Course taster

The concept of language

Speech, language and communication abilities are essential life skills that enable us to successfully navigate our social world. Among other benefits, language aids us in developing friendships and social relationships, constructing our self-identity and performing well academically (I Can and RCSLT, 2018). Unfortunately, early language deficits during childhood are often associated with an array of negative impacts and, for some individuals, could potentially elevate the risk of antisocial and offending behaviour (Jackson, 2017; Snow et al., 2012; Stattin & Klackenberg-Larsson, 1993). This final unit of the module will introduce you to language development in children; specifically, we will explore the concept of language and its key features as a communication system. We will then examine the different components of language and the stages of language acquisition in typically developing children. Following this, we will consider theoretical explanations of language development before finally applying language to the criminal justice system.

On successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:

Firstly, we will explore the concept of language and consider its key features as a communication system in an Activity.


Consider the key features of language

In this activity we'll reflect on the term language and what you think it means. Think about how you would define language and what this term represents before starting the next part of the activity. When you are ready to proceed, there are 3 steps to this activity:

Step one

Based on your initial thoughts and ideas about the meaning of the term language, write a succinct answer to the following question in your Personal Journal (The link to the Personal Journal is not available in this course taster):

Do animals have language?


Image source: Flickr (Accessed on 06.02.2023)

Your answer should be no longer than 100 words and should briefly outline the reasons why you believe that animals possess language or not. This step should take you around 15 minutes to complete. We will revisit your answer to this question later in the activity.

Step two

Now that you have written your answer to the question in step one, please watch the following five-minute video; this discusses specific qualities we associate with language and whether certain animals use these qualities to communicate:

Do animals have language? - Michele Bishop

View Do animals have language? - Michele Bishop video transcript

Step three

Refer to your Personal Journal and think about how the information presented in the video has supported or challenged your answer to the original question in step one (The link to the Personal Journal is not available in this course taster). Identify one key fact or issue from the video that you consider the most interesting or surprising about the qualities of language and its association with animal communication. Please post your chosen fact or issue on the relevant Discussion Board thread in Teams and briefly state the reason(s) for your choice and whether this supports or challenges your initial views about language (The link to the Discussion Board is not available in this course taster). Identify at least one post from your peers that presents a fact or issue different to your own. You may choose to briefly comment on what you found interesting about their post. This part of the activity should take you around 15 minutes to complete and your tutor will provide feedback to the group.

The concept of language

We will now examine the features of language in more detail. Select the titles to find out more information about each of the five key features presented by Brown (1973) and Lyons (1978):

A word can refer to anything the speakers of a language choose it to refer to. Language is arbitrary and words are not always inherently related to the objects or concepts they represent. For example, we have chosen to name the yellow ball of light in the daytime sky the "sun" and the lesser light of the evening as the "moon" (Bjorklund, 2005). Words can also take on different meanings depending on the context in which they are said. The word "wicked", for example, can either convey something that is good (e.g., "it was a wicked night out") or bad (e.g., "it was a wicked crime") when used in different contexts and situations.

Languages are creative, and the speakers of a language can produce an endless number of sentences using only a limited set of words. A language does not consist of a finite number of words and sentences; rather, languages have systems of rules (syntax or grammar) in place that allow speakers to produce and understand sentences that have never been uttered before (Bjorklund, 2005).

Languages can represent objects, actions, events and ideas symbolically (Bjorklund, 2005). For example, competent speakers of a language often use figures of speech such as metaphors (e.g., "the curtain of darkness," or "blanket of snow") to describe an object or action in a way that is not literally true but helps to explain an idea or make a comparison.

Languages can displace the speaker and listener from the present moment (Bjorklund, 2005). For example, we can have a conversation with a friend about the great film we had watched last weekend or the holiday we have planned to go on in the summer. Through language we can know about objects and events that may be miles away in different time periods.

Languages are represented at two levels: (1) phonology – the sounds of a language and (2) the underlying abstract, meaning of language reflected by the syntax (rules of putting words together) and semantics (meanings of words and concepts).

In the following section we'll look further at the component parts of language that a child must acquire.