Essay Questions About Language Development

A variety of factors can influence language development in children. The relationships parents and caregivers have with a child in the early years of his or her life play a significant role. In addition to these influences on a child's language patterns, the school environment also has an impact. One way teachers can foster language development is by creating an environment in which children are allowed to interact socially and engage in conversations with each other. They can avail themselves of a wide array of children's literature that can serve as a language model for children to promote classroom conversations and reading comprehension. A number of strategies can be used to work with students experiencing language and speech difficulties, as well as students who are learning English as a second language.

Keywords Emotional Skills; English as a Second Language (ESL); Gesturing; Language; Language Skills; Literacy Skills; Morphemes; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Oral Language; Phonological; Recast; Semantic; Social Skills; Syntactic; Vocabulary


The ability to acquire and develop language skills is a capacity that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Language enables us to understand our emotions, to exchange ideas, to study the past as well as contemplate the future (Caulfield, 2002).

There are three basic components to language: phonological, semantic, and syntactic. The phonological component refers to the rules for combining sounds. The semantic is comprised of rules for combining the smallest sounds, or morphemes, into words and sentences. The syntactic are the rules that enable children to further combine words into sentences that express meaning. These components are normally developed and used together in social situations (Pullen, 2003).

Language Development in Infants

Innate Abilities

The development of oral language comes to us naturally and, according to Caulfield (2002) it is apparent that we are born to speak. While children do not normally begin to form their first words until they reach 10 or 12 months, studies have shown that humans are designed to speak even before birth. It appears that language recognition begins before a child's birth. By the 6th or 7th month of gestation, the fetus is able to respond to sounds; a mother's voice can be heard and the fetus can detect slight differences in sound patterns (Caulfield, 2002).

Once they are born, children begin to acquire language skills through their interactions with parents and care givers. These very ordinary situations afford children the time to develop and practice their language skills. Further, these interactions enable children to begin making social connections and to make sense of their world. Before they are even able to speak, however, young children usually communicate with gestures in the first 9 to 12 months of life. Initially children begin to point to objects in their environment. Gestures allow children to communicate since they have not begun to form and develop words. As they begin to do so, children combine gestures with words and this further allows them to develop two-word combinations. Essentially, gesturing enables a child to develop words (Iverson, 2005).


Although they do not actually teach their children how to talk, the involvement of adults and the general environment and culture in which a child is raised does affect a child's ability to learn and develop language skills. Further, this development usually occurs in a sequence of events that is common to most children. Therefore, it can be said that language development occurs because of a combination of nature and nurture. By the time a child is born, he or she has already begun to recognize language and is quickly able to listen to the voices of parents and caregivers. This can be seen by the fact that newborns look at faces of caregivers when they speak. Moreover, newborns quickly learn to get attention from their caregivers by crying. Crying, however, is not merely a way for newborns to convey that they need attention, that is, feeding or changing, crying is also the beginning of a child's ability to acquire and develop language (Caulfield, 2002).

While parents may be able to eventually determine what their infants are trying to communicate through crying, it is more important that these initial interactions provide parents and caregivers with an opportunity to assist children with acquiring language skills. This is because children tend to use words and phrases that parents and caregivers use in these situations. However, this does not mean that children merely learn to speak by imitating adults. Further, children normally do not begin to use meaningful words until they reach their 11th or 12th month. As they do acquire basic vocabulary, a child's interactions with caregivers provide an opportunity for practicing word usage.

Not only do children begin to develop language skills by interacting with adults, children also begin to develop an ability to interact socially. This is important because a child's ability to develop language and social skills during this time will manifest itself at school age. Therefore, the early development of language skills can affect a child's academic progress. The environment in which a child is raised is related to his or her ability to develop language skills in a number of ways. For example, an adult's ability to use language will influence a child's language development and speaking skills. Adults who have strong oral communication skills will have a positive impact on a child's ability to develop language skills. Moreover, as children begin to utter words, parents and caregivers can assist a child's development by repeating what the child says. These interactions are also called "recasts" (Dockrell, 2004).

