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Gesell's Theories on Acquiring Language

written by: Jessica Ocheltree • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

Arnold Gesell was a psychologist and pediatrician who was a pioneer in the field of childhood development. The language acquisition theories about maturation by Gesell are still used as important benchmarks in measuring development. This includes timetables for language acquisition.

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    Arnold Gesell

    Gesell was a psychologist and pediatrician who established Yale's Clinic of Child Development. Prior to Gesell's work, systematic scientific study of childhood development was rare. He was one of the first to look at large numbers of children of varying ages and determine what the developmental norms were for particular ages.

    The theory that he is best known for is the maturation theory, which basically emphasized the influence of genetics on development and behavior. Gesell believed that humans develop motor, adaptive, language and personal-social skills in a fixed sequence that unfolds naturally as a result of our unique biological makeup. He didn't totally disregard the influences of environmental factors, but felt that they were far less influential than biology. In other words, he was a proponent of nature over nurture.

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    Gesell and Language Acquisition

    The language acquisition theories about maturation by Gesell focused primarily on the development of motor and language skills. According to his normative timetable, the essential milestones for language development happen between the ages of 40 weeks and 5 years.

    • 40-50 weeks: A child begins to produce meaningful sounds, which might be simple words or childish nicknames.
    • Age 1 to 2: The child's vocabulary expands and pronunciation becomes clearer. They begin to use longer phrases and very simple sentences.
    • Age 2 to 3: The child begins to communicate in complete sentences. Language becomes a tool for thinking and the child will move beyond very simple ideas to more abstract ones.
    • Age 3 to 4: The child asks a lot of questions, using language as a means to expand their knowledge of the world. He or she will also become able to make generalizations.
    • Age 4 to 5: The child has a basic mastery of the language.
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    Gesell and Second Language Acquisition

    Actually, Gesell and his research partner Frances Ilg were among the first educators to address the question of the best time to begin studying a foreign language. Gesell and Ilg suggested that it was essential than second language study begin before the age of 10 and preferably before a child begins formal education.

    Gesell stressed that children under 10 are emotionally predisposed to learn additional languages because they still view languages as fun and playful. Developmentally, they are still ready to learn and to communicate. As he himself put it, "The young child below the age of 10 enjoys language experience... With favorable motivation, he is emotionally amenable to a second or even a third language."

    Ilg added that children below the age of 10 are intellectually better equipped to study language. She felt that their natural inclinations for imitation and expansion at that age would lend themselves naturally to the acquisition of another language.

    Both Gesell and Ilg felt that after the age of 10 a "critical period" had passed and studying another language would become more difficult.