How Does Language Emerge?

It’s always been thought-provoking to me how children get to learn language and how they adopt our way of communicating with others. That’s why I chose this particular reading for my EDPS712 class at Hunter. Text “Cognitive Functions of Language in Early Childhood” by Katherine Nelson, a distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center develops a framework on the development of language in children and how this process can be better understood in light of what Vygotsky and Piaget offered. The reading points out to what seems to be a tendency for professionals and parents to think that children say simply what they already know. Yet, this seems to be a mere assumption. A further discussion on the relationship of language and the formation of thoughts follows. Yet the central questions in my mind are: What comes first? Language or thoughts? How are the two related?

Nelson’s (2005) points resonated with me in two aspects. First, this importance of thinking in a particular language was very intriguing. I am a Spanish native speaker and I learned English when I was about 16 years old. I was able to grasp the words and form a conversation after a certain amount of time. It was much difficult, though, and a longer process to be able to think in English. I used to have thoughts in Spanish and then have them translated into English before I’d say a word. After a few years, I have now realized that this thinking process has become more a more natural process. Second, the author explains how children may focus particularly on words before understanding full concepts which is why they want to be read the same story over and over before going to bed. The process for them to fully understand the concepts and logic of the story takes longer than grasping the meaning and sound of a word. This latter point makes me think whether language can be a tool for the child to expand the existing knowledge and give voice to new knowledge as the child enters the world of adult language.

Looking at language development through the Vygotskian and Piagetian lenses, we find one common idea they both agree upon: there is a difference between the child’s language in comparison to adults’ language. On the one hand, Piaget views language development in children as a way to express thought. In other words, one can analyze the child’s thought by analyzing his speech. Vygotsky, on the other hand, understands children’s use of language as social and communicative, seemingly apart from the child’s cognitive structures. One main difference between Piaget and Vygotsky deals with private speech. For Vygotsky, private speech at around age 4 represents the coming together of speech and cognition; these two, according to him, had been on separate tracks. Here is when speech is directed to thought for cognitive purposes leading to the development of preconcepts and turning language more like that of adults. This advancement that is aided by language is what takes the child to a more sophisticated way of communicating with others.

Nelson also discusses whether concepts precede thoughts. This opens the discussion about whether language is a mere tool to communicate and give labels to existing concepts or whether language can be used to simply expressed ideas that couldn’t be expressed if we didn’t have it. In addition, both Vygotsky and Piaget acknowledged that adults use words to communicate their concepts and this is challenging for children as they must receive these words and match, if there's one already, or construct a new concept. This leads to the importance of context as a way for children to understand concepts through language. Similarly, the use of words as clues to defining concepts is also linked to experience. Here, the author explains the common assumption that both children and adults share conceptual systems. By the age of 2, she indicates, children may view everyday objects much the same as adults do. At this time because children are able to view the world in a three-dimensional way, they’re able to better recognize objects.

Finally, Nelson discusses language as a tool of thought pointing out to whether language can be used as a conduit to build a knowledge base, that is, simply to gain knowledge. Donald (1991), as quoted by Nelson, speaks to the way in which language can be utilized to categorize objects and sort things out. Here the example that caught my attention was how children can use language to transmit their own concepts and turn them into general knowledge, concepts that become socially shared. This resonates with me as I tend to identify myself with Vygotsky’s view of constructing knowledge. Children not only experience events that surround them but they also become social actors by transmitting their thoughts using language.


Nelson, K. (2005). Cognitive Functions of Language in Early Childhood. In Homer, B. D., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S. (Eds.), The Development of Social Cognition and Communication (pp. 7-28). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Disclaimer: This post was adapted from an original reading response assignment submitted to the EDPS712 (Child & Adolescent Development) class at Hunter College in the fall of 2014. Both the original assignment and this post belong to Pablo Avila.


I am the Academic Resource Center Coordinator at the Center for Teaching and Learning at LaGuardia Community College working primarily in the First Year Seminar initiative. I am also a student in the MA program in educational psychology at Hunter College. I am particularly passionate with the use of technology in learning environments. Read more about me.