Chapter 8 Language and Thought

Chapter 8 Language and Thought


Language is the human ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication and a particular language like English or Hindi is a specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics. The characteristics of language are as follows

  • It has the properties of productivity because it is able to communicate about things that are not immediately present (spatially or temporally) i.e. things that are either not here now. It relies entirely on social convention and learning.
  • Its complex structure affords a much wider range of expressions than any known system of animal communication. It helps in communicating an individual’s thoughts, expressions, emotions, feelings etc to others.
  • It helps a person to make sense of complex and abstract ideas and concepts. It helps to preserve and maintain historical, cultural and civilisation related records. The elements of language are as follows
  • Phonology It refers to the sounds of a language.
  • Semantics It is the study of words and their meaning.
  • Grammar It refers to the rules used to describe the structure of a language, which involves syntax or rules that specify how words are combined to form sentences.
  • Pragmatics It is the study of how people use language to communicate effectively. The building blocks of a language are called phonemes. They are the unique sounds that can be joined to create words, like, for instance, the sound of ‘p’ in pin, pet and pat or the sound of ‘b’ in bed, bat and bird, and so on. Infants can distinguish many of these sounds, some of them as early as one month after birth.

Factors Affecting Language Development

Linguistics experts say that although every child does not reach the same milestone of language development at the same time, natural human progression is the main factor in language development. The three main factors that affect language development are as follows

  1. Social A child’s language development directly depends on its social interactions with its parents, siblings, peers and caretakers. New words in a child’s vocabulary result due to its interaction with others. However, socio-economic conditions also affect language development, because it has been found that children from a poor socio-economic background speak much lesser number of words than children of the same age from well to do families.
  2. Educational The educational environment significantly affects a child’s language and thought development. Language development is boosted by correct exposure to reading and listening to correct language being spoken. Attending school exposes the child to a variety of learning experiences.
  3. Biological Some children are slow in language and speech development due to a biological problem like autism (mental defect making communication slow), cleft lip/ palate (from birth), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD – a brain defect), brain injury during birth etc. Such children may not be able to use words coherently, or have difficulty in communicating with others, or forming relationships with people, or using abstract concepts and language.

Importance of Language

The importance and role of language in the life of an individual is in the areas given below

  1. Carries our Thoughts Language is the vehicle of our thought. We think through language. Thought is also called Sub-vocal Speech. The thinking process is disturbed if the individual has deficiency in language.
  2. Medium of Expression Language is the medium of expression of a child’s feelings and experiences, expressed through signs, gestures and speech.
  3. Medium of Communication A child communicates with others through language. Language has also become a major tool of communication between countries, cultural groups, various companies and organisations, communities and friends.
  4. Moral Development When the child is about 18 months old, it learns what is right and wrong by listening to what its parents or other adult authorities tell him. Language is the code of our consciousness and helps us see what we may be agreeing to and creating in our world.
  5. Developing Personality Language aids in developing and grooming the child’s personality as a whole.
  6. Human Developmental Process A baby is born without language, but even without formal training, by the age of five, the child knows several hundred words and grammar of a particular language. Any discrepancy seen in learning a language at an early stage might indicate certain biological problems in a child.
  7. Child’s Growth During a child’s development, language plays an important role because it is connected with various aspects of a child’s growth. Learning a language is directly related to emotional development. For instance, a baby gazing at its parent’s face responds to by ‘cooing’ and a few words of love by its parents. This is retained in the baby’s mind and when it is a little older, it begins using language to express its emotions as well.
  8. Basis of Education Language is the basis of all education. School education is predominately language oriented. Reading, writing and arithmetic are all based on language proficiency.
  9. Medium of Literature Language is the medium of literature. All great literary works are produced through the medium of language. Language thus helps a child to read literature, understand and appreciate the work of great writers and poets etc.

Theories of Language Development

Three theories of language development in children are well- known. These are as follows

1. Language Acquisition and Environmental Theories by BF Skinner

  • One of the earliest scientific explanations of language acquisition was provided by Skinner in 1957. As one of the pioneers of behaviorism, he accounted for language development by means of environmental influence.
  • Skinner argued that children learn language based on behaviourist reinforcement principles by associating words with meanings.
  • Correct utterances are positively reinforced when the child realises the communicative value of words and phrases.
  • Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language, as well to produce and use words and sentences to communicate.

  1. The Nativist Theory by Noam Chomsky

  • This is a biological based theory, saying that humans are pre-programmed with the innate ability to develop language.
  • Chomsky proposed that all humans have a Language Acqusition Device (LAD).
  • The LAD contains knowledge of grammatical rules common to all languages and allows children to understand the rules of whatever language they are listening to.

  1. The Interactionist Theory by Lev Vygotsky

  • He said that language development is both biological and social.
  • Language learning is influenced by the desire of children to communicate with others and children are born with a powerful brain that matures slowly and predisposes them to acquire new understandings that they are motivated to share with others.

Stages of Language Development

Language development takes place in six consecutive stages, which are as follows

1. The Pre-linguistic stage

  • During the first year of life the child is in a prespeech stage.
  • Developmental aspects related to speech would include the development of gestures, making adequate eye contact, sound repartee between infant and caregiver, cooing, babbling and crying.
  • Examples of such pre-speech sounds would be dadadada, mamamama and waaaah.

