Cognitive and Social Processes for Language Development

Discuss the cognitive and social processes that lay the foundations for the early stages of language development.

Early category representations and concepts have been a great interest to developmental psychologists. Developmental psychology looks at the relationship between language and thought. Adults have procured and utilise a significant number of categories for the things in their general surroundings. Every noun that an adult uses platforms for a category of things and effective communication with others relies upon imparted comprehension of what these things are. This essay will examine different theories involved concerning the cognitive underpinnings for the children’s emergent language abilities as well as the social processes that surround and support language development to examine if indeed infants can and do structure categories before they can even talk or comprehend dialect. It will then consider how far these structures have an influence on the first words that children speak examining how much influence of “care giver” talk has in the process. Finally, it will examine the limitations and the methodological challenges experienced by the researchers when interpreting the discoveries of how infant’s minds work before the infant has the ability to speak.

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There are two different theories on how children accomplish the ability of speech. Chomsky (1965)proposed that children are born with innate abilities which enable them to understand concepts such as words, which allow them in turn to form sentences by combining words (Nativism) The other theory is that of Empiricism which was proposed by Bruner (1975). He maintained that children learn language through watching others using words and by experiencing themselves the relationship between words spoken and the context in which they were used. (Oates & Grayson, 2004)

Evidence has shown that infants are building cognitive structures before they are able to speak. Research from Decasper and Spence (1986) showed that babies begin learning about the language around them before they are born and can remember some features of speech. A group of pregnant women were asked to read aloud a poem from a Doctor Seuss story for six weeks prior to the babies due date. A few days after their birth the babies were wired up to a pressure sensing dummy to record how fast the babies were sucking, two groups of babies were monitored. One group was played a recording of the poem that they were familiar with and the other group was played a recording that they had not heard before. It was found that when the one group who were listening to the poem they were familiar with the babies increased their rate of sucking. This demonstrated that the babies could remember the poem that had been read to them whilst still in the womb. (Oates et al, 2004).

It has been demonstrated with evidence from Younger and Gotlieb (1988 p.30) that preverbal infants also form cognitive processes such as perceptual categories. A dot pattern categorisation experiment was used, using 108 infants, split into three different age groups. It was demonstrated that the “novel prototype from the novel category “ was preferred by the majority of the infants in each of the three categories which indicated that they had already formed a category representation, as a consequence of being made familiar with a set of distorted exemplars. (Oates et al, 2004)

Hart (1991) found that the first words a child spoke typically tended to be ones most frequently used by the parents. The effect of language experience does appear to play a future part in how infants speak. This was demonstrated in a cross cultural study. English speaking parents tend to use more nouns than other cultures and it was found that infants of English speaking mothers had a high proportion of object words in their early vocabulary with only a few verbs. However, Gopnik and Choi (1995) found that infants who learned to speak Korean used a high number of verbs in the early words. Tardiff (1996) found that children of Mandarin Chinese origin used as many verbs as nouns when learning to speak. “These configurations echo the facts that Korean and Mandarin speaking mothers tend to use more verbs than English speaking mothers who tend to use more nouns when talking to their infants.” (as cited in Oates et al, p. 89) Christophe and Morton (1998, Reading A) found that even 2 month old babies can discriminate between the English and Japanese Languages.

Using the novelty preference procedure it was shown that infants could form category representations of things that they were familiarised with daily and how these initial categories then developed into concepts. (Quinn and Johnson, 2000) proposed a single process model of categorisation. They proposed that infants started to categorise objects using the perceptual features of an object and proposed that’s categories become more succinct the infants gradually make use of less obvious features with language assisting as an additional input system for information which would reinforces any images that were already established through the other senses such as sight and smell.

Further evidence of this came from Mandler (2000) who dismissed the single process model but theorised that a duel process model was operating. She proposed that early categories were based on initially the perceptual features but then the analysis of these features which include linking them to sound / motion to incorporate more abstract features took place.

It was proposed that certain cues such as gazing or pointing to an object give infants a better understanding of what an adult may be talking about. Baldwin (1995) found that an infant looked at an object longer if an adult pointed to it, and if an adult pointed at and named the object the infant spent a longer time again looking at the object. Furthermore Norgate (1977) highlighted the importance of pointing by establishing that “blind children have a smaller number of words for objects than sighted children.” (as cited in Oates, 2004, p.78)

Harris et al (1995) found in a longitudinal of infants aged ten months, infants seemed to point at things more and understand names more. A study by Harris and Chasin (1995, Reading B) studied both the comprehension and production of the first hundred words spoken by six children aged between 6 and 18 months. It was found that the frequencies of object names, context-bound object words, verbs and personal names were found to vary according to vocabulary size but as the children learnt more object names and verbs, the proportion of personal names decreased and the Children showed individual variation in reaching their first 100 words in terms of rate and content. This particular research could be criticised as only a sample of six children were used in the study which questions the reliability as the sample was so small.

