Theories of Language Development: A Brief Overview of the Foundational Ideas

Language development is a seriously complex topic.

This post will start you on the road to uncovering the most important figures, theories and facts you’ll most likely hear over and over again in your language learning journey.

Deep breaths everyone, as we delve into the fascinating theories of language development.


A Brief Overview of Language Development Theories

The most prominent figure in language development is Noam Chomsky, who’s been studying this ever since his days at MIT. Then there are those who have offered their take on language development from a psychological perspective. This includes psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

We’ll be giving you a brief overview of their theories and perspectives. Fair warning to all: There’s a lot of psychology here, so be prepared for a bunch of fancy new terms (we’ll explain them briefly as we go, of course).

1. Chomsky’s Nativist Language Theories

Noam Chomsky has been studying and developing his theories since the 1950s.

In his book “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax” published in 1965, he has pushed forward the fundamental observation that there are deep structures and surface structures in every sentence, no matter what language.

This is the reason why you can form sentences with similar meaning using a theoretically infinite combination of words.

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Essentially, deep structures are the thoughts and meanings we want to express and surface structures are the words, sounds and symbols we use to try and express them.

Let’s look at some examples. Take a look at the following sentence:

Language development seems really complicated to me.

I think language development is really complicated.

Both express exactly the same thing using different words and a different word order. The deep structure is the same (the notion that language development is obviously not the simplest thing in the world), though the words used (surface structure) are different.

The use of these words and their structures are refined over the course of time. It changes and evolves on the surface, but the deeper structures remain. This is a part of Chomsky’s transformational-generative grammar theory.

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Another important contribution Chomsky made to linguistic studies is the theory of universal grammar. He asserted that the human brain contains a mechanism for language acquisition, meaning that our languages share the same deeper structures despite the largely superficial surface structures.

This is why it’s possible for anyone to learn a foreign language, regardless of the complexity of its grammatical structure or script.

2. B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Perspective

Tackling the issue of language from a different perspective was B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist.

Simply put, the behavioral perspective postulates that everything we do is dictated by our environment and that our behavior is a response to external stimuli through operant conditioning, the process through which behavior changes with positive and negative reinforcement.

B.F. Skinner theorized that language acquisition is dictated by our environment and the positive or negative reinforcement we receive from it.

Parents, for example, enforce correct usage of a word in children with positive facial or verbal reactions. They play larger roles in our “verbal behavior,” a concept Skinner describes in his book. Verbal behavior introduces the concept of functions to words, as well as meanings.

For example, a child may know what to call a toilet, but they must also learn what the use of that word will allow them to acquire or express. They’ve heard their parents say this word, but what happens when they say it? Most likely, their parents take them to it.

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So in this case, the most basic function of the word is to express a need to use the bathroom. A pretty important thing to be able to express, wouldn’t you say?

3. Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

Jean Piaget was another prominent psychologist who offered yet another take on language acquisition and development. His focus was on child development and the stages children go through to develop and learn.

He asserted that children would only be able to fully grasp some concepts within specific developmental stages, due to the fact that certain sections of the brain would only further develop at certain ages.

For example, since the sensorimotor stage develops first during the first two years of a child’s life, children focus on their immediate surroundings, experimenting with the things around them by playing with them, biting them or throwing them.

Throughout this stage, they’ll take things apart, put things back together and explore the concept of things existing in and out of sight. By the end of it all, they’ll be able to visualize things that aren’t there in front of them, which is arguably the most crucial part of this stage when it comes to language and communication.

Next comes the preoperational stage in which children are able to think in slightly more abstract ways. They begin to toy with symbols. They’ll use words in ways that aren’t generally accepted or understood.

For example, they may use the word “pillow” to mean “cloth” purely because of the few shared characteristics between the two objects.

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They do this for egocentric communication. Anyone who’s ever tried to communicate with a two-year-old will know that they aren’t all that interested in other perspectives. They’re too busy trying to explore their own mind, so don’t take it personally.

You may have noticed already that these concepts focus less on language and more on cognitive development during childhood and you’d be right.

That being said, it’s still important to know because Piaget did establish that language plays a huge role in cognitive development, chiefly in the way children use language throughout each stage.

During the sensorimotor stage, children experiment with sounds, and language is mostly about the auditory aspects. They don’t care about the meaning, they just like to create sounds.

During the preoperational stage, children use language to express themselves, but they can’t really distinguish conversation from pure expression.

During the concrete operational stage, children state facts and observations. Finally, during the formal operational stage, children are able to use language to express, discuss and debate abstract concepts.

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4. Vygotsky’s Constructivist Learning Theory

Not completely unrelated is Lev Vygotsky‘s theory of social development.

It’s referred to as the constructivist perspective and describes the concept of development through construction of thought and meaning. To understand it completely, you first have to understand his perspective.

It challenges the more widely-held concept of knowledge and proposes that knowledge is a construction of meaning unique to the individual. How a person grew up (their culture) will affect how they think. He emphasizes the importance of others in our development (i.e., social interaction and guided learning).

Vygotsky postulated that language develops similarly, but focused on the development of social speech, private speech and inner speech.

Social speech is the language we use with others while private speech (talking to ourselves) is not meant to communicate with others (this happens around the age of three). Inner speech only really begins to appear around the age of six or seven with private speech being internalized.

It’s a complex idea that goes beyond the scope of this post, but children at this stage begin to internalize language and meaning and, as Vygotsky says, begin “thinking in pure meaning.”

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Suffice it to say that our relationship with language becomes increasingly more sophisticated and goes beyond the meaning of the words and into the feelings or ideas the words elicit.

What These Language Development Theories Mean for You

In the same way that these theories have aided children and teachers in refining their learning and teaching techniques, you can use this knowledge to fine-tune your language-learning methods.

With a better understanding of these theories and their roots, you can ask yourself, “Is the approach I’m using right now working for me?”

If we consider Chomsky’s ideas of universal grammar, we can say that all languages adhere to certain grammatical parameters, like word order. Our job is then to figure out those parameters by hearing example sentences and formulating the rules of the second language. 

Or should you try tackling grammar from another angle? For example, you might do that by spending time in a different environment where that foreign language is abundant as the constructivist perspective might suggest.

Of course, if you can’t go to another country, you can immerse yourself in the language at home. There are many programs that can help you do so, like FluentU—which uses authentic videos like movie clips and music videos to teach languages in context. The program also helps you study through the use of interactive subtitles and flashcards, as well as quizzes, transcripts, a contextual dictionary and other useful learner features.

What about those of you who are trying to find ways to teach your children a second language? Perhaps taking a look at Piaget’s developmental stages could help you figure out where your child’s mind is focused and how best to introduce a new language to them.


With so many theories out there concerning language development, see what works for you and which theories or perspectives you’d like to explore.

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