The debate among linguists around the world is still in effect today: is language development caused by the genetic make-up of the human being or environmental factors that promote language acquisition?

Supporters on both ends of the spectrum will give meaningful objectives to why their theory holds more volume, however the dilemma on what came first the chicken or the egg is important science to navigate because its pathways will lead to important research-based knowledge that will help early childhood professionals understand the development of language in children ages birth through two.

The allocated document will access language from its roots to the science that it has become today. The research will first examine language from the biological standpoint, showing the formations that occur before birth to promote language acquisition in children.

The environmentalist viewpoint will address new data gathered that is crucial in promoting language, the reasoning for children lacking language abilities and how can the surrounding microsystem have a vital effect on language. Further language will be viewed through the works of four major child development theorists: Piaget, Vygotsky, Chomsky, and Whorf.

The Biological View

“The vocal tract of the neonate resembles those of nonhuman primates more closely than that of an adult human” (Owens, 1996, p.76). The child who is comprised of genes that have 46 chromosomes, 23 from the mother and 23 from the father, acquires language skills associated with what is received by him/her as the offspring. The genetic evolution from the scientific beliefs has arisen from our ancestors, who were ape-like creatures.

These animals over-time began to walk up-right due to the adaptation and evolutionary trends and thus attained neurons in the brain that formed synapses that promote development. Our ancestor’s biological make-up placed through natural selection of survival of the fittest achieved the succession of vocal cord transformation that now accounts for language which is heard and spoken today.

However, the major focus on overall development is the size of the brain, which was identified as gaining mass throughout the documented research of mankind. “The brain is the only primary organ in the body concerned with processing linguistic information…. called neurolinguistics” (Owen, 1996, p.109)

According to the infant study of the brain, humans are born with a specific number of neurons that begin to form synapses or connections between axons and dendrites, which achieve later cognitive development. The child’s brain is so dense by age two through three that it is called super-dense.

However, if children do not use the attachments created among their neurons, they will start to lose these vital connections after the age of three. Language is also highly prudent when it comes to brain lateralization, which is the differentiation between the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain.

“In almost all humans, the left hemisphere is specialized for language in all modalities (oral, visual and written) …” (Owen, 1996, p.114). The continuity of language is further developed by the growth of the laryngeal areas in the throat and the expansion of the voice box. (Raven, 2005) Maturity of the frontal cortex that controls the feelings of humans also enforces language acquisition in the early years of human beings’ life. 

A major analysis of how genetics affect language can be seen upon studying twins. “Twin studies have clearly shown that genetic factors play a substantial role in children’s language development” (Stromswold, 2005, p.2). The study suggested similarity in language acquisition of identical twins versus fraternal twins, discussing how the genetic make-up of identical twins is more similar due to the monozygotic split of the mother’s egg as opposed to two different egg formations of dizygotic twins.

The genetic effects on language can also be seen in the social systems models of culture, where young children are born with the prerequisites of acquiring language rather quickly or perceiving several languages due to genetics gained from their mother, father, or grandparents. 

Language as a genetic contribution can be viewed more specifically with the special needs that are associated with the acquisition factor. Children who are Autistic can be first spotted by not speaking at all or acquiring speech at a much later, slower rate. Down Syndrome which is caused by an extra chromosome also has tremendous effects on language development. “Children with Down syndrome usually experience considerable delay and difficulties with learning to talk” (Buckley, 2011, p.4).  Another chromosomal disorder is called Angelman Syndrome, which can be spotted in children who have movement problems at the age of six months. “In affected children, language comprehension and non-verbal skills are usually more developed than spoken language and the affected child may have few if any words” (First Signs Inc, 2010).

These conditions are passed down from generation to generation and can be identified and monitored through early interventions, proving that language skills are genetically predetermined.

The Environmental View

The environmental sides of language can be assessed in a broader swipe due to the tangible effects that environment has on language. Humans will lose or gain neurons and receptors in the brain due to the sounds that they might hear and or not hear even before they are born.

Thus language first appears due to some sort of environmental factor.  Children began to examine the world through their senses, one of which is hearing; therefore again language acquisition is a factor of external factors. “Increased input, lowered anxiety, strong interactive motivation and positive environments can help processes of language acquisition process” (McCain, 2002, p.3).

The external factors can be the voices they hear from humans, animals, interactive toys and other technological sources. Coming into a world which brims with sound stimulus, children begin to get used to the sounds they are bombarded with from the moment they are born.

“In 1957, B. F Skinner published a book entitled Verbal Behavior in which he argued that children learn to speak appropriately because they are reinforced for grammatically correct speech; he believed that adults begin to shape a child’s speech by selectively reinforcing the aspect of babbling that most resemble words, thereby increasing the probability that these sounds will be repeated” (Shaffer, 2010, p.390).

Therefore, language is gained through reinforcement from the parents, externally and environmental processes of selecting repeated words/sounds by children. The environment can cause for children to either receive speech reception and/or not. Examples can be seen through real-life studies when children were lost and/or were abandoned in the woods and upon being found later on in their life could not perceive language at all.  

