express their thoughts and understanding of the world. It enables the child reflect on people, objects, and events. That is, language is involved in thinking, memory, reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Through language, a child can convey their thought to others.

Language has three main characteristics. These are phonology, morphemes and semantics.

Phonology: refers to basic sounds of the language. The basic sounds are called phonemes. The phonemes of a language are combined to produce words and sentences.

Morphemes: refer to the smallest language units that have meaning. Words are examples.

Semantics: refer to the rules that govern the meaning of words and sentences. The arrangement of words in a meaningful sentence follows a certain order.

Children must master these language characteristics as they achieve linguistic competence. We note, however, that children do not necessarily master these characteristics of the language in the sense that they have the knowledge as a cognitive object. They do not know that they know these characteristics. They master these characteristics only as a cognitive vehicle; an instrument for manipulating language for effective communication.

There are two aspects to language development. They are linguistic comprehension, and linguistic production. Linguistic comprehension refers to the process of understanding speech. The process of using language to communicate is known as linguistic production.

Comprehension of speech appears before speech production. Children begin to understand instructions and directions long before they utter their own words. During infancy, comprehension proceeds more rapidly than speech production.


Trends in Language Development

Language development follows, more or less, a predictable trend or sequence of increasingly more complex levels of comprehension and production of speech. Thus, the following stages of language development are identifiable:

(1) The Pre-linguistic Stage

The earliest sounds infants produce are non-speech utterances like whimpers, cries, grunts, burps, gestures, imitations. Children use them to communicate discomfort, satiation, or positive emotions. They are termed pre-linguistic communication. Thus, children communicate linguistically through crying, cooing, gurgling and babbling long before they say their first word.

Babbling is a speech-like but meaningless sound. It involves repetition of vowel sounds, example ee-ee, aa-aa, oo-oo. These sounds may appear meaningless. However, they are the most obvious manifestation of pre-linguistic communication. They play an important role in linguistic development.

(2) The One-word Stage

The child’s first words are generally spoken between 12 months and 18 months. A child is said to utter their first word when they give a clear, consistent name to a person, event, or object. For example, mama is to first word if the child uses it consistently to label the same person in a variety of circumstances.

One-word utterances are called halophrases. They are one-word but they express complex intentions and meanings. Usually, the one-word is a label for a person, an object, or acts. For the child, the one-word stands for naming the person, or object; for describing an action; to serve as an imperative, or a request; or even to express an emotional state. The actual meaning of a child’s one-word depends on the context of use. For example, the word mama may mean any of these:

Mama is back; Mama is going out; Mama beat Johnny; Mama See, Johnny is crying. The word ball may also mean any of these: See, I have a new ball; My ball has rolled into the mind; Johnny has taken my ball; Let us play ball.

The one-word stage ends around 18 months of age. Once children begin to produce words, vocabulary expands methodically. The one-word stage is followed by a sudden spurt in vocabulary expansion.

(3) The Two-word Stage

The build up of vocabulary towards the end of the one-word stage brings about linking or combining of words. Children usually form their first sentences by linking two words. The two-word sentence conveys a single thought. Two-word utterances are referred to as telegraphic speech. They are telegraphic because they are coded like telegrams.

They contain only keywords – no articles, and no prepositions. However, they convey a meaningful thought. Examples are: Mama come; Mama eat; Mama water; See Dadi.

We note that two-word utterances follow the rules that govern grammatical construction. The subject, verb, and predicate in the two word phrase follow the correct order of arrangement in complete sentences.

(4) Complete Sentence Stage

By the time most children reach 48 months, they have acquired the rules of grammar. They are able to make complete and correct sentences.

They generate their own sentences; and not merely repeat or imitate other persons’ sentence. Language development reaches its peak at adolescence. Adolescents are able to manipulate language for all kinds of abstract thinking, inferences and judgements.

It is important to note that children vary enormously in their rate of language development. Therefore, chronological age may not be a good index of a child’s linguistic level. Psychologists use Mean Length of Utterances (MLU) in a morpheme that is the average length of morphemes in utterances, to assess the index of language level of  children. Ordinarily, an infant should exhibit some of these abilities as an indication that language development is progressing normally:

· Understanding of at least some things the child hears. This indicates that the child has some receptive language, and that the child can hear.

· Production of some sounds around six or seven months of age. Children who are deaf cease production of pre-linguistic speech around this age.

· Using gestures such as: pointing, and babbling. These are forerunners of language.


Factors that Influence Language Development

Language development does not just occur. It is influenced by some factors. We discuss here some of the major factors that influence language development:


Somebody’s structures and organs facilitate speech production. The vocal cords, the lips, and the brain centre that controls speech must be sufficiently maturationally ready before the child can engage in speech production. The rate of maturation of these organs and tissues are genetically wired. When there is delay in the development of these organs and structures, speech production might be retarded. In this sense, maturation delimits language development.

