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Stages of language development in children In this paper we are gong to trace the stages of language development through birth to the age of six as depicted and outlined by Jean Piaget in his Theory of Cognitive Development. To begin with, most children begin to use language productively in the second half of their second year. Why do they begin then? Why not earlier? This question can be approached from a variety of perspectives. Taking a neuropsychological perspective some have sought to relate the onset of language to the maturation of the central nervous system (Lenneberg, 1967). One can also take a phonetic perspective and examine the development of vocal control mechanisms that lead up to recognizable speech. But this paper takes a cognitive perspective and considers the conceptual prerequisites for language. It outlines the stages children pass through in their attainment of the symbolic function. As we know, language does more than provide labels; it actively participates in the shaping and organization of our representation of reality. Children cannot use language in its symbolic-representational function until they have developed the capacity for internal representation of objects and people. The foundations of the representational capacity, are laid down in the first 18 months. The discussion is based primarily on the work of Jean Piaget. Through original research and theorizing spanning more than 5 decades, Piaget was able to illuminate the nature of human knowledge and its development in children.
To understand infantile cognitive operations properly, one has to guard against imposing adult modes of thinking on the child. One could not have a better guide than Piaget in this effort of psychological distancing. We draw particularly on Piaget trilogy on infancy: Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood (1951/ 1962), The Origins of Intelligence in Children (1952/ 1963), and The Construction of Reality in the Child 1954). Piaget has divided intellectual development into four broad stages: the sensorimotor stage, from birth to the end of the second year; the preoperational stage, from 2 to 6; the concrete-operational stage, from 7 to the beginning of adolescence; and the formal-operational stage, from adolescence onward. Children in the sensorimotor stage do not think symbolically. Preoperational children do think symbolically, but their thinking is not yet analytic. For instance, if shown a row of buttons and asked to make another row that has the same number of buttons, preschool children make a row whose end points coincide with those of the model row, but they are not concerned with insuring a one-to-one correspondence between the two rows. Preoperational children are satisfied with global, perceptual correspondence. By contrast, concrete operational children perform correctly on this kind of task because they possess the conceptual tools to analyze wholes into component parts.
However, though concrete-operational children can solve concrete problems, their ability to manipulate abstract ideas is rather limited. It is not until adolescence that children acquire formal operations and the capacity for hypothetical thought. Although the sensorimotor stage is the shortest of all stages, its contribution to human development is fundamental. It is in the course of this stage that the child truly becomes a thinking creature. In fact, the advances occurring in the sensorimotor period are so great that Piaget was able to distinguish six substages within this period. Each subsequent substage brings the child closer to symbolic functioning, which is the main achievement of this entire period. To provide a sharper view of the steps in symbolic development, I group together Piaget's substages 1 and 2, and 4 and 5. The chronological ages associated with the sensorimotor stages vary somewhat for different children. The ages that I give are intended to suggest the age ranges corresponding to the different stages; they should not be interpreted too strictly. Piaget's practice is to indicate age by three numbers, which stand for years, months, and days. For example, 1;3(15) means 1 year, 3 months, and 15 days.
TABLE 1 Outline of the Sensorimotor Stages Stage General Characterization Reaction to Objects Imitation Make-Believe Play 1-2 Sensation and action domi- nate. Intermodal coordination established by the end of Stage 2. Infants track moving objects and grasp objects in sight. In- fants look for objects that they lost sight of only in the places where the objects had been seen. Only sporadic imi- tation of familiar human models occurs. None. 3 Beginnings of sensorimotor representation. Object is modality spe- cific: visual object, auditory object, etc. No manual search for objects appre- hended visually. No identification of people and objects; only a reaction of fa- miliarity on the basis of reevocation of previously exercised schemes. Infants exhibit sys- tematic imitation of human models. Imitation of nonhuman mod- els begins to oc- cur and evidences some representa- tional distancing. Not distinct. 4-5 Infants exhibit a clear inter- est in the representation of reality. They explore the environment, and be- gin to develop a view of reality that is not self- referenced. Infants view objects as intersects of differ- ent sensory schemes: visual- auditory object, visual-prehensile object, visual- auditory-prehensile object, etc. Infants search manually for covered objects and attribute causality to objects.
Infants rec- ognize persons as social, as well as physical, beings, and become con- scious of their own selves. Genuine communication be- gins to take place. Infants imitate new and invisible ges- tures. Infants show begin- nings of make- believe play. 6 Representation clearly dis- tinct from sensation and action. Infants search manu- ally even for objects hidden in complex ways. Infants are capable of deferred and complex imita- tion. Full-fledged make- believe play oc- curs.