Notes on Child Directed Speeches, Children’s grammar, theories of language acquisition

9 June 2009

Child-directed Speech
• “Even four year olds adjust their language when speaking to a two year old. The way that adults talk to babies is similar to the way they talk to dogs. (Hirsh-Pasek and Treiman, 1982)

• Child-directed speech aims to:

1. attract and hold the baby’s attention;
2. help the process of breaking down language into understandable chunks;
3. make the conversation more predictable by keeping the conversation in the ‘here and now’ and referring to things that the baby can see.

• Features of Child-directed speech:

o Higher pitch and exaggerated intonation and stress
o Repeated sentence frames
o Repetition and partial repetition of adult’s own words
o Questions and commands
o Frequent use of the child’s name and an absence of pronouns (Durkin disputes this)
o Absence of past tenses
o A large number of one word utterances (holophrases)
o Omission of inflections e.g. plurals and possessives
o Fewer verbs, modifiers (adjectives in front of nouns) and function words (such as ‘at’ ‘my’)
o Use of concrete nouns
o Use of expansions – the adult fills out the child’s utterance
o Use of re-castings – baby’s vocab put into a new utterance
Does child-directed speech influence children’s language development?

• Yes – imitation, depends on research
• A parent’s use of questions with ‘yes/no’ answers seems to be connected with many aspects of children’s language development;
• Complexity in a parent’s language hinders language development;
• A very persistent finding has been that the use of child-directed speech improves the child’s use of auxiliary verbs such as ‘could’, ‘have’, ‘did’, ‘might’.

Unit 4 – The beginnings of Grammar

• Telegraphic speech – content words kept (usually nouns, verbs and adjectives), and function words omitted (those which have a grammatical purpose e.g. pronouns, prepositions and auxiliary verbs.

• Pronouns – confusing because they change with context.

o Subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, you (plural), they
o Object pronouns: me, him, her, us, them
o Demonstrative pronouns: this, that

• Overgeneralisation – over applying a grammatical rule
• Overextension – over applying a word

Halliday v. John Dore

• Dore is more context aware, and the taxonomy is simpler
• Halliday covers more situations
Halliday Dore
Instrumental Labelling
Regulatory Repeating
Interactional Answering
Personal Requesting action
Representational Calling
Heuristic Greeting
Imaginative Protesting


Unit 5: Learning what words do

Over and under-extension

An example of over-extension: daddy = any male who walks in the room
An example of under-extension: white only refers to snow

The two hypotheses:

1. The semantic features hypothesis. This means that the baby over-extends on the basis of features that combine to give an object meaning, for example, colour, shape, sound, movement etc. So any moving thing with four legs could be called ‘cat’

2. The functional similarities hypothesis. Here over-extension results from similarities in the uses to which objects are put. Things used to hold liquid might be called ‘cups’

Over-extension not always related to cognitive processes – not always dominated by shape, colour or sound of objects. Often, a child simply does not have the lexical capacity to find a word, and so they use the nearest word they know, as many adults do.

Developing vocabulary

Stage one: the baby begins to respond consistently to words but is highly dependent on context.
Stage two: after a few months the baby has worked out what words are for and acquisition of new words speeds up dramatically so that babies are now capable of fast mapping
Stage three: from about the age of three or four, word-learning becomes even faster. Children at this stage are re-organising the way they categorise words; for example, they can now put things into more than one category at the same time, so that something can be both a dog and an animal at the same time.

Phonological rules

Deletion: missing out consonants that appear at the end of an adult word, or at the beginning of a polysyllablic word, e.g. ‘ca’ instead of ‘cat’

Substitution: where a baby substitutes one sound for another e.g. ‘cat’ becomes ‘tat’. Often sounds that involve friction such as ‘sh’ are avoided in favour of a stopped sound such as ‘t’

Addition: the addition of an extra vowel sound to the end of a word e.g. ‘egg’ – ‘egu’

De-voicing: taking the voice of out a sound, so that ‘b’ becomes ‘p’ for example, and ‘pig’ becomes ‘bik’

Voicing: adding voice to unvoiced consonants
Assimilation: making the consonants or vowels in a word the same such as ‘gog’ instead of ‘dog’

Reduplication: repetition of syllables

Unit 7 – Theories of Language Acquisition

Skinner v Chomsky
• Skinner wanted to apply his behaviourist philosophy to every aspect of animal and human behaviour, and studied pigeons and how they pecked levers for rewards.
• In 1957 Chomskly directly attacked this by saying that language is innate because the language children are exposed to is impoverished
• Skinnre believes in imitation and parental encouragement
• Psychologist Geroge Miller said that Skinner’s view was ‘impossible’, but Chomsky’s is ‘miraculous’.
• McNeill coined the term ‘LAD’ – Language Acquisition Device
How the LAD words, according to Chomsky:

1. The baby already knows about linguistic universals (e.g. about nouns and verbs)
2. The baby hears examples of language in its native language
3. The linguistic universals help the baby to make hypotheses about the incoming language
4. From these hypotheses the baby works out a grammar/set of rules
5. As more and more language is heard the grammar becomes more and more like that of adults

Beyond Skinner and Chomsky

– due to impoverishment of language, and obvious evidence that language is in fact influenced by the baby’s peers, further theories were investigated
– Piaget – language development is parallel with the development of thinking (cognitive development), and is indeed controlled by it. If a baby can use sentences involving phrases such as ‘more than’, ‘less than’, and ‘as much as’, it is obvious that the these actual concepts must have already been grasped.
– cognitive theorist who beliebed that language acquisition is related to development of the whole child.
– “Children learn to use a language initially…to get what they want, to play games, to stay connected with those on whom they are dependent.” (1983)
– In humourous response to the LAD he proposed the LASS (Language Acquisition Support System)

LASS and shared reading
– comprises of support from parents and other influential adults
– reading books together helps children to learn names for things and also the rules for participating on conversation. The vital interactions include:

1. Gaining attention – drawing the baby’s attention to a picture
2. Query – asking the baby to identify the picture
3. Label – telling the baby what the object is
4. Feedback – responding to the baby’s utterance
By Heather


  1. can you also talk about bruner, brown and levison please, need it for my english cds assessment, thanks

    from anzarooni
  2. This has been so helpful for my English Language exam tomorrow, I thoroughly understand the child acquisition theorists now, thank you. 🙂 <3

    from Sarah
  3. hello this was incredibly helpful, it got me an A*! super helpful! massive fan! thank you!

    from Hannah

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