In these instances, not only can an adult reply to a child by copying his or her words, parents and caregivers can also provide more information and word phrases that the child will begin to repeat. By making baby talk, parents enable a child to develop language skills. By repeating what a child says, adults also are telling the child that he or she is being listened to, that their words have meaning, and that what they are saying is important to the parent. The benefit here is that the child will be encouraged to continue using words and interacting with adults. This, in turn, will give them confidence in developing their emotional skills as well as their social skills. If a child is raised in an environment that is more orally stimulating, the ability to develop language skills is enhanced. At the same time, a less stimulating environment can adversely affect language development. In addition, in homes where a foreign language is primarily used, a child's ability to develop English language skills will affect his or her social and emotional development.


In addition to the environment in which a child is raised, there are also other factors that can influence the development of language skills. For example, children can experience difficulties acquiring and developing language skills as a result of physiological or psychological problems. Some children might experience delays in developing language skills, and these at times might be the result of a problem with the child's hearing. Other children may experience speech problems such as stuttering or an inability to articulate words properly. Whatever the causes of such problems, children who experience difficulties with language skills at an early age can also experience other learning difficulties once they reach school age. Differences in the environments in which children are raised, and other issues affecting the development of language skills will ultimately affect a child's capacity to further develop language skills and to acquire literacy, emotional and social skills as they are exposed to other social environments.


A child's ability to develop oral language skills will affect his or her ability to learn upon entering more formal education environments such as a day care, pre-school, kindergarten and primary school. In particular, developing language skills is related to developing other literacy, communication and social skills. This includes the ability to listen, speak, read and write. Teachers are faced with the challenge of teaching children who have been raised in a number of different environments and cultures. Since the language abilities of children vary, teachers are required to not only address the needs of individual children, but also to develop teaching methods that will benefit the class and foster...

This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science. In some places I refer explicitly to requirements of the syllabus or mode of examination.

Note the spelling of acquisition. You should read all of the following sources and make your own learning materials to help you study and revise.

For a clear and accessible overview, read Jean Aitchison's The Language Web (1997; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-57475-7), Chapter 3 (Building the Web). Alternatively listen to the third of her 1996 BBC Reith Lectures, from which this chapter is adapted.

For a comprehensive study by a leading authority read Part VII of David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-42443-7) or (briefer but with more up-to-date information) Chapter 23 of Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (19100; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-59655-6)

A good account of speech development is in Shirley Russell's Grammar, Structure and Style, pp. 129-139 (1993; Oxford University Press, Oxford; ISBN 0-19-831198-2).

Less thorough but possibly helpful sections on language acquisition appear in George Keith's and John Shuttleworth's Living Language (1997; Hodder & Stoughton, London; ISBN 0-340-67343-5) and Angela Goddard's Researching Language (1993; Folens; ISBN 1-85008-024-0 ).

Beginning to study language acquisition

Professor Aitchison argues that "language has a biologically organized schedule" and quotes Eric Lenneberg's theory that language is "maturationally controlled, emerging before it is critically needed".

There are no exact dates, and some children learn more or less quickly than any notional normal child. The speed of learning is influenced both by innate abilities and by environment. Since language is partly learned by imitation, language learning may be accelerated by the example of parents and siblings. Baby talk may promote language development in infants who have yet to learn to speak but the same baby talk might hinder them later.

However, there is a generally accepted sequence for language learning. Professor Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 43) gives a speech timetable from birth to 10 years old. This is very simple but can be learned for exam purposes. Shirley Russell gives a far more expansive schedule for learning language, with lots of examples of real language data.

Do not think in terms of a perfect model of language that children "fail" to achieve - do not describe language data that would be non-standard in a mature speaker as "mistakes". Of course a child might make a mistake by inadvertence (using a non-standard form while knowing the standard) but this is a different matter. Similarly a child's use of a non-standard plural (mouses for mice) or verb tense (catched for caught) is evidence of real knowledge of inflectional morphology, since the child has treated these words as if they followed regular patterns. (That is, the plural form has been inflected with -s to give mouses, and the verb stem, catch has been inflected with -ed to form a past tense.)