… during the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II gave a group of infants to some nuns. He told them to take care of the children but never to speak to them. He believed the babies would eventually reveal the true language of God. Instead, they died from the lack of interaction.

(DeGregory, 2008)

Studies of feral children have been documented throughout history. Books such as Jungle Book and Tarzan fictionalize such studies of children who grow up in the wild. However, the factor remains, children who do not have language in their environment will not develop language, especially if language is not gained from age birth through two.

The study of how language is acquired by the environmental reinforcements can be traced to the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, who used his study of dogs salivating with the sound of a bell.

Pavlov’s studies suggested that every time a bell sound occurred, the dogs would get fed; thus, after the sound of the bell, even when no food was present, the dogs would salivate anticipating the food. These studies may trace the acquisition of language in a conditioned response formula.

A child begins to communicate via crying. The child notices that every time he/she cries, the caregiver approaches him/her and attends to their immediate needs; thus the child learns that his/her needs may be met by using vocalization techniques to get attention.

This process of learning language is called “classical conditioning, a type of learning in which an organism comes to associate stimuli; a neutral stimulus that signals an unconditioned stimulus begins to produce a response that anticipates and prepares for the unconditioned stimulus” (Myers, 2004, p.312).

Children first acquire language with the environmental conditioning that begins after birth, defining how they communicate understanding that certain sounds will cause certain actions from the outside world. 

Later speech is gained with the idea of B.F Skinner’s shaping techniques, which is “…an operant conditioning procedure in which reinforces guide behavior toward closer and closer proximations of a desired goal” (Myers, 2004, p.322). The reinforcer in language is the outside micro system in which a child grows. Certain sounds are repeated over and over to gain mastery. For example, after the age one when a child begins to say whole word responses, parents point to an object and repeat the name to reinforce the desired goal of the child repeating the whole word. These operant conditioning techniques of positive and negative reinforcement also reintegrate the fact that language acquisition is highly effected by the environment. 

Finally, Albert Bandura with his studies of the Bobo doll showcased how learning, especially language is gained via “modeling, the process of observing and imitating a specific behavior” (Myers, 2004, p.336). During the Bobo doll experiment, children viewed how an adult kicked the doll around with aggression. The child when left alone in the room, mirrored the actions of the adult and kicked the doll as well, resulting in the formula that children learn what they see and imitate the behavior of adults.  This type of progression can be examined with language as well. For example, a mother points to a red block and says “blue,” the child models and points and also says “blue.” At an early age a child does not know the difference between red and blue, they merely model language based on what they hear from their caregivers, therefore showing factors that language is shaped by the environmental processes. To a young child, who hears and repeats the sounds produced in his and/or her environment, “blue” will mean red and vice versa because they do not know the difference themselves, but simply repeat what they have been taught.

Words can be acquired by a stimulus process suggested by Pavlov, a designed reinforcement technique of B.F Skinner or simple modeling procedures of Bandura. The three theorists studied learning using experimental techniques of various animals and humans. There vital findings are used in structuring how learning occurs even today. Language is modeled in many preschool settings and teachers use sticker charts as reinforcement techniques, thus suggesting that language is a learned process forced and shaped by the environment around it. 

Piaget and Language

Child development is crucial when observing language acquisition. One of the main most prominent cognitive development theorists is Piaget, who suggested that “…through direct experiences with the physical world, children develop intelligence” (Morrison, 2009, p.115). Piaget called this process “active learning” (Morrison, 2009, p.119) and stated that language can be achieved with the use of adaptation or interaction with the environment. “The quality of the environment and the nature of children’s experiences play a major role in the development of their intelligence” (Morrison, 2009, p.115). Children build units of language by assimilation what they already know to new sounds and words. For example, upon seeing a tiger, the child may say “cat” because the child associates how a cat looks to how a tiger looks, therefore building a connection of language between the characteristics of a cat and tiger. With the process of accommodation, the child is building new words. The parent may say to the child who calls the tiger a cat, “no this is a tiger because he is bigger and lives in the zoo” the child processes this new word acquisition building new vocabulary by know understanding that a tiger and cat are different animals based on their size and living arrangements. 

Language development in the eyes of Piaget begins during the “sensorimotor stage, the stage during which children learn through the senses and motor activities” (Morrison, 2009, p.117). Children pick up words by touching and feeling concrete objects. Children associate an object with what they can physically touch, see and smell. “Child language development happens best in a language-rich environment where parents and caregivers talk to children frequently using a wide vocabulary” (Kurtz, 2011) Language is again reinforced as a result of the environment because if a child is provided with a language rich environment, language acquisition will occur at a faster, steadier pace as compared to a child that does not have concrete samples to build on language schemes. The following chart showcases children who attended preschool, which offers language-rich environment and long-term life effects. The graph points out the importance of quality early literacy and childhood education and a focus on literacy through a good linguistic environment, which in this case is a quality preschool setting. A case can be made that in a good language-rich environment there are less children placed in special needs classrooms because early intervention occurs through language learning skills. Students who are placed in preschool and are thus in a proper communication setting are less likely to be held back and are more likely to graduate high school. The results on the graph below dominate the issue of early literacy and education, providing that a proper environment is crucial for all children, especially those who are very young.

