How Do We Develop Language?

Language Development Methods

Over the years one main topic has been the focus when explaining language development. We looked at the concept of learning in terms of development of language from early onset between the ages of 3 months all the way to 24 months. Our group focused on three factors influencing language development during these early months: the biological development, the natural learning process (considered innate/instinct learning) and the development of language due to the infants environment. Our main focus was to research the three different proposed methods of language development and compare three to judge if one method is more important than the other two.

Biological Language development

Biological Language Development: Language development in human beings seems to involve a type of learning that has certain limited courses by our biology. Research shows that language learning continues consistently within and across linguistic communities despite the language provided by individuals and children develop many linguistic generalizations that their experience could not have made available.

A study conducted in 1997 by Lila R. Gleitman and Elissa L. Newport shows that one method for studying if a mother’s language effects the babies learning development was to select a group of young children who are at the same age and to collect samples of their parents speech. To study this, the children's speech was sampled again six months later. Analyzing the children's speech at these two times (ages 15 months, then 21 months), one can compare scores for each child on how long the sentences were and the structure, the vocabulary, etc. The outcome of these studies was that, although the mother’s influence of language development helps, the children’s learning did not have a high impact from the mothers acquisition. Each child seemed to develop according to a maturational schedule that was indifferent to the mother’s speech.( Gietman and Newport, 1997).

One research study by Dr. Kopko looked at new born infants who were studied at the time of learning language and shows that babies are born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language. Research completed by Kopko suggests that sound patterns of language are a product of an inborn biological instinct. This means language exists naturally or by heredity rather than by learned experience. Young infants have not learned any words yet they still share a sense of how words should sound with adults. The researchers involved in Dr. Kopko's study believe that this finding shows that we are born with a basic foundation of knowledge in regards to the sound pattern of human languages.

Instinct/Innate Language Development

Studies have been done that agrees with Daniel Everrett statement about instinctual language development being an outdated idea (Everrett, 2014). Children learning language can only go as far as their environment allows them, and vice versa. The following studies are edvidence that it should should be retired.

In a research study by Dr, Shiver, critical periods in brain development accommodated the development of specific skills such as language. During certain times in the child's life, the brain is active in forming connections for specific abilities. While critical periods are important for the development of specific neural synapses, skills can still be learned after the optimal window of opportunity has closed, but with greater time and more effort.

It is during these critical periods that lack of stimulation, or negative experiences, can have the most impact. We know that infants start out able to understand the sound of all languages, but by six months old they are no longer able to recognize sounds that are not uttered in their own language. As infants hear the patterns of sound in their own language, a different cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain responds to each sound.

By six months, infants will have difficulty picking out sounds they have not heard repeated often. Windows of opportunity for language development occur throughout the entirety of life. The optimal window for learning syntax or grammar is begins during a child's preschool years and may close as early as five or six years of age while the window for adding new words never closes completely. This means that experience and learning is crucial during this time in a child's life in order for them to learn grammatical structure and meanings of words.

Research from Chompsky's framework states that children have an innate plan to learn universal grammer that instructs them how to learn the syntactic patterns of speech from their parents. The research suggests that you do not need a specific set of rules to learn universal grammer. According to this research, the brain has a mental dictionary of lexical words and an inherited set of rules to attach words to meanings.

In a research study conducted by Dr. Marianella Casasola, she found that infants are learning their language right before they speak it and what she focused on to find these results were three questions that helped her answer what the interaction between cognition and language is. The questions were how do babies learn, how do babies develop language, and how do the two areas intersect? She examined how language and interaction occur in every day circumstances to understand how babies learn words and learning what they actually aready know. The focus was on the complexity on how words that babies know in the first 2 years of their life help them learn the language before they are speaking it.

A strategy that she used in one study was labeling theory. Researchers showed 4 videos of different objects with audio for the first two groups of infants and then the last group, they showed them in silence which showed that infants who did hear the words being said looked longer at the objects which means that they recognize these words before they can say them and the infants who did not hear the words, did not look. Doing this shows that having infants see and hear these words helps them get familiar with them before they can actually speak.(Kimberly Kopko, Cornell University).

Environmentally influenced Language Development

A research study at the University of Chicago revealed that syntax, or sentence structure, is learned rather than innate. Researchers found that speaking to young children in complete and complex sentences, rather than using “baby talk,” helps them to develop the ability to understand and use complex sentence structures. Parental vocabulary is one of the most important factors of language development.

Children learn to speak by mimicking what they hear their parents say. If their parents do not speak in full, coherent sentences around their children, then the child will believe that is the correct way to speak and in turn will speak in incohrent sentences. Before they even go to school, children learn how to talk in the home.

Standford University did a study that compared the development of two different socioeconominic groups, on two different ends of the spectrum, rich and poor. They discovered that children in low SES are as far as six months behind developmentally.(Carey, 2013). Children in rich SES have access to better education, as did their parents, so they are ahead of the curve. Children in poor SES do not have the same access and neither did their parents, which leaves them behind from birth.


There is no arguing that the three method of developing language, biological innate and environmental, are all factors of learning language. Although all three aspects play an important role in acquiring language most studies point to innate factors as being the most influential method of language development. One single method can not explain a child entire act of acquiring language but looking at Chomsky's and other researchers studies innate or instinctual learning appears to be the most influential part of the development of language.

Sources for Further Information

Everrett, D. (n.d.). 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT? Retrieved December 6, 2015, from

Griffiths, S. (2014, April 9). Language is a 'biological instinct': Babies don't learn to develop speech - they're BORN with the ability. Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Wood, L. (2015, February 18). The Effects of Environment on Early Language Development. Retrieved October 13, 2015.

Evans, V. (n.d.). Is Language an Instinct? Retrieved October 13, 2015.

There is no language instinct – Vyvyan Evans – Aeon. (2014, December 4). Retrieved October 13, 2015.

LANGUAGE INSTINCT? PINKER. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015.

Shiver, E. (n.d.). Brain Development and Mastery of Language in the Early Childhood Years. Retrieved October 26, 2015.

Kopko, K. (n.d.). Research Sheds Light on How Babies Learn and Develop Language. Retrieved November 10, 2015.

Carey, Bjorn (2015, September 25.). Language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy, Stanford psychologists find Retrieved November 10, 2015

Gleitman, L., & Newport, E. (1995). The invention of language by children: Environmental and biological influences on the acquisition of language. In Gleitman, L., & Liberman, M.(Eds.), Language: An invitation to cognitive science (2nd edition). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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* Universal Grammar, Benjamin K. Bergen