Note that performance may be evidence of competence, and repeated performance is evidence of language competence. But the corollary is not true. Any language data you study will be a small sample of a child's performance. And there are many things the child could say but will not say, because the circumstances do not prompt it (like the adult who knows the meanings of the words, but has no reason to refer to igloos or pangolins). We know or can recognize many forms we never write or say!

Writing about language acquisition in advanced level exams

If you are taking an exam, you may have two kinds of question. The kind of question will vary from one exam board or specification to another.

In one, you may be asked to outline some part of language development (e.g. speech development from birth to three years old) or the whole developmental process to maturity of speech. You will be expected to quote authorities and language data which you have learned (or found elsewhere on the question paper).

In the other question, you will be asked to comment on some language data, by using an appropriate theoretical framework. This is the kind of assessment task that will be set on the AQA's Specification B.

In some ways, learning language matches structural models of language as children (usually) learn word elements (morphemes) and words, before developing phrase and clause structures. Understanding morphology and acquiring a lexicon precede (come before) competence in syntax. Because of this, if you answer a question on language acquisition you will need to tackle morphology, lexis, and semantics. You must also explain syntax, especially phrases and clauses; simple, compound, multiple and complex sentences; and functions of the sentence (question, command, statement etc.).

The essay question

Here the examiners may well specify areas of theory for you: if you omit any, you will lose marks accordingly - you must attempt to cover the implied essay plan. You should be able to supply data (examples) of your own, but may use those given for the second option.

Here is an example of an essay question from a 1997 examination paper:

Describe and comment on ways in which children learn the meanings of words

Here is an example of an essay question from 1998

Describe and comment on the development of language functions in the early stages of language acquisition up to the age of nine. In your answer you should comment on the development of the following language functions, giving brief illustrations: describing things, real and imaginary; influencing the behaviour of others; expressing feelings; thinking and problem-solving; taking part in exchanges and conversations.

The language data question

For tasks that use example texts, the examiners will supply you with a body of data, with appropriate information about the age of the speaker(s). You will be asked to comment on the development of some aspect of language use - you must keep to this. Below are some examples of questions based on example data from recent examination papers.

Standard tasks for exams

June 2002 exam | January 2003 exam

The example questions below come from recent examination papers of the AQA for its Specification B English language GCE A2 assessment.

June 2002 exam

Answer either Question 1 or Question 2.

Each question carries 35 marks.

Questions 1 and 2 refer to Texts A, B and C on pages 4, 5 and 6. These are transcripts of a child, Anna, who is 2 years 6 months old, and her mother, who is reading to her before she goes to bed. On all three occasions Anna was sitting on her mother's knee and could see the books.



Describe and comment on the importance of interaction with adult caregivers for young children's acquisition of spoken English. You should refer to data from at least two of the transcripts and to other examples and research you think relevant.



Describe and comment on what these transcripts show about how children learn to be literate. You should refer to data from all three transcripts and to research you think relevant.

Transcript Conventions

Pauses are indicated by brackets with (.) being a pause under a second's duration. Vertical lines indicate where A and her mother speak at the same time.
Sections in inverted commas indicate the text of the book they are reading from.
Words in capital letters are spoken loudly.
Other contextual information is in italics in square brackets.

January 2003 exam

Answer either Question 1 or Question 2.

Each question carries 35 marks.

Questions 1 and 2 refer to Texts A, B and C on pages 4, 5 and 6. These are transcripts of a child, Anna, who is 2 years 6 months old, and her mother, who is reading to her before she goes to bed. On all three occasions Anna was sitting on her mother's knee and could see the books.



Text A is a transcript of Jamie ( 17 months) and his father Phil as they look through a children's alphabet book together. Jamie's mother is playing the violin in another room.

