Child’s Language Development and Joint Attention

Psychologists have long studied the theme of language development and joint attention. Currently, a row of theories describing the processes of language development exist. Studying communication patterns in the living beings, they have come up with the conclusion that language is unique to humans, and its most peculiar feature is grammar (Krasnegor, Rumbaugh, Schiefelbusch, & Studdert-Kennedy, 2013). Moreover, they have come up with the finding that only humans are capable of perception of future and things that are non-existent and communicate about such matters (Dunbar, 2014).

The constitute parts of language are words and rules (Morgan & Demuth, 2014). All the language components are essentially creative. Underlying structure of sentences is conditioned by the grammar and semantic rules as well as the specific requirements of social usage (Morgan & Demuth, 2014). Complex rules of social usage involve such important points as compulsory usage of greetings, awareness of “taboo” words usage, using polite forms of address, and implementing the styles applying to each particular situation.

Learning language, children need to master a number of essential language components including phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics (Morgan & Demuth, 2014). Addressing the English language, it should be noted that its phonology includes forty phonemes or the smallest significant units. Speaking about tonal languages such as Chinese, an important element that children have to master is the ability to use connotation toning (Morgan & Demuth, 2014).

In regards to semantics, children will need to learn morphemes or the smallest units of meaning. The key morphemes in most languages are root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Besides, mastering semantics implicates that children will have to learn how to use content and function words.

Learning syntax implicates learning the rules of sentence organization according to the sentence types. While in some languages, syntax can be quite difficult to learn due to abundance of rules and multiple exceptions from rules, there are also hundreds of languages with the very basic syntax canons. Learning pragmatics while learning language means to discern how particular linguistic structures implement in each particular case.

The milestones in a child’s language development include over ten important stages and take place during the period beginning since one’s birth and ending at the age of six years old (Hoff, 2013). The first milestone takes place when an infant is from one to five months. This period is called reflexive communication. It is associated with random vocalizing, laughing, crying, engaging in vocal play, and learning how to distinguish between language and other sounds (Hoff, 2013).

Next, when a toddler is from six to eighteen months, a period of babbling begins. During this time, a child is trying to verbalize in response to others’ speech trying to imitate their speech and phonemic patterns (Hoff, 2013). Simultaneously, when a baby is from ten to thirteen months, one begins to pronounce one’s first words typically mentioning the surrounding objects (Hoff, 2013). The next stage, often referred to as “one-word sentence” stage, is characterized by learning how to use short sentences often consisting of one or a couple of nouns. At eighteen to twenty-four months, children undergo through vocabulary spurt stage when they typically acquire many new words and make rapid speaking progress (Hoff, 2013).

At the age of two years, a child begins to learn how to expand sentences and use other speech parts such as verbs and adjectives. Then, until a child turns four, one continues to elaborate on sentence structures and vocabulary building. At the age of four, a child learns imaginary speech. At the age of six, one learns how to display metalinguistic awareness (Hoff, 2013).

Phonology is abstract representation of sounds that build words. A fetus is able to recognize sounds when still in the womb (Morgan & Demuth, 2014). One may react to loud noises and mother’s voice. Phonology production begins at the age of zero to two months and continues until the baby is twelve months. During six different stages continuing for several months, a baby may learn vegetative sounds, vowel sounds, canonical babbling, babble drifts, babbling of word-like type, and eventually one learns how to pronounce full words (Hoff, 2013).

Semantics is the word knowledge that implicates learning the meaning of a word and its usage patterns such as the plural forms, gender, and other grammatical categories. Word meaning is acquired through the sources of information such as grammatical forms including syntactic bootstrapping and basic level words, and inference from communicative intent (Hoff, 2013). Infants are capable of mind reading through joint attention, motherese, and gestures (Morgan & Demuth, 2014).

The lexical constrains that can emerge during learning the new words at the age under two years old are whole object assumption, taxonomic constraints, mutual exclusivity, and novel name. Interestingly, females tend to develop better word comprehension and word production skills at the earlier age than males. The early lexical acquisition includes the vocabulary on the following topics: people, animals, food, body parts, clothing, vehicles, household objects, space and motion, social routines, and typical activities (Oller, Oller, & Oller, 2012). At the beginning of the one-word phase, infants have a tendency to learn words from different semantic fields.

This process is called horizontal acquisition. Later, they continue to acquire words from the same semantic background, which is called vertical acquisition (Oller et al., 2012).

Research studies have indicated that children learn new words and language structures and rules according to the concept of “spurt” since they begin to acquire more linguistic material at the latest stages of learning (Kennison, 2013). The possible explanations for the differences in learning are individual differences such as focus on objects rather than activities and variations in input such as differences in methods of gaining data (Kennison, 2013).

There are a number of theories of mental lexicon. The most common of them are the definitional theory stating that children learn words in connections with the accompanying lexis, prototype theory assuming that children learn the words that are connected according to the principle of “prototyping”, and semantic fluency theory arguing that children tend to memorize the words linked by semantic connections (Oller et al., 2012).

During learning the sentence meaning and syntax learning stages, children learn how sentences may vary in their semantics depending on their organization. During the pragmatic learning stage, infants begin to comprehend the social aspects of language usage. They master how to narrate stories, tell jokes or use figurative language. Children begin to understand how to make their speech patterns more complex. This process is explained in Grice Maxims theory (Oller et al., 2012).

The factors that influence language development are motor development, child-directed speech such as motherese, and prelinguistic communication patterns such as joint attention, eye-gaze, gestures, pointing or mom-linguistic vocalizations. The most common theories explaining how infants learn language are the behavioral theory, nativist theory, and constructivist theory.

Behaviorists believe that language development occurs as a response to stimuli. The most prominent behaviorist theorist is Skinner, who developed his verbal behavior theory in 1957. Skinner’s approach is based on the idea of Tabula Rasa or children’s “blank state” at the beginning of their language learning process and the forthcoming progress as a result of acquiring experience (Oller et al., 2012).

Nativists assume that language is innate. Their most prominent theorist is Chomsky. Chomsky introduced the concept that language learning in infants is similar despite the language they speak (Oller et al., 2012).

Constructivists such as Piaget, Snow, and Bates state that language development is the reflection of cognitive development of an individual through experience acquisition (Oller et al., 2012). They make a special emphasis on the importance of joint attention, symbolic play, and motor development.

Another prominent theorist is Tomasello, who explained the concept of grammar construction by stating that children begin speaking with holophrases, then, they shift to word combinations, word island combinations, and finally they master complex grammar constructions. Tomasello elaborated on the idea of word island combination by means of researching his daughter language development experience. He found that early childhood language is not productive and is subject to the influence of conservatism.

In conclusion, it should be noted that language is crucial for psychology. Children need to learn about the high abundance of surrounding things with the help of language. The precursors for language building are both nature and nurture.


Dunbar, R. I. M. (2014). Why only humans have language? Lucy to Language: The Benchmark Papers, 427.

Hoff, E. (2013). Language development. Boston, M.A.: Cengage Learning.

Kennison, S. M. (2013). Introduction to language development. Thousand Oaks, C.A.: Sage Publications.

Krasnegor, N. A., Rumbaugh, D. M., Schiefelbusch, R. L., & Studdert-Kennedy, M. (2013). Biological and behavioral determinants of language development. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.

Morgan, J. L., & Demuth, K. (2014). Signal to syntax: Bootstrapping from speech to grammar in early acquisition. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.

Oller, J. W., Oller, S. D., & Oller, S. N. (2012). Milestones: Normal speech and language development across the lifespan. New York, N.Y.: Plural Publishing.