Concepts of Language and Cognitive Development

04 Apr 2018

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1. Introduction

Language is a symbolic system in which a limited number of signals can be combined according to rules that can provide an infinite number of messages. An important milestone in human development is mastering some type of language. (Sigelman, Rider & De George-Walker, 2013). Language is the primary method that adults pass on culturally valued models of thinking and problem solving to their children (Vygotsky, 1962). Basic language skills develop through the influence of parents, other adults, peers and even the media.

2. Language Development

The nature vs. nurture debate continues into language development. One school of thought is that the environment contributes to learning. Children learn the words that they hear spoken by others-even when the words are not directly spoken to them (Floor & Akhtar, 2006). The other school of thought by nativists who minimise the role of language environment and focus instead on the role of the child’s biologically programmed capacities to acquire language. Chomsky (2000) proposed that humans have a unique genetic capacity to learn language and are equipped with knowledge of a universal grammar, a system of common rules that enable any language to be learnt. Interactionists believe that both learning theorists (nurture) and nativists (nature) have merit. Children’s biologically based competencies and the language environment interact to shape the course of language development (Bloom, 1998)

3. Interaction between language and cognitive development

Piaget proposed four major periods of cognitive development: the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operations stage and formal operations stage. The core message is that humans of different ages think in different ways. (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958).

During Piaget’s sensorimotor stage, birth to two years, infants use their senses and motor actions to explore and understand the world. According to Gervain & Mehler (2010) newborns immediately have a preference for speech over non-speech in their native language. By 7 months, infants demonstrate word segmentation. From birth infants produce a wide array of sounds that will eventually develop into language (Waxman & Lidz, 2006), with cooing being the first vocalisation milestone at 6-8weeks. Babbling starts to occur at 4-6 months which Piaget labels as primary circular reaction. (Lee, Davis & MacNeilage, 2010). As infants attempt to master the semantics of language, they begin to understand many words before the can say them and begin to say their first real words or holophrases at around 1 year. Many children have a vocabulary spurt at around 18months of age and the pace of word learning quickens dramatically. (Bloom, 1998). Secondary circular reactions begin to occur, following with tertiary circular reactions becoming intentional from the start. Piaget proposed that the child’s construction of reality takes place through the use of schemes and by the end of the sensorimotor stage they are capable of using symbolic thought using images and words. (Piaget, 2002) Vygotsky (1962) maintained that cognitive development is shaped by the sociocultural context in which it occurs. It develops from children’s interactions with members of their culture. Problem solving is passed on from generation to generation through oral communication, especially as it is embodied in language, shapes thought. (Sigelman, Rider, De George-Walker, 2013).

In Piaget’s preoperational stage, 2 to 7 years, young children use their symbolic thought to develop language, engage in pretend play and solve problems. They use words to talk about a problem and use categorisations which become the basis for language with each noun or verb representing a category. (Waxman, 2003). The next step in language development is telegraphic speech where toddlers begin to use a combination of two or three word sentences to express basic ideas. Between ages of 2-5 years children start to use sentences that are much longer and more grammatically complex. (Hoff, 2009). Children learn to phrase questions to solve problems and propel their cognitive growth.

Throughout childhood and adolescence, advances in cognitive development are accompanied by advances in language and communication skills. Adults also refine the pragmatic use of language, adjusting it to different social and professional contexts. (Obler, 2005)

4. Multilingual Development

According to Schwartz, Share, Leikin & Kominski (2008), being bilingual or multilingual has benefits, as children have greater awareness of the underlying structure of language. Bilingual children are better understanding that words are symbols for objects and are better at applying grammatical rules. Bhargava & Mendiratta (2007) purport that their study indicates that Indian children who are multilingual by mid-childhood are able to effectively use different languages in different contexts and participate well in the global economy. Swanson, Saez & Gerber (2004) also states that children who speak more than one language score higher on cognitive ability and flexibility, and analytical reasoning, indicating that there are benefits of being bilingual.

5. Conclusion

Developing a language competence is one of a human being’s earliest learning challenge. Language lays the foundation for further education and the acquisition of reading, writing and many other skills. Language development requires a child to be at the appropriate biological phases in an environment that is conducive to growth, with at least one conversational partner who is prepared to tailor the speech to the level of the child’s understanding to enhance cognitive development.


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