The language of growing up

Developmental psychologists study how we grow and develop throughout our lives; and it is the application of this information which can benefit society by helping ensure that we fulfil our developmental potential.  It is a diverse topic, and so this post focuses only on the benefits it has brought through its discoveries within the field of language development during infancy and childhood.  The benefits, however, are not limited to linguistics, and as will be shown, language skills have an impact on other facets of a child’s life and the people around it.

Perhaps one of the first benefits which developmental psychologists brought to society within the field of linguistic development was in the discovery of various stages of language development which the child goes through in order to learn to communicate fluently.  This has enabled us to accurately predict what linguistic behaviours to anticipate from children at each stage.

Oller (1980, cited in Slater & Bremner, 2003) states that all children go through the same developmental linguistic speech production stages, and as they progress from babbling to single words, to two-word utterances to multi-word sentences, our knowledge of these stages allows us to effectively identify children having problems with language development and consequently support them.

However, developmental psychologists do show conflicting opinions concerning the stage approach.  For example, Piaget (1932, cited in Messer, 1997) concluded that children’s cognitive and linguistic development was in stages according to their age, whilst others (Ganger & Brent, 2004) have shown language as developing gradually and steadily. For decades, the educational system has been based upon Piaget’s theory and as such, children are taught in line with their theoretical developmental stage, however findings such as those of Ganger & Brent are numerous and now support an argument for a move away from entirely stage-based education in order to benefit children’s linguistic development towards the more tailored and individualised approach suggested by early years government guidelines (Department for Education, 2014).  The benefit seen by society therefore depends on which decade you were born in and which empirical viewpoint is adopted by educational policy makers.

In contrast, but perhaps more importantly, other developmental psychologists such as Bates, Dale & Thal (1995) have illustrated the extent to which individual differences can be seen amongst children.  Work like this have been influential in ensuring a more tolerant approach to language assessment within society, resulting in wider, more forgiving stages in developmental guidelines (Adams, Byers Brown & Edwards, 1997).  Ultimately, the result of these discoveries has meant that society can and do now tailor linguistic assessments and educational programmes to more effectively suit the abilities of the child dependant on age, behaviours and individual differences (Department for Education, 2014).

In addition to these factors, psychologists have also discovered valuable details of the role that society and the environment at large plays in the development of language.  Vygotsky (1962, cited in Slater & Bremner, 2003) found that social interaction drives linguistic development; a child learns from the examples, guidance and corrections of those around it.  As such, the National Curriculum for English Language maximises social interaction and encourages teachers to correct the child in order to improve language development (Department of Education, 2013).  More recently, researchers have found that even before a child is born, aspects of the foetal environment such as light and sound can have an effect on development and language development later in life (Jarvis, 2014).  As a result, the author has been able to make recommendations to improve a foetus’ chance of successful language development although the benefit to society can only be seen if and when parents and those who influence policies listen to this advice.  There are, of course psychologists who challenge the idea that language development is founded within a social environment; Chomsky (1986, cited in Messer, 1997) believes that we are all born with an innate Language Acquisition Device, independent of experience and as a result, the natural approach (which avoids any grammar correction) and the cognitive code method of language teaching were widely adopted in the 1970s in the US (Lavadenz, 2010).  Clearly, one’s stance on the benefit that developmental psychologists have brought to society would depend on which theory was supported.

Later, but still at a pre-lingual stage, psychologists have found that what we might call baby-language (or motherese) as well as gesturese (gestures which are directed at infants) also facilitate understanding of speech and scaffolds learning in language development (O’Neill, Bard, Linn & Fluck, 2005, Thiessen, Hill & Saffran, 2005, Goldin-Meadow & McNeill, 2000).   A society well versed in either of these ‘languages’ would therefore benefit by supporting and driving language development in children.  Adding to this, psychologists have discovered that teaching infants to use symbolic gestures before they can speak improves not only their communication abilities but also their vocabulary at a later stage (Acredolo & Goodwin, 1985).

This has led to a vast number of baby signing books, businesses, courses and organisations which, according to these studies, will improve communication between non-speaking infants and those around them.  Unsurprisingly, these studies do not go without criticism, with further papers finding methodological weaknesses in the studies (Doherty-Sneddon, 2008) and one which found that mothers going to signing classes were more stressed as a result and certainly not personally benefiting (Howlett, Kirk & Pine, 2011).

In addition to understanding the role caregivers can play in language development, psychologists have also challenged the traditional views of children in society such as ‘children should be seen and not heard’.  Vygotsky (1962, cited in Slater & Bremner) found that when children talk to themselves it helped them problem solve and direct their thought in such a way as to benefit the activity they are taking part in; various other researchers also found that ‘private speech’ should be encouraged in order to improve general performance and achievement (Winsler, Manfra & Diaz, 2007).  Other studies have gone even further, showing that childhood levels of language skill have a longitudinal impact later in life on academic achievement (Snowling, 2005, cited in Roberts & Kaiser, 2012).  As a consequence, guidelines for early years nursery education encourage chatter amongst children and prioritise language acquisition (Department of Education, 2014), giving more support to children and thereby improving language development within society.

Of course, language development does not always follow the stages set out by the theorists and sometimes children experience language disorders with 7% of nursery age children experiencing language impairment (Tomblin, Records, Buckwalter, Zhang, Smith & O’Brien, 1997).   Arguably, this is where developmental psychologists have made the largest impact on society; in the prevention, assessment, identification and treatment of developmental language disorders.

