Differences Between Cognitive Development and Language Learning

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget holds the distinction of creating one of the best-known theories of cognitive development 1. Piaget described cognitive development as a dual process involving assimilating and accommodating knowledge and thought processes. As a child assimilates or transforms details from his environment, he positions them within his existing knowledge bank. On the other hand, when he accommodates environmental details, he adapts his knowledge bank to allow new input. The first two stages of cognitive development occur during infancy and early childhood, and encompass language acquisition 23.

Cognition: Early Brain Development

Cognition, the mental ability to learn and acquire knowledge, is part of early brain development. Cognitive development encompasses all sensory input 12. As Master Social Worker (MSW) Angela Aswalt explained regarding Piaget’s theory, infants initially learn through instinctive and reflexive behavior. Their earliest cognitive development consists of two major milestones: discovery that they can acquire attention to their needs, typically through crying; and understanding of the “object permanence” concept--even if caregivers “disappear” from view, they reappear to tend to infants’ needs.

Language: Later Brain Development

In contrast to cognition, babies normally develop language somewhere between 12 to 18 months of age. Language acquisition is part of later brain development and builds upon existing cognition. In other words, babies begin to understand concepts and make distinctions between objects and events, prior to acquiring the ability to define them with relevant words. Whereas cognition is initially instinctive, language learning occurs as an acquired skill when babies process what they see and hear around them. Babies begin acquiring language by mimicking words spoken by other people and understanding the connection between the words and the objects or events represented.

Cognition: Ongoing Brain Development

As toddlers progress through early childhood years, between the ages of two to five, cognitive brain development continues. The University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) determined that cognitive developmental milestones include thinking, reasoning and problem-solving 4. These milestones range from exploration, tasks such as piecing puzzles together and matching shapes around age two, to comprehension of concepts such as colors and numbers between the ages of three and four. Normally a five-year-old child can correctly name a few colors, count up to 10 or more, begin to understand the concept of time and identify things he uses daily.

Language: Ongoing Brain Development

Language learning explodes during these years, as normally developing children achieve several milestones. As defined by UMHS, from a previous vocabulary of only about a dozen words, two-year-old toddlers acquire a working language of as many as 200 words, including sentences of two or three words. Between three to four years old, children form sentences of four or more words and understand basic grammar rules. By the age of five, children can often recite part of a story, recall their names and addresses, and use longer sentences, including incorporating the future tense.

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