By close reference to Text A, discuss how Jamie is using language, relating your observations to ideas from language study.

Where Jamie's pronunciation is significantly different from the adult form, phonemic symbols have been used in bold, followed by an interpretation of the word in brackets.



Texts B, C and D are extracted frorn a transcript of two children playing together. Keri is 3 years, and 2 months and Anya is 3 years 8 months and they met at playgroup. Anya has come to Keri's home to play for the first time.

With reference to at least two of the texts, describe and comment on the children's interactive language skills.

In your answer you should refer to ideas from language study.

Models of language acquisition

There are various models that explain or describe the process of language acquisition. Simple models will identify an approximate time period, and explain some of the features of language development which are expected to appear in this period. More complex models will organize language development under headings such as language functions, meaning and grammar.

A very simple model, which covers the period from birth to language maturity, is given by Jean Aitchison in The Language Web. Professor Aitchison notes cooing and babbling at 6 weeks, single-word utterances at a year, two-word utterances at 18 months and complex constructions at 5 years.

A different approach to modelling language acquisition is to look at different aspects of language. LINC: Language in the National Curriculum (a UK government project to educate teachers about theoretical aspects of language, in response to the 1988 Kingman Report) organizes early language acquisition under the categories of:

  • Function: what children are trying to do with their language (such as make requests, ask questions, make statements);
  • Meaning: the states, events and relationships the children talk about;
  • Structure: the way in which language is put together - its grammar.

This model may help you to look for the right things, but you should realize that in normal speaking, children will not consciously separate these things. The LINC explanation of meaning is not very clear. In this on-line guide meaning refers to semantics, that is, the relationship between symbol and referent or more simply between words and the things they denote, connote, describe, qualify, enumerate and so on.

The first category, of language functions, can be expanded, as M.A.K. Halliday has done, to produce a list of such functions, something like this:

  • Naming things;
  • Describing things real and imaginary
  • Influencing the behaviour of others
  • Expressing feelings
  • Thinking and problem solving
  • Asking questions
  • Communicating - taking part in language interactions

The LINC model places these functions within five stages of development - thus, at the first stage (according to LINC), children's utterances are made to get someone's attention, to direct attention to an object or event or to get something they want; later, but still within this stage, they make rudimentary statements (Bird gone) or requests.

Theories of language acquisition focus almost exclusively on speech. This is because speech is (usually) prior to reading and writing, while semantic and grammatical knowledge is largely acquired before any reading or writing occurs for most children. Writing will extend the functions for which language is used or give them new powers (having a permanent record or communicating over geographical distance).

Examples of children's spoken data, with commentary

Example 1 | Example 2 | Example 3 | Example 4 | Example 5 | Example 6

These examples have been taken, with some slight emendations from the LINC material.

Example 1

A four-year old talks about what he wants to be when he grows up.

Adult What do you want to be when you grow up?

Child A dowboy.

Adult So you want to be a dowboy, eh?

Child (irritated) No! Not a dowboy, a dowboy!

Comment This extract (from Garton and Pratt, 1989) reminds us that very young children's awareness of phonological sound often outstrips their capacity to form the correct sounds. The child understands the distinction between /k/ and /d/ but cannot pronounce /k/. The child knows more about language than he is able to produce.

Example 2

Kate (2 yrs 6 mths) is sitting on the knee of a family friend.

Adult (pointing to one of Kate's feet) What's that?

Kate A footsie

Adult (pointing to both feet) What are these?

Kate Two footsies - no, two feetsies, I mean.

Comment Here language is being used as a ritual adult/child game rather than for purposes of genuine instruction. In this example there is evidence of the child's awareness of over-regularization of a rule and its self-correction. The rules are complicated by the child's use of the baby talk form footsie. Kate remembers that the irregular (vowel mutated) plural of foot is feet and not foots, but then she inflects the corrected plural with -s to form a double plural: feetsies. The "I mean" draws attention to the change as the self-conscious and deliberate correction of a slip. (From Garton and Pratt, 1989.)

