Language Development Theories

In short: Language development theories explain how we learn languages, including grammar rules, words, and expressions.

When we talk about language development, what we mean by it is the process by which children come to understand and communicate language during infancy and through their early childhood.

The word or term language itself has many definitions. One of them refers to a communication system that involves making use of words and systematic rules to organize those words to transmit information from one individual to another.

People often ask where words come from or how they come to be. However, there’s no simple or easy way to explain it. As long as parents and teachers help children to talk, it should be understood that there is no clear theory that explains how children learn a language. Right from the time children are given birth to, up to the age of five, they develop language at a very fast pace.  Although the stage of language development is universal among humans, the pace and age at which children reach each milestone differ greatly amongst them. Therefore, language development in an individual child should be compared with norms rather than with another individual child.

Background about Theories

The very first theory about language development assumed that children acquired language by imitating their parents or those around them. Although research has shown that children who are capable of imitating the actions of those around them to learn to talk more quickly; it has also shown that that is no evidence to prove that imitation alone helps children to become talkers.

Theories of Language Development

There are several language development theories that have been propagated by several proponents. In this section, we will be examining some of the main theories. They include:

  • Behavioural Theory
  • Nativist Linguistic Theories
  • Social Interactionist Theory, and
  • Cognitive Theory

language development theories Behavioural Theory

According to the Behaviourist theory, language is something that can be observed and measured. Language is uttered as a result of a response to stimuli and the need to use language is stimulated. The behaviourist believes speaking is what makes language real and competence in the rules of language is not as important as the ability to speak it. The structure of language doesn’t make it a language; therefore the function of speaking a language is what makes a language a language.

When children speak the language of their parents, they become more skilful and are rewarded. A child, for instance, grows in his ability to respond in a way that responds to the environmental stimuli given by his parents. It is this that shapes the language of the child, more than the knowledge of rules.

Although it can be argued that a language-rich environment helps children achieve success in communication, this notion is yet to be proved with experiments outside the lab.

Many people have criticized the behaviourist approach for not taking into account the varied and several influences on a child’s language learning.

language development theories Nativity Linguistic Theories

Noam Chomsky is the father of most nativist theories of language. In a world that largely considered the development of language by children to be by imitation, he brought greater attention to the innate capacity of children for learning the language.

The belief held by the Nativist is that children learn through their natural ability to organize the laws of language, but cannot fully utilize this talent without the aid of other humans. According to Chomsky, children are born with a hard-wired Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in their brains. As a result of this LAD, children can set the parameters and reduce the grammatical principles when exposed to a language.

The Nativist theory is very controversial. An argument against this view is that without a propensity for language, children will not be able to learn such complete speech patterns in a natural human environment where complete sentences are the exception. Researchers have also recently discovered that parents don’t react the same way to children’s grammatically incorrect and correct utterances. This shapes the behaviour of the child and therefore challenges the notion that language is innate.

language development theories Social Interactionist Theory

According to this theory, Language is not an innate ability, rather it develops in your interaction with your environment. Therefore, Vocabulary is bound by context or the culture in which speech is understandable and necessary.

One of the things that are makes this approach popular is the importance that it places on the home and the cultural environment in the formative language acquisition of a child.

Language acquisition according to this approach is based on culture and environment. Hence, it is not universal in scope. The theory that language is also context- and time-bound means the theory is not universal in scope. From one angle, the implies that language seems to be provincial as well as utilitarian. This is because it develops in the environment where it is most needed and most likely to be understood. From another angle, it keeps the level of basic understanding solely on the level of the initial environment. A change of environment, at least on the surface, seems to be a problem.

A primary view of interactionism is the idea that utterances make sense if the teacher is aware of the context. Thus, thoughts do not make objects, rather, it reflects them and the context in which they are found.  The difference between the interactionist view and the innate view is that one stresses the relation between the learner and his culture while the other, between learner and arbitrary utterances of experienced speakers. Therefore, the primary concern under this theory is compressibility rather than grammar.

language development theories Cognitive Theory of Language

Jean Piaget proposed the Cognitive theory of Language development. According to him, language is made of structures and symbols, but it manifests itself as a child’s mental abilities mature. Also, language is just one of several human mental activities.

This theory has been enormously influential, especially in educational theory. Piaget believes maturity plays a fundamental role in increasing children’s capability of understanding their world; they are unable to undertake some tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so.

Furthermore, he stresses that children’s thinking does not develop smoothly; rather there are certain points at which it “takes off” and moves into entirely new areas or capabilities. According to him, these transitions take place in a child at about 18 months, 7 years and 11 or 12 years. This is believed to mean that no matter how bright a child is, before the mentioned ages above, he or she is not capable of comprehending things in a certain way. This theory has been influential in its use of scheduling the school curriculum.


The development of language is both a complex and unique quality that no theory has yet been able to completely explain. Nevertheless, new theories will be developed from what has already been explored.

Theories of language development

nativity linguistic theoriesRelated articles:

Development Of The English Language

Origin Of English Words