How Environment and Culture Affect Language Development. Essay Sample

Published: 2022-03-10 05:12:12
How Environment and Culture Affect Language Development. Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories: Child development Language development
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1493 words
13 min read

It takes a baby only six months after birth to start babbling, and in another six, parents expect to hear the first words. After the first breakthrough, children acquire new words by the dozen, and most first-graders can hold engaging conversations with adults and each other. However, departures from the norm are equally common, with toddlers remaining stubbornly silent and first-graders unable to string a sentence together. The research into the process of early speech development is made challenging by the age of the subjects and their initial inability to communicate. Psychologists and neurobiologists have developed behavioral, innatist, and interactionist theories on how language is first learned and what affects speech mastery at an early age. However, none of them accounts for cultural differences present between the Western and Eastern civilizations, though the disparities could be the key to explaining the effect of the environment on the rate of speech development, as well as the prevailing communication patterns.

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Language Acquisition Theories

The unrivaled rate of first language acquisition by toddlers is among the greatest unsolved mysteries of neurobiology, psychology, and cognitive science. Around the globe, children master new words and grammar rules at the same average rate, but second language learning does not follow the same patterns. Over the second half of the 20th century, the researchers created three language acquisition theories that offer opposing explanations of the phenomena. These are behaviorist, innatist, and interactionist perspectives, each of which deserves a closer look for deeper insights into the influences of environment on language development in early childhood.

According to Skinner, who proposed the behavioral theory in the 1950s, children gain linguistic skills through responsive and reinforcing actions. For instance, when a toddler says “up”, the parental figure usually pays attention, smiles, and asks questions like “Do you want to go up?” before picking up the child. Once this chain of events repeats several times, the child’s brain learns to associate the word with a particular response from a parent and a particular action or object. Essentially, behavioral perspective follows the same line of thinking as the mechanism of a baby’s crying. Whenever a baby feels hungry, wet, cold, or otherwise uncomfortable, he or she lets out a cry and receives an almost immediate response that usually addresses the problem within the first couple of tries. Therefore, the behavioral perspective of language acquisition posits that the environment is vital for building vocabulary and linguistic skills, as a child needs an outside influence to provide a verbal model for imitation and reinforcement. This model can explain why children may suffer delayed language development in families where communication and parental attention are scarce. However, while behavioral theory explains how children expand their vocabulary, it does not cover the adoption of complex structures and natural understanding of grammar rules to build sentences or use correct verb forms.

Skinner’s theory was among the first attempts to explain how children master communication skills, but it was also harshly criticized by the proponents of innatist theory proposed in the 1960s by Noam Chomsky. Instead of focusing on the environment, the researcher looked into the patterns observed in childhood speech. Chomsky posited that children could not attain such a deep understanding of a language in such a short time without using an inborn or innate brain tool. He called it a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This brain structure is responsible for storing information about universal grammar categories that helps children learn the language with all its complexities without any frame of reference. Through the use of inborn Universal Grammar (UG), toddlers can instinctively combine nouns with verbs to create phrases and full sentences, and adults use the same brain structure for learning and using new languages. Innatist theory of language acquisition focuses on the child as the bearer of LAD, while their environment, including parents, siblings, and other people, serves a secondary purpose of triggering LAD and providing samples for a toddler to mimic. Therefore, the supporters of the innatist perspective believe that the environment is a much less influential factor in language development than the inborn capabilities of the brain. However, this theory is also imperfect, as there is no conclusive research on the neurobiological structures responsible for holding Universal Grammar.

While the concepts of UG and LAD merited further research, in the 1970s, another language acquisition theory was suggested by the interactionists, like Piaget and Vygotsky. Their perspective suggested that speech was no different from other cognitive and reasoning functions of the brain and was therefore obtained through the same mechanisms. According to the interactionists, communication with adults and peers was the foundation of learning the first language. Regular conversations allow the children to expand their vocabularies and learn complex grammar structures that the innatists consider inborn. Interactionists believe that instead of using innate grammar concepts, a child learns them through repeated exposure. For example, after hearing plenty of examples of plurals that use an -s morpheme, children learn to build it into their own sentences. Both the child and the adult play an important role in language acquisition as it is seen by interactionists, as without a stimulating environment and socialization, children suffer from delayed speech development. Still, the interactionist theory is not without flaws, as it does not explain the differences experienced by children learning their first and second language.

Despite significant differences in explaining the mechanism of first language acquisition, all three common theories believe the environment plays a role in speech mastery. However, the innatist perspective considers the environment the least important factor, while the behavioral and interactionist perspectives place a higher value on communication, socialization, and reinforcement.

Researchers also found that children from families of low socioeconomic status tend to suffer speech development impediments. By the time they enter elementary school, their vocabularies are smaller, and their mastery of complex grammar structures and concepts is weaker than those of their peers. The differences are usually explained by the lack of regular communication within the family where toys or television are used as a replacement for reading, games, and educational activities.

At the same time, most childhood psychology theorists engaged in creating these theories were representatives of the Western civilization, and a closer look at the cultural differences in upbringing can shed light on the influence of the environment of speech mastery.

Cultural Influences on Childhood Language Development

Every country, city, or neighborhood can possess a unique culture that affects childhood development pace, including reasoning, memory, and language acquisition. However, major psychology researchers focus on the differences between the Western and Eastern cultural norms and child-rearing traditions and their effects on speech mastery.

According to study results, in the US and Europe, most children participate in conversations as equals and are encouraged to talk about themselves, their feelings, and achievements. Therefore, American and European kids do not need much encouragement to participate in classroom activities or share their accounts of criminal acts committed against them. In the Eastern states, such as China or Japan, children are taught from a young age to respect their elders. They spend more time with their relatives, grandparents, aunts, and uncles than their parents or peers. Therefore, children of Asian descent may be more reluctant to talk to their classmates and teachers.

The cultural influences on language development are clear to observe when kids from different backgrounds recount the latest excitement of their lives. In the West, children’s speech tends to be more egocentric, focused on personal emotions and actions. In the East, kids focus on parents or relatives present at the time, and their stories are usually shorter and less detailed. While it may be impossible to connect specific cultural norms and traditions to speech patterns and development rates, it is clear that cultural and environmental effects are equally influential.


Despite decades of research into language acquisition, there is no definitive theory that explains the mechanism or lists all the critical factors affecting speech mastery in early childhood. Three common theories include behavioral, innatist, and interactional perspectives. While each of the accepted theories relies on a different interpretation of the roles of the child and surrounding adults, all three consider the environment an important factor. Without a significant amount of social interactions to provide positive reinforcement, a template for Universal Grammar concepts, or a source of conversation, children may suffer delayed speech development, often seen in kids from families of low socioeconomic status.

While the childhood environment may affect the language development pace, cultural norms influence the qualitative parameters of speech. The stark disparity between speech patterns of American and Chinese children can be attributed to cultural differences of the Western and Eastern worlds. Still, as the world becomes ever more globalized, a deeper understanding of environmental and cultural effects on cognitive development, including language acquisition, is necessary. Existing theories and studies do not provide clear answers, so further global research efforts should be implemented to improve our understanding of speech development and the factors that affect it.

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