Example 3

Kate (3 yrs 1 mth) is sitting at the table.

Kate Can I have a bit of cheese, please? - "Cheese, please?" - that's a rhyme.

Comment This is a spontaneous example of metalinguistic awareness or reflection upon language. Recent research [according to LINC; no details given] points to children's experience and awareness of rhymes and songs as a powerful source of information about the phonological system of their language and as a support to success in early reading. (From Garton and Pratt, 1989.)

Example 4

Matthew (2 yrs) watches his mum spoon stewed rhubarb from a saucepan into a bowl.

Matthew Dis rubile looks like biscetti.

Comment Matthew is using language to make links and comparisons. He notices that the stringy nature of stewed rhubarb is like spaghetti. Conceptually the words are meaningful and distinct, but he hasn't yet perfected their pronunciation. Rubile is quite like the pronunciation of rhubarb (where the final b is often not distinctly sounded) and biscetti probably derives from the familiarity of biscuit and the difficulty of pronouncing the /sp/ in initial position. In some families, children's early mispronunciations are retained (sometimes embarrassingly) as part of the family code of "intimate speech" - lornwakes for cornflakes, etc.

Example 5

Malpreet (2 yrs 6 mths) is talking to her mother in the kitchen.

Malpreet One day there was a little horse then there was a big horse, then there was a mummy horse. They came to my house. They went out to car, then I started to cry and I said "Sadha nell owna"(transcription of Panjabi - "I want to go, too") and mummy said they are going, then I went safari park.

Comment Malpreet is talking to her mother in the kitchen. Her oral narrative tells the story of horses coming to the house to go to the safari park in her car. She thinks she is being left out, and cries. The narrative has the conventional opening One day, sustains a first-person narrative and past tense, and includes direct speech. Elements of the story are connected, using the adverb then. As a bilingual child, Malpreet switches into Panjabi for the dramatic centre of the story, where she utters her own words as a character in her story.

Example 6

A teacher has asked a group of nursery children (exact ages not given in source)"What is a story?"

Child 1 Something you read.

Child 2 You could say that it's something that you read to children.

Child 3 It's got words in it.

Child 4 And it's got the title of the book.

Child 5 Sometimes it's got a tape with a book tape.

Child 6 Sometimes it starts "Once upon a time"...and sometimes it's got chapters in it.

Child 7 Sometimes at the end it goes..."Happily ever after".

Comment Here are the beginnings of some explicitly stated concepts of story. The children are reflecting upon their shared understandings of an aspect of language. While several offerings explain story in terms of the book as an artifact, the last two begin to identify aspects of story as a written form.

Stages of early language acquisition

Stage 1 | Stage 2 | Stage 3 | Stage 4 | Stage 5

What children are trying to do with their language (e.g., make requests, ask questions, make statements)

The states, events and relationships about which children talk

Meaning here refers to meaning shown in performance. Children may have competence which they have no occasion to demonstrate.

The way in which the language is put together - its grammar

Children's first utterances usually serve three purposes:

  • to get someone's attention
  • to direct attention to an object or event
  • to get something they want

Next, they begin to:

  • make rudimentary statements (Bird gone)
  • make requests

Children begin by naming the thing referred to (the "naming insight")

Soon they move beyond this to relating objects to other things, places and people (Daddy car; There Mummy) as well as to events (Bird gone). They are concerned with articulating the present state of things, describing or relating things and events in their world.

Because of the limited language forms which they can control, children convey information by intonation, by non-verbal means, or by the listener's shared awareness of the situation. (It gone - the listener has seen what it is.)

Many of the remarks at this age are single words, either the names of things, or words such as there, look, want, more, allgone. They are often referred to as operators because here (as opposed to their function in adult speech) they serve to convey the whole of the child's meaning or intention.

Other remarks consist of object name and operator in a two-word combination: Look Mummy, Daddy gone, There dog.

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