In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Learning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Research Methods
  • Atypical Language Development
  • Deaf Children and Sign Language

Childhood Studies Language Learning
Amy Paugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0039


The study of language learning is central to understanding how children learn to communicate and become competent members of their communities and social worlds. It is basic to the study of what it means to be human. As such, the body of research on this topic spans multiple disciplines including linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, human development, education, applied linguistics, speech-language pathology, and neuroscience. It entails studies of the acquisition of first and second (third, etc.) languages in monolingual and bi/multilingual contexts, and both typical and atypical language development. Theories and methods used to study this phenomenon vary across academic disciplines. Linguistic and psychological approaches to first-language acquisition have focused more heavily on cognitive processes and development, while research from anthropological and sociolinguistic perspectives tends to examine learning language in its social and cultural context. These differing orientations are reflected in the terms used to refer to the process, for example, language acquisition or language development in linguistic and psychological approaches and language socialization in anthropological approaches. Much research on first-language acquisition has been carried out on English-speaking North American and European populations, but recent years have witnessed increasing analysis of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural data. Studies range in focus, examining theoretical claims or the acquisition of particular linguistic features such as phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse. Researchers investigate the influences on language learning and seek to illuminate the relations of language to human development, cognitive processes, and/or culture. Normally developing children worldwide evidence a high degree of similarity in early language learning; thus it has been possible to summarize general developmental sequences. One of the most fundamental points of rigorous debate concerns the degree of influence played by innate genetic predispositions or mechanisms of language (“nature”) versus the role of the social environment and language(s) children are exposed to (“nurture”). Spurred by this and other debates, the field has exploded since the 1960s. The literature is extensive and multidisciplinary, with each area often very specialized. This bibliography covers a wide range of perspectives, including research that falls on all points of the nature-nurture continuum, but focuses primarily on early childhood and confines itself to reviews, primary case studies, and foundational publications on child language learning in each tradition. The article was compiled with research assistance from Divya Ganesan at James Madison University.

General Overviews

A good point of entry into this vast topic can be found in the many encyclopedia entries on language learning. These introduce stages of acquisition and major findings, as well as theoretical models, explanatory frameworks, disciplinary perspectives, and methods. Coverage varies according to focus, however, with entries on “acquisition” and “socialization” typically found in different locations in the same volume. Summaries of language acquisition stages and research directions include Crystal 2010; Lieven 2006; Lust 2011; Menn, et al. 2003; and Bernstein Ratner 2010. Savova 2005 considers both first- and second-language acquisition. Ochs and Schieffelin 2008 and Riley 2008 provide succinct overviews of the historical development and theory of language socialization research. All of the reviews include useful references for further research.

  • Bernstein Ratner, Nan. “First Language Acquisition.” In International Encyclopedia of Education. Edited by Penelope Peterson, Eva Baker, and Barry McGaw, 375–381. Oxford: Elsevier, 2010.

    A concise introduction to the stages and milestones of first-language acquisition. Briefly considers cross-linguistic variation and individual differences in language learning, acquisition theories, and developmental language disorders.

  • Crystal, David. “Part VII: Child Language Acquisition.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. 3d ed. By David Crystal, 236–265. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    An accessible general introduction to central methods, theories, and findings of research in child language acquisition, including stages of language development; the first year; phonological, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic development; and later language learning in school.

  • Lieven, Elena. “Language Development: Overview.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 376–391. Boston: Elsevier, 2006.

    Surveys developmental psycholinguistic approaches to language learning, contrasting nativist and constructivist approaches. Provides a timetable of language development and a discussion of atypical development. Available in print and e-reference editions.

  • Lust, Barbara. “Acquisition of Language.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Edited by Patrick C. Hogan, 56–64. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Overview of the study of language acquisition, from linguistic and psycholinguistic perspectives. Written for advanced students and scholars. Includes an extensive bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

  • Menn, Lise, Marilyn M. Vihman, Cynthia Fisher, et al. “Acquisition of Language.” In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by William J. Frawley, 9–28. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This entry provides an overview of the following aspects of language acquisition: phonology, syntax, communicative competence, critical periods, and second-language acquisition. Includes a bibliography for each area. Available in print and e-reference editions.

  • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi Schieffelin. “Language Socialization: An Historical Overview.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Education. 2d ed. Vol. 8, Language Socialization. Edited by Patricia A. Duff and Nancy H. Hornberger, 3–15. New York: Springer, 2008.

    Reviews the field of language socialization, including its initial development, relations between the fields of language acquisition and socialization, and current research directions.

  • Riley, Kathleen C. “Language Socialization.” In The Handbook of Educational Linguistics. Edited by Bernard Spolsky and Francis M. Hult, 398–410. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470694138

    Introduces the study of language socialization, explaining its origins, orientations, and key areas of investigation, with a review of relevant research. Contextualizes it in relation to language acquisition approaches.

  • Savova, Lilia. “Acquisition.” In Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Vol. 1. Edited by Philipp Strazny, 3–7. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005.

    A general introduction to first- and second-language acquisition. Discusses nativism, cognitive development, social development, critical-period hypothesis, and second-language acquisition.

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