Also, Chomsky (1978) argues that there is a genetically determined, innate mechanism that directs the development of language. According to Chomsky, the human infant is born with an innate capacity to use language. The human brain is wired with a neural system called the language-acquisition device (LAD). This device permits the child to automatically understand the language structure, and provides them with a set of strategies and techniques for learning language. The language acquisition device unfolds with increasing maturation. This explains why children at specific ages show amazing facility to understand and learn different languages without formal instruction.

Language Background or Language Model

Early exposure to language, in terms of quantity variety, and structure or language code plays a significant role in language development in the child. Different families use different language codes. The two major language codes are: the elaborated, and the restricted. The elaborated language code is more mature and advanced, involving explanations for actions, directives, instructions, prohibitions, and rules. It is a conversational speech in which children are spoken to and with. The elaborated code is richer and encourages more robust language development.

On the other hand, the restricted language code resembles military language. It involves top-down speech. In such a language background, children listen to instructions and carry them out. Language development is thereby hampered. In a nutshell, the available language model influences language development.

Family Income

According to Hart and Risley (1995), the rate at which language was addressed to children varied significantly accordingly to the economic level of the family. Their findings indicated that the greater the affluence of parents, the more they spoke to and with their children.

There was also significant difference in the language code used by the affluent and impoverished families. While children from the affluent families were engaged in conversations with their parents, children from impoverished families heard more of prohibitions – do’s and don’ts or imperatives. The quality time spent with children also varied. Children of the affluent parents had more quality time with their parents. In essence, the family psychodynamics favoured language development of children from the affluent families but hampered it among children from impoverished families.


Bilingualism is the use of more than one language. Most Nigerian children are exposed to more than one language. The language that is spoken in most homes is vernacular, the language of the immediate community, or the ethnic language. The language spoken in the school is English – the medium of instruction. This can pose a great challenge both to the teachers and the children themselves.

Bilingualism poses a challenge to the teacher and the children in situations where most of the children are not fluent in the language of instruction. If the children have not yet mastered the structure of the language of instruction, communication is hampered. For example, the child who speaks English haltingly is forced to think in vernacular, and then to transliterate and communicate in English. The result is slow progress in the mastery of the language.


However, if children are allowed to gain mastery of the first language before they are exposed to the second, they gain from the experience.

There is increasing evidence that there are some cognitive advantages for bilingual children. According to Romaine (1994), children who speak two language show greater cognitive flexibility than their one language peers. They have a wider range of linguistic possibilities to chose from as they assess any situation. For this reason, they are able to solve problems with greater creativity and versatility than their one language peers. Also, according to Genesse (1994), bilingual children often have greater meta-linguistic awareness. They, therefore, understand the rules of language more explicitly.

Thus, whether bilingualism facilitates or hampers language development will depend on the timing of the exposure. Children who are exposed to a second language after mastery of the first are likely to have their language development facilitated. However, haphazard exposure of children to different languages will most likely slow down language development.

School Experience

The school language environment will also play a significant role in language development. A school with adequate library resources for language teaching, and a school with good language model will foster language development. Conversely, a school with impoverished language environment will not encourage fast rate of language development. In a second language situation, teachers are strong models for language development. If teachers are inefficient in their use of language, there will be a ripple effect on the children’s language development.


Educational Implications

The educational implications for language development are as follows:

· Language is the means by which the child expresses complex information about their thought and understanding of the world. A child with good language facility is able to communicate more effectively than the child with poor language facility. Effective communication results in more fruitful social intercourse.

Fruitful interpersonal experience helps in confidence-building. Self-confidence is related to self-esteem. Self-esteem is related to self-efficacy beliefs. Indeed, adequate language facility should help the child develop appropriate sense of values, and a healthy attitude towards people and life. These are important cognitive variables that are related to school adjustment and academic achievement.

· Language is involved in thinking, memory reasoning, planning, and problem-solving. Therefore, adequate facility in language usage will also engender faster development of these cognitive abilities. These cognitive abilities are positively related to school achievement.

· Since children understand language before they speak the language, teachers are reminded that concrete experiences enhance children’s interaction with their environment. Adequate experiences provided early in the child’s life stimulate schema elaboration. The child’s understanding of things and events in their immediate environment will facilitate language development.

· The language model in the child’s immediate environment influences language development. The school authorities are advised to provide rich language environment to foster language development of school children.

· It is important that early childhood education providers implement the National Policy on Education provision that the language of instruction should be the vernacular, and that the second language should be taught as a subject. This will ensure that children master the first language before being exposed to the second language. In this way, children will reap the benefit of bilingualism.


Language capacity distinguishes human beings from all other animals. When the child utters their first word, a new world opens. With language, the child is able to communicate thought, request, command, intentions, emotions, and all manner of complicated processes involved in social intercourse.

Human beings acquire language by reason of living in a language environment and community. The language model in their environment significantly influences the child’s own language. Your duty, as a caregiver, is to provide a rich language environment to enable the children under your care to gain effective use of language to communicate efficiently.

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