study guide




 Language Development                                         

Course overview

Like speech, language develops according to a timetable. As the child develops a vocabulary, first words with their underlying meanings are then combined to create utterances according to rules of syntax and grammar. While the child is learning the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of her language, she is also learning the social customs regarding its use. These are internalized as pragmatic rules.

Children whose language development lags significantly from the developmental timetable may be considered developmentally delayed in language acquisition. A child with a language disorder may not use the language commensurate with her peers. She may be delayed in acquiring the vocabulary, syntax, grammar and pragmatics of her age mates. The child may have some of the characteristics of the language expected for her age, say vocabulary, but may be behind in syntax. Another child may have difficulty understanding the pragmatics of language and not know what to say in a given situation, whereas vocabulary may be limited in yet another. These problems in language development may be correlated with problems in later developing language-related areas such as reading.

In this course I will discuss some of the main topics and questions in the field. What problems and puzzles face infants as they start to learn language? And what puzzles do we face in trying to find out what they know? 


The mapping of form and meaning

The one-word stage

The two-word stage / simple sentences

Verbs and argument structures

Grammatical morphemes


One part of the Developmental studies Summer paper

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Course reading

Owens, R.E. (1996) or (2001). Language development: an introduction. Allyn & Bacon.

Chiat, S. (2001). Understanding children with language problems. CUP.

Other useful resources:

Cattell, R. (2000). Children’s language: consensus and Controversy. Cassell: London

Gallaway, C. & Richards, B. (1984). Input and interaction in language acquisition. CUP.

Ferguson, C.A. & Slobin, D.I. (1973). Studies in child language

Fletcher, P. & MacWhinney, B. (1995).  The handbook of child language. Blackwell.

Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.F. (1982). The origins of grammar: evidence from early language comprehension. MIT press. 

Ingram, D. (1989). First language acquisition: method, description and explanation. CUP

Morgan, J.L. & Demuth, K. (1996). Signal to syntax: bootstrapping from speech to grammar in early acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Morgan, G. & Woll, B. (2002). (eds)  New directions in sign language acquisition.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 

Wanner, E. & Gleitman, L.R. (1982). Language acquisition: the state of the art. CUP 

Supplementary weekly reading:

References to research papers appearing in Journals and Books will be given at each lecture and copies provided for some of these in the Red Box. 

Relevant journals:

Cognition, Cognitive Psychology, First Language, Journal of Child Language (JCL), Journal of Psycholinguistic research (JPR), Language and Cognitive Processes, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (MSRCD)

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Reading box

Copies of chapters, papers, handouts etc will be placed in a labeled reading box in the student photo-copying room.  Please think of others when using this material.

I am free most days for brief enquiries.  Email or leave a note in my pigeon-hole to book a time for longer discussion (better in groups for this)

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You can visit a lot of websites that have lectures, papers and other very relevant information on language acquisition - get surfing!

 Websites  (working at time of publishing)                                 

Introduction to Language and Language Acquisition

Humorous piece on language acquisition

CHILDES: Child Language Data Exchange System.  Tools for studying children's language acquisition through the study of conversational interactions. The site features a database of transcripts, programs for analysis, and methods of coding data, among other things.

An overview of the field and brief descriptions of its subdisciplines.

An introduction to the patterning of sounds, words, and phrases. Includes exercises and sound clips.

Linguistics FAQ


Role of babbling in language acquisition

Decoding baby babble

Example of baby babbling:  what type of babbling is this?

Lots of video and audio clips of sounds around the world

Includes the full IPA chart and audio files, as well as information on the organization.

Notes from a phonetics course at the University of Manitoba, including phonetic transcriptions of English, vocal tract anatomy, properties of consonants and vowels, and acoustic phonetics, among other things.

The homepage for a course at Yale. Includes lecture materials and audio-video clips.

These interactive tutorials from University College London are part of a project called System for Interactive Phonetics Training and Assessment. They include voicing, plosives (i.e., stops), and other topics.


The MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories.  These are parent report forms to assess the development of language and communication in children. Included are lexical norms for English vocabulary acquisition showing when particular words and expressions are acquired.


Morphological paradoxes

This short essay from Robert BeardĴs files illustrating what morphology is begins with "Jabberwocky," compares lexemes and morphemes, and makes a stop at Tagalog reduplication along the way.

A definition and illustration of the concept of a morpheme using examples from English.

Unpaired words or why people arenĴt couth, kempt or ruly  


A lighthearted introduction to syntax from Robert BeardĴs files.

A lighthearted introduction to syntax from Robert BeardĴs files.

This engine translates entire paragraphs back and forth between English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism


Anatomy of the Brain.  An outline with illustrations for students. Includes concise sections on BrocaĴs area and WernickeĴs area different parts of the brain do

What Do Different Parts of the Brain Do?  Question 12 in a series of frequently asked questions written for stroke victims and their families features a clear, color-coded, numbered diagram of the left hemisphere, with an explanation. Scroll down to read question 13 concerning speech problems.


Genetics of language:

Evolution of language:

Language Acquisition in Special Circumstances

Linguistic isolates (ĺwild childrenĹ):

Nova #2112G: Secret of the Wild Child.  The broadcast transcript of a Nova program on Genie. Includes interview material with Susan Curtiss and others involved in caring for Genie and studying her development.

Deafness :

Down Syndrome:

Williams Syndrome:


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STUDY GUIDE FOR LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT                             

10 hints for doing well in this class:  

1)  Come to every class and take good notes.  If you do miss a class, get the notes from a classmate.  I stress different topics in my lectures than those stressed in the readings.  The material I stress in lecture tends to appear on exams. 

2)  Spend 10 minutes immediately after each lecture going over your lecture notes, reconstructing the lecture and making sure you understand the "key concepts" for the day.

3)  Spend the 10 minutes before each lecture going over the lecture notes and "key concepts" from the previous class.

4)  Try to at least skim the assigned readings before each class.

5)  When you go back and reread the books, use the lecture notes to guide your reading.  

6)  If you are having trouble with one of the readings for a topic, talk to me about supplementary readings. 

7)  If you don't understand something said in the lectures or in the readings, let me know.  Ask a question in class or come to my office hours.  Chances are if you are confused, others are too.

8) Use your lecture notes and the "key concepts" to review for exams

9)  Form study groups and quiz each other on key concepts.

10)  Do not try to cram.  The material in this course builds on itself, just like in a math or physics course and the exams are cumulative.  If you don't learn the material in the beginning of the course, you are going to be lost.