Children's First Language Acquisition

The Importance of Child-Directed Speech

Term Paper, 2013

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background

3. Child-Directed Speech
3.1 Child-Directed Speech and the Role of Joint Attention
3.2 Relevant Characteristics of Child-Directed Speech
3.3 Study Cases
3.3.1 Study I. Head-Turning Procedure
3.3.2 Study II. Gender Differences in Child-Directed Speech
3.3.3 Discussion

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“In all speech communities there are probably special ways of talking

to young children which differ more or less systematically

from the more normal form of the language used in

ordinary conversation among adults.”

(Charles Ferguson)

What the linguist Charles Ferguson stated, has been one of the basic assumptions in the field of child-directed speech. The question, how adult-directed speech differentiates from child-directed speech and what intention underlies child-directed speech, has affected many scientists. In order to clarify this problem, the main issue of this paper will deal with the question, if child-directed speech can be regarded as necessary for the acquisition of language.

The first chapter of this paper will deal with some theoretical background, since different approaches to the above-mentioned question have been made. The point of view on language learning of Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous representatives of the Nativist approach, will be shortly presented and briefly compared to other approaches. In the subsequent chapter, it will be explained what child-directed speech actually means and how important the role of joint attention is in this context. Afterwards, some typical characteristics will be taken into consideration in order to demonstrate the extent of features when talking about child-directed speech. Important for further explanation regarding the importance of child-directed is the following chapter, which will focus on a study by Anne Fernald. This study concentrates on infant’s preferences to child-directed speech versus adult- directed speech and was measured with the use of a specific head-turn procedure, which will be explained in detail later on. After that, a second study, which is about gender differences in child-directed speech, will be examined. The authors of this study, Amye Warren-Leubecker and John Neil Bohanon III, closely considered gender differences and the effects on child-directed speech. Thus, on the basis of the above-mentioned procedure, the aim of this paper is to balance reasons who confirm the view that child-directed speech is necessary and supportive for the child in order to be able to learn a language.

2. Theoretical Background

In order to discuss the importance of child-directed speech, there has to be made a clear distinction between different linguistic approaches. This chapter will take approaches into consideration, which have been quite influential in the study of children’s language development.

Noam Chomsky, an American linguist has achieved one of the most salient impacts in the late 60s. As a representative of the Nativist Theory, he is said to have revolutionized the field of linguistics (cf. Hoff 2006:10). Chomsky argued that there has to be an innate concept of language skills. He further investigated a foundation for this concept which is called Universal Grammar (cf. Rickheit et. Al. 2010:88). He stated that his concept of a Universal Grammar can be found in every human language and can be understood as certain “meaning relations”. Furthermore, he claimed that children are born with an innate knowledge, which is somehow connected to this Universal Grammar. Thus, the environment in which a child grows up is only supposed to provoke the innate knowledge of the Universal Grammar. In order to become an accurate speaker of a specific language, rules and representations will then simply be applied (cf. Gillen 2003: 83). Chomsky describes the principle of language learning as follows:

“ Language learning is not really something that the child does, it is something that

happens to the child placed in an appropriate environment, much as the child’s body

grows and matures in a predetermined was when provided with appropriate nutrition

and environmental stimulation.” (Chomsky 1993:519)

Gillen argues that Chomsky is responsible for changing the direction of research concerning theories about child language (cf. Gillen 2003:82). Since his first publication, linguists are trying to describe what happens in the minds of speakers and how this might explain how speakers act in different ways (cf. Hoff 2006:10). As mentioned above, Chomsky focused on grammar and children’s grammatical development since the late 60s. To the contrary, there are several approaches that do not agree with Chomsky’s view. One of them is the Social Approach, which says that innate linguistic knowledge is unnecessary, since language is essentially a social phenomenon and language development a social process. Thus, only language as a social process is responsible for the acquisition of language. Another linguistic approach is the view of the social-interactionists. They presume that there simply have to be some innate characteristics of the mind that are responsible for the development of language, based on experience (Hoff 2006:13). According to Matychuk (2005), social interactionists primarily regard the environment as being responsible for language learning. They also assume that children are active participants in the language acquisition process, due to their interaction with their parents or caretakers. Another important aspect is that social-interactionists are interested in how far a certain structure will help the child to operate socially with language (cf. Matychuk 2005: 312). A completely different approach of language learning is the empiristic view. Here, the mind can be regarded as a blank slate, where all knowledge and reason come exclusively from experience (Hoff 2006:15). There arises the question why the introduction of these different approaches seems to play an important role when talking about children’s first language acquisition and the importance of child-directed speech. On the one hand, it is to show that there actually always have been different views on language learning. This is vital, because the importance of child-directed speech from Chomsky’s perspective is supposed to be quite different from those who assume that the child’s environment and the social background play the most important role when it comes to language acquisition. On the other hand, it becomes reasonable that the whole linguistic investigation and research process for the past decades has been dealing with the question if linguistic knowledge is innate or not. If Chomsky were concerned, child-directed speech would largely be regarded as unnecessary, because the innate linguistic knowledge would enable the child to be able to learn language. This process would take place even without adults, who talk to the child in a specific child-directed way. From Chomsky’s perspective then, one might ask, to what extent child-directed speech is necessary for the children in order to master a language. In the following chapter, the subject matter of child-directed speech will be introduced and afterwards explained in detail.

3. Child- Directed Speech

3.1. Child-Directed Speech and the Role of Joint Attention

Since not only child-directed speech is important when it comes to the phenomenon of language learning, the process of joint attention will equally be regarded. According to O’Grady, child-directed speech can be described as a specific type of speech, which is characterised by certain behaviour, for instance, the use of basic vocabulary items, mainly short sentences and striking exaggerated intonation (cf. O’Grady 2005:176). Therefore, child-directed speech can be regarded as the way people, mostly family members or caretakers, talk to children. Other terms also describing child-directed speech, such as “motherese” or “parentese”, can often be found in literature. In this paper, the use of these terms will be left out of consideration since not only mothers and parents talk to babies and young children. The following example shows a child-directed speech communication between a mother, her child and an investigator.

17 of 17 pages


Children's First Language Acquisition
The Importance of Child-Directed Speech
College  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
First Language Acqisition
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
File size
503 KB
children, first, language, acquisition, importance, child-directed, speech
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Jessica Schadow (Author), 2013, Children's First Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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