( Reynolds AJ, Temple JA, Robertson DL, Mann EA. 2001)

Vygotsky and Language

Lev Vygotsky “…believed that children’s mental, language, and social development is supported by and enhanced through social interaction” (Morssion, p.2009, 121). This view of language acquisition can be associated with the zone of proximal development. Children acquire certain sounds by a certain age. Caregivers can state a word to the child and he or she may understand it but may not be able to say it because they are not ready to pronounce such a sound. However, children will independently pick up and use certain sounds heard from their parents and understand others. Caregivers may guide children to say more difficult sounds or words enabling the future development of such words. “Vygotsky believed that communication or dialogue between teacher and child is very important; it becomes a means of helping children develop new concepts and think their way to higher-level concepts” (Morrison, 2009, p. 123). This support system that can reinforce language is coined by Vygotsky as “scaffolding” which is an important part of learning language from the concrete to a more abstract. Language can be attained in a 1-year-old child by giving a real apple and saying the word apple. In a 2-year-old child a picture of an apple, even though still concrete but not three dimensional is sufficient to master the meaning of what an apple is. Lev Vygotsky produced the view of language development with its association to the society and how intellect can be mastered by reinforcing words to a larger support system of its existence.

Chomsky and Language

Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts believes that language acquisition is a natural process and it will occur in all human beings because it is a form of communication that is innate in our genetic composition. Chomsky was interview by Forbes Magazine in 2005 and was asked if a group of children were placed on an island would they develop their own language? (Forbes, 2005) Chomsky in his answer gave an example of a research study done by the University of Pennsylvania were a group of deaf children were raised in communication free household. Even though these children could not communicate, they created their own form of sign language to initiate meaning for certain words and representations of certain feelings. This belief that language is predetermined genetically can also be seen in various forms of studies done by Chomsky. “This theory is evidenced by children who live in the same linguistic community without a plethora of different experiences who arrive at comparable grammars.” Children can be observed in different cultures, yet in most by age 1 there is a seen development of language and by the age of 2 in most countries, children know up to 50 words. Developmental milestones for language are similar in most cross-cultural studies of language acquisition and the formulation of certain sounds during certain periods in the life of a child can be predetermined as well. 

Whorf and Language

Benjamin Whorf interpreted how language is dependent on the process of thought and proceeds to combine what genetically is predetermined to what environmentally is perceived. “Whorf proposed a linguistic relativism: if language determines thought, Whorf reasoned, then the world must be experienced differently by speakers of different languages” (Owens, 1996, p.132). This belief was later evidenced by Whorf in his study of the Intuit Indian population, who use many different words to interpret snow. Snow with one word; however, the Indian population perceived snow in many faucets due to the nature of its importance on their everyday life. The way that language is received by children in influenced by the surrounding environment where they were raised, thus language is not only a genetic determination but cultural phenomena as well. Children must hear several languages to pick them up before “pruning” (Raven, 2005) or the die off between neuron receptors occurs. However, if neuron receptors are not formed in the first place by the speech patterns overheard than the thought process of development will not continue, as mentioned by Whorf.

Conclusion – Early Literacy

 The organization of language is important when working with children ages birth through two. How the brain functions and reacts to the environment have been studied for centuries, however, the focus on early childhood development is a growing phenomenon of the present time. Why the study of language is so important can be seen in the various factors examined in this document.

Language can be simply genetic and or causation of the environment. Although the genetic lateralization of the brain gives human beings language processes, the prominent reinforcer of language is the environment that imposes certain sounds, certain syntax, and grammatical intonations. Children before they are born hear the world that they cannot see, thus encoding their predisposition of later language. However, children are genetically coded to decipher the meaning of language. 

The debate of linguistics throughout time whether the chicken or the egg came first is still observed today in the various propositions of major developmental theorists. Are children hardwired to perceive language?

The answer would be yes with the discoveries of brain scanning technologies that allow scientists to see neuron-building chemicals in the brain. Are children hardwired for language, yet its development as a result of environmental factors? The answer would be yes as well because language is caused by the surrounding formations that a child experiences upon birth.

However, although researchers have answered many questions today about language development, there are many more that need to be discovered and studied. For example, can language development be traced in the fetus? What kind of language-rich environment is beneficial for children with disabilities? What language techniques can be used to promote early literacy skills in children birth through two? Can children ages birth through two decipher between different languages?

Language is the communication process that allows innovation, prosperity, and ingenuity to occur in our society. Language must be studied and given proper respect, especially in its early formation in children ages birth through two because it is during this time that language plants roots that will blossom into the tree of verbal existence of the future. The debate among linguists around the world is still in effect today: is language development caused by the genetic make-up of the human being or environmental factors that promote language acquisition?

However, it is not the arguments that are crucial but the questions which will lead to important research-based knowledge that will help early childhood professionals understand the development of language in children ages birth through two.


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