Language has a number of interacting parts: phonology (speech sounds), morphology (word formation), syntax (sentence formation), semantics (word and sentence meaning), prosody (rhythm of speech), and pragmatics (use of language). All of these components develop at varying levels during the primary years after birth. Unlike reading acquisition, language development is largely considered innate, children are born to talk. Young children become masters of imitation as a means of learning words. However, not all learning is done through imitation. They also learn language through a constructive process whereby they create hypothesis about how language works. For example, they construct sentences such as, “Daddy goed running”, which is clearly something you wouldn’t hear from an adult. Creating a hypothesis about how language works, young children note that ed- is used to express past action and then over apply this generalization. With experience and feedback they adjust their hypothesis and learn that some action words have special past-tense forms.
There are critical periods for language development. The most intensive period of speech and language development is during the first three years of life (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2003). By age three, children are talking in sentences and have a speaking vocabulary of 1,000 or more words. By Kindergarten, this could be as high as 5,000 or more words. The largest influence on the size of a child’s vocabulary is the quantity and quality of talk they are exposed to. According to many language experts, the most important thing parents and other caregivers can do for their children is to talk to them. The amount of talk directed toward infants and toddlers is related significantly to their verbal abilities and their later success in school.
Quantity and quality varies quite a bit from the most talkative parents to the least talkative parents. The least talkative parents use talk primarily as way of controlling and guiding children. The most talkative parents use talk in this way, but also provide extra talk that includes descriptions and explanations that is filled with more complex vocabulary and added positive reinforcement.
One extensive study, Wells (1986) found that some parents intuitively provided the greatest development for their children’s language. Instead of acting as directors of what their children said, these parents were mutual constructors of meaning. As great listeners, they made genuine attempts to use verbal and nonverbal clues to understand what their child was saying. Through this listening and active involvement in the conversation, parents were able to help their children expand their responses so that both knowledge of the world and linguistic abilities were fostered.