Language by Kathy



What roles do nature and nurture play in children’s language development?


Communication through oral language gives a person a way to connect with others either as an individual or in social groups and settings (Fellowes & Oakley, 2014, p18). Language and cognitive development could be considered as a partnership or as something that is to be learnt at different stages. Nature could be considered a maturational and nativist perspective while nurture could be considered a behaviourist and social interactionist perspective. Theorists such as Jean Piaget (cognitive) and Lev Vygotsky (social & cognitive) have contributed to childhood education with their theories. Do children learn language first through cognitive development or through cognition and social interaction?

Both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have valid theories and have contributed greatly to early childhood education. Piaget believed children grow and learn in a time suited to the individual and with little interference (maturation). His theories could be considered valid when you look at children before the age of 2. At this age children’s cognition is developing at a rapid pace. Children will have random uncontrollable movements and will gradually teach themselves how to control body movements which will in turn create a walking talking child (Oakley, 2004) This kind of development could be considered self-taught which was done so when the individual was ready to progress to the next step. The idea that language itself can be developed without little interference could be thought to be valid by the educational profession.

The maturational perspective is a theory believed that children are able to develop their language and cognition in their own time with little interference from their family and social network. It is theorised that children have an ‘inner clock’ which determines when children will begin to use oral language (Fellowes & Oakley, 2014, p50). It could be criticised that the lack of social interaction could delay when the child is ready to be taught something different. Example; children in the sensorimotor stage (0-2) (Piaget) who have developed their cognition in recognition of pictures and what they are may continue to use pictures as a way of communicating their needs.

It could be theorised, according to children, that the idea of using oral language can be delayed if use of pictorial communication is just as effective. Piaget has suggested cognitive development and maturation could be linked. As the human mind grows, so too does their thinking and grammatical skills (Oakley, 2004)

According to the nativist perspective it is believed that language acquisition is pre-built into our mind. Chromsky argued that the human brain is structured to acquire and use language and found it to astonishing how the human mind is able to create and understand syntactic systems or grammatical rules (as cited by Chromsky in Fellowes and Oakley, 2014, p49). Example; children use words they have heard and then place them into grammatically incorrect sentences i.e, A 3 year old could say “I can catched the balloon” after they let it go.

Vygotsky suggested children could develop their speech with the assistance of their peers, parents and teachers. When placed in a social situation children will interact with others and these interactions will result in learning (Oakley, 2004, p37). John Dewey believed children learn best when interacting with others working side by side and cooperatively with each other (Garhart Mooney, 2013, p16).

Children placed in social groups of a nurturing nature will find their peers scaffolding their learning. Example; Adults are able to communicate with each other using words children may not know how to say or know the semantics of each sentence. Children who are in the beginning stages of communication could require shorter words in shorter sentences thus enabling children to communicate with their peers.

According to Vygotsky, by the time children are 2 years of age, their thought and language process become related and assists children with cognitive and social development (as cited by Vygotsky in Oakley, 2004, p40). The social interactionist perspective believe children require short sentences to assist children in their understanding of oral language and the pragmatics of each sentence. Repetition of words and word order (syntactic) assists children in building their vocabulary and word meaning (Hill, 2012).

The behavioural perspective focuses on children and the environment they are in. It is believed children learn language through a nurturing environment. Where language is made up of phonemes, syntax and semantics communication through interactions with others will assist children in understanding pragmatics. Pragmatics could occur in children as early as 3 or 4 years of age (Hill, 2012).

Children who are involved in a nurturing environment where positive reinforcement is ample could see children continuing with the same words and actions and developing new words used from their social network. Example; children who say “mumma” and are positively greeted with “Mummy is here. Give Mummy cuddles” and is given kisses could soon learn how to say mummy and could associate cuddles with kisses (Fellowes and Oakley, 2014, p48).

Theorists such as Maria Montessori believed it was not only the environment children were in, but also the people who were around the children. Children who are in an environment which has been specifically adapted for the children were able to learn oral language. It can be suggested that by developing an environment where children can socially interact with their peers allows for cognitive development and language acquisition (Garhart Mooney, 2013).

In a modern society many perspectives are practiced in all kinds of educational fields. The roles that nature and nurture play in language development vary according to theorists. The nature role is based on children acquiring language at an age suited to the individual and preferably with little interference from peers, teachers and family. The nurture role is based on children acquiring language through social settings and interactions with smaller words and sentences used to assist language acquisition. To answer the initial question of how children acquire language, it could be suggested that Maria Montessori’s theory of a child like setting where children can interact with each other and their peers is the answer.


Oakley, L., Cognitive Development, 2004

Garhart Mooney, C., Theories of Childhood Second Edition, 2013

Hill, S., Developing Early Literacy: Assessment and Teaching, 2012

Fellowes, J., Oakley, G., Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education, 2nd Edition, 2014


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