By the time the infant starts to talk, it has been demonstrated that they already have a basic understanding of what each word means and what sorts of categories these words fit into. Category formation is one of the initial cognitive processes of young infants for the first 12 months after birth, and then at around twelve months this increases rapidly – this is known as the “vocabulary spurt”. Dore (1978) and McShane (1979) suggested that children suddenly realise that everything has a name so they actively seek the names of things but this theory was criticised on the basis that children can already understand the names of certain things from a very early age. General cognitive development suggest that the increase in vocabulary is due to the overall advance in various unspecified cognitive skills, however , this theory has also been Criticised as it has already been demonstrated that the increase in word comprehension occurs before a similar increase in word production.

Other studies have examined the Difference between first words spoken by infants Barrett (1986) suggests that early words are context-bound, or that a word only has meaning in one specific context. For example “shoe” used to mean “this shoe”, but not shoes in general. However this was contradicted by later studies, Bates et al (1988) showed that “children use words in a contextually flexible way, e.g. “shoe” being used to indicate the child’s own shoe, someone else’s shoe and a picture of a shoe.” (cited by Oates et al, 2004, p.93)

The limitations involved when analysing data on how the infants mind is working ,what the infant is actually categorising and how much is actually understood by the infant without the benefit of speech casts some doubt on if the evidence collected is accurate furthermore, because the perceptual motor skills of an infant are undergoing a considerable change during their first two years one of the main methodological flaws in the research was that the researchers could not come up with one universal test that would be suitable for all infants .

To conclude, evidence has demonstrated that the children can pick up on speech and recognise words before they are born and that small children are able to categorise objects before they can speak themselves, which helps with the process of speech. Although it is worth noting that the array of experiences that infants may come across vary dependant on cultural, economic and social experiences have an effect on how an infant’s speech develops – Thus demonstrating the significant influence and importance of the caregivers talk and interaction with the infant starting from their experience within the womb. One of the main findings within the aforementioned research Is that infants begin to understand spoken language and what categories items may fit into before they can actually speak themselves, they learn from the caregiver the social context in which they hear language being spoken which enable them to produce their first words. The ability for an infant when learning to speak is learnt though the framework of the daily routine and the social interactions between the infant and caregiver.


Oates, J & Grayson, A. (2004) “ Early Category representations and concepts” in Oates, J. & Quinn, P. (eds) Cognitive and Language Development in Children, Oxford, Blackwell, The Open University.

Oates, J & Grayson, A (2004) “First Words” in Harris, M. (eds) Cognitive and Language development in children, oxford, Blackwell, the open university.

Reading A: Christophe, A. and Morton, J: (1988) “is Dutch native English?” Linguistic analysis by 2-month olds”, Developmental science, vol.1 (2), pp. 215-19, Blackwell Publishers Ltd;

Reading B: Harris, M. and Chasin, J. (1999) “Developments in early lexical comprehension: a comparison of parental report and controlled testing”, Journal of child Language, 26, pp.453-60, Cambridge University Press

Baldwin, D. (1995) AS cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.77.

Barrett, M. (1986) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.107.

Bates, E. (1988) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.85.

Bruner, J. (1975) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.73.

Chomsky, N. (1965) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.64.

Christophe and Morton (1998) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.67.

Decasper, A. and Spence, M. (1986) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.66.

Dore, J. (1978) and Mcshane, J. (1979) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.79.

Gopnik, M. and Choi, S. (1995) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.89.

Harris, P. (1995) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.74.

Hart, B. (1991) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.89.

Mandler, J. (2000) as cited in Quinn, C. and Oates, J. (2004) p.43.

Norgate, S. (1977) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.78.

Quinn, P. and Johnson, E. (2000) as cited in Quinn, C. and Oates, J. (2004) p.43.

Tardiff, T. (1996) as cited in Harris, M. (2004) p.89.

Younger, B. and Gotlieb, S. (1998) as cited in Quinn, C. and Oates, J. (2004) p.31.



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