Perhaps most importantly, the development of tools which allow us to measure language development has been one of psychology’s most significant benefits to society.  These tools allow us to determine a successful use of language or problematic one, and determine who need help.

The MacArthur Communicative Inventories (Hupp, Munala, Kaffenberger & Wessell, 2011) are used by researchers in both clinical and academic settings.  Standardised tests such as these allow a broad measurement of the language skills the child is displaying by researchers and clinicians.  Other tests focus on narrower areas, for example the Test for Auditory Comprehension of Language – Revised (Carrow-Woolfolk, 1985, cited in Rhoades, 2003) aims to understand the success with which children use and understand morphemes (the smallest parts of words), whilst the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test III (Dunn, 1996, cited in Rhoades, 2003) is widely used to measure lexical semantic skills.  Tests such as these are valuable clinical tools used to both diagnose specific problems and also measure change in language development levels as a result of interventions.

Various screening techniques have also been developed by psychologists to aid the early detection of developmental language disorders (Adams, Byers Brown & Edwards, 1997).  Whilst systematic screening is not in place in the UK, the health visitor does use developmental timelines to detect speech delay (NHS Choices, 2011) which can identify early signs of language problems and from which an intervention pathway can be initiated.  This enables early and appropriate intervention if necessary to encourage ‘normal’ linguistic development in the child.  However, Dockrell, Ricketts & Lindsay (2012) found that the current diagnostic category approach in the UK was unhelpful in determining which resources best suit the needs of the child, and that a focus on the strengths of the child is a more useful approach in deciding on a course of action.

Nevertheless, using these measurement tools, various psychologists have identified possible risk factors in language development.  Savic (1980, cited in Adams, Byers Brown & Edwards, 1997) found that the home environment has also been shown as a risk factor in language development just as in the case of Genie (Curtiss, 1977), sensory deprivation was found to be another factor.  As a result of these studies, techniques for prevention of language delays have been developed such as increasing awareness of risk factors, increasing detection levels, educational programmes for supporting language development and intervention programmes for children within high-risk environments (Adams, Byers Brown & Edwards, 1997).

The interventions which psychologists have developed are numerous, varied and have a positive impact.  Leonard (1981) found that interventions such as imitation, expansion, focused stimulation and general stimulation approaches are each effective in delivering language improvement in language impaired students.  Indeed, the 1981 Education Act specified that each local education authority must offer special education provision for pupils with such needs and as such has resulted in improved resources for pupils with language impairment (Adams, Byers Brown & Edwards, 1997).  These resources deliver an emotional and developmental benefit to the child and their family, however there is a cost to society which is financial; in 2005-2006 the government spent £4.1bn on SEN provisions (Select Committee on Education & Skills, 2006)

The extent to which psychologists have benefitted society is not always cut and dry however.  As we have seen, the positive outcomes of developmental linguistic findings often depend on the specific theory to which you subscribe, but in addition, psychologists’ findings regarding benefits are often conflicting.  For example, when Zimmerman, Christakis & Meltzoff (2007) found that media viewing damaged language development in children under 2 years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics made recommendations that viewing of electronic media in children under two was restricted (AAP, 2012).  However Ferguson & Donellan (2014) have made extensive studies into this area and have shown that use of educational programming DVDs might improve language development more than no exposure to this media. In certain areas of study therefore, developmental psychologists are at odds as to what exact recommendations to make, and society therefore is unclear as to how to start achieving the linguistic benefits it seeks.

Most recently however, one of the most prominent criticisms of the benefits brought to society by developmental psychologists has been that these studies position the child as context free, predictable, passive and unreliable (Hogan, 2005).  This has led, in her opinion, to a body of work which sees adults as the experts, with very little study of a child’s subjective experience or perspective and thus any ‘benefits’ may not have, in fact, adequately addressed the child’s needs as an individual being.

Her opinion and those of others has been listened to; indeed Article 12 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child now expressly asks that the views of the child are attended to and Hogan states that this is a clear guideline for developmental psychology researchers.   Here, ironically is both a criticism of developmental psychology approaches and an example of developmental psychology clearly influencing policies on research!  However Hogan does recognise that to date there are few studies which have successfully attempted to understand (linguistic) development from a child’s subjective view and therefore large scale benefits are yet to be seen.

In a similar refrain, psychologists such as Woodhead (Woodhead, 1999) have illustrated that developmental psychologists have to date only understood the child within a constrained range of social and cultural environments.  He questions how beneficial these findings are for children with differing backgrounds and asks for more context-based research in developmental psychology.  Some psychologists have done just this.  Leaper & Smith (2004) found that gender differences in linguistic studies can be socially constructed by factors such as whether an adult is present, group size, test setting, the specific activity tested and how well the participants know each other.  The benefit to society from this school of thought is a more realistic, socially and context-based understanding of language development, however it may be again too early to see the benefits it has brought in terms of influencing educational policies and guidelines.

In summary, although developmental psychologists have adopted contrasting and conflicting theories, their studies have helped us understand the nature of linguistic development so that we can improve children’s language skills and subsequently their cognitive development and academic achievement too.   There is yet more work to be done, namely within a child-centred framework, and with constructionist theories in mind which will hopefully drive further benefits for the child and society at large and in varied cultural environments.


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One Reply to “The language of growing up”

  1. I believe you have remarked some very interesting details , regards for the post.

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