2. The Holophrase or One-Word Stage

  • The child usually reaches this phase between the age of 10 and 13 months.
  • Although the child tends to utter a single word at a time, its meaning is also supplemented by the context in which it takes place, as well as by nonverbal cues.
  • An example of such a one – word sentence would be a child saying “Dada, which could mean” “Daddy, please come to me.”

  1. The Two-Word Sentence

  • By 18 months the child reaches this stage. His or her ‘sentences’ now usually comprise a noun or a verb plus a modifier.
  • This enables the child to formulate and sentence. Examples of such ‘sentences’ are ‘Doggy big’ ‘Where ball’ Once again, if the two – word sentence is supported by the situation as well as non – verbal communication, it could have quite a complex meaning.

  1. Multiple-Word Sentences

  • The child reaches this stage between the age of two and a half years. Furthermore, the child can now form sentences with a subject and a predicate. Using the examples which were listed in the previous stage, the sentences could now be the following ‘Doggy is big’ ‘Where is ball’?

  1. More Complex Grammatical Structures

  • Children reach this stage roughly between two and half and three years of age.
  • They use more intricate and complex grammatical structures, elements are added (conjunction), embedded and permuted within sentences and prepositions are used.
  • See the following examples in this regard ‘Read it, my book’ ‘Where is Daddy?’

  1. Adult-like Language Structures

  • The five to six- year – old child reaches this developmental level.
  • Complex structural distinctions can now be made, such as by using the concepts ‘ask/tell’ and ‘promise’ and changing the word order in the sentence accordingly. Examples are “Ask her what time it is.” “He promised to help her.”


Thought refers to ideas or arrangements of ideas that are the result of the process of thinking. Thinking allows humans to make sense of, interpret, represent or model the world they experience, and to make predictions about that world. It is helpful to an organism with needs, objectives and desires, as it makes plans and tries to accomplish these goals. The characteristics of thought are as follows

  • It is the product of mental activity.
  • It is the capacity to think, reason, imagine etc.
  • It is the consideration of, or reflection of an idea.
  • It is recollection or contemplation.
  • It is anticipation or expectation.
  • It is consideration, attention, care or regard for somebody. It is judgement, opinion or belief.
  • It is the ideas, characteristics of a particular place, class or time. It is the state of being conscious of something.

Language and Thought are Independent

Regarding the role of language for development and the relationship between language and thought: According to Piaget, thought comes before language, which is only one of its forms of expression.

  • The formation of thought basically depends on the coordination of sensorimotor schemes and not of language.
  • It can occur only after the child has reached a certain level of mental abilities subordinating herself, to the thought processes. As for Vygotsky, thought and language are interdependent processes, from the beginning of life.
  • The acquisition of language by the child modifies its higher mental functions. It gives a definite shape to thought, enables the emergence of imagination, the memory usage and the action planning.

Interdependence of Thought and Language

  • The majority of our everyday life involves the use of language. We tell our ideas to others with language, we ‘read’ their responses and understand their meanings with language, and very often, we ‘speak’ internally to ourselves when we process this information and make logical conclusions. Thus, rational thinking unavoidably involves certain degrees of the use of language.
  • The linguists Sapir and Whorf proposed the hypothesis that thought is utterly determined by language. They said, “Language is a regular part of the process of thinking… It is not a question of one notion taking precedence over the other, but of both notions being essential.”
  • However, another view of the interdependence of language and thought is that language helps us to think with a specific point of view and thought then develops the language. Thus, thought is not only being expressed in words, but it also comes into existence through these words.
  • Every thought relates one object to another and it moves, grows and develops, executes functions and solves problems. This flow of thought occurs as an inner movement which can be based on language, or can also be without language.

Development of Thought

It is generally understood that children actively build a symbol system or thought process to understand the world around them, which guides them in developing language. It has the elements given below

  1. Cognition Cognition refers to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. It involves thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. Cognitive psychology, the branch of psychology related to human cognition, studies the processing of information by a person. It answers the questions given below

(i) How does a person receive information?
(ii) How does a person process the information received?
(iii) How does the information received lead to a response from the person?
(iv) How does a person solve a problem?

  1. Feedback According to James Lange, bodily changes occur in an individual when it feels excited, afraid or aroused. For instance, the heartbeat may go up. This is a feedback of the body to the information received, also called the Stimulus.
  2. Facial Expressions These are important indicators of the response of a person to a stimulus. Thus, if a person sees a cartoon that he understands, he will display the facial expression of a smile.
  3. Problem-Solving A problem is solved by taking a particular action when a person experiences a stimulus. Thus, for instance, if a person is chased by some undesirable people who he wants to avoid, he may decide to run away. This is due to the thought process going on, which changes swiftly, covering large distances over time and space to process information very fast.
  4. Formation of Concepts Concepts are an important class of language symbols used in thinking. A concept is a figurative construction of the common features of items and events. A concept depicts a category of things with its associated types and sub-types. For instance, the concept of a dog will include all its different breeds like Alsatian, Pekinese, Pomeranian etc.
  5. Creative Thinking This is important in a children’s classroom because use of language is a creative act. Most children become motivated, inspired or challenged if they can create something of value. It improves their self-esteem, leads to genuine communication and co-operation, besides enriching classroom work, making it more varied and enjoyable by tapping into individual talents, ideas and thoughts. Further, creative thinking is an important skill required in real life by the child later on.


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