Introduction to Language and Learning

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An Introduction to Language Development

The ability to communicate is perhaps the single most important life skill. Consequently, the acquisition of language is crucial not only for learning but in developing our social behaviour and our self identity. Our ability to perceive the world and make sense of it is richly bound up with our mastery of language. An immeasurable wealth of knowledge and understanding that is beyond our immedicate experience is available through language. Any delay or difficulty in acquiring these language skills can have far reaching implications for both learning and life in general.

Language development starts at birth (perhaps before) and by the time most children start school they will have mastered a whole range of language skills. These skills enable them to be effective learners. They are also the basis by which children understand and apply social communication rules in their interactions with others. These language skills can be divided in to our ability to understand language, input, and our ability to communicate using language, output. Input is usually referred to as receptive language, whilst output is known as expressive language.

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Receptive Language

Receptive language starts with our ability to pay attention to the speech of others (or in the deaf to their signing). We listen to the sounds and store them briefly whilst we try and compare them with our memory bank of words. If the words and their order are recognised we will start to make sense of them. This is a very simplified model of receptive language:

Attention & Listening - Memory and Processing - Understanding

In more depth, receptive language includes listening behaviours; our capacity to discrimate sounds; working memory; long term memory; auditory and/or visual processing; executive functions; word knowledge; understanding of grammar; social use of language including pragmatics and non-verbal signals.

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Expressive Language

Expressive language is our ability to communicate our thoughts to others. Spoken language starts with an idea or concept which is processed into a words and then sentences. The sounds needed to produce the words are retrieved from memory and the correct signals are sent to the muscles associated with speech to produce them. At the same time decisions are made about the non-verbal signals that will go with the spoken words. This will include both voice decisions such as tone, volume and speed as well as body language. This is a very simplified model of expressive language:

Ideas & Thoughts - Memory and Processing - Articulation and Body Language

In more depth, expressive language includes executive functions; word choice (semantics); sentence structure (syntax); sound selection (phonology); muscle co-ordination; articulation; pragmatics; non-verbal communication and self-monitoring.

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Language and Literacy

Literacy links spoken language with symbols. Reading becomes an extension of receptive language abilities and writing of expressive language. Literacy is therefore reliant on the successful acquisition of language skills. However, as the child becomes increasingly literate they begin to acquire language through their reading. Equally as writing skills develop a greater range of expression is possible.

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You may also be interested in the following pages:

Expressive Language Milestones

Receptive Language Milestones

Social Interaction and Play Milestones

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