What features of brain processing and neural development support linguistic development in young children? To what extent is the profile and timing of linguistic development in young children determined by a pre-ordained genetic programme? Does the environment play a crucial role in determining the patterns of change observed in children growing up? Recent experimental, neuroimaging and computational studies of developmental change in children promise to contribute to a deeper understanding of how the brain becomes wired up for language. In this review, the muttidisciplinary perspectives of cognitive neuroscience, experimental psycholinguistics and neural network modelling are brought to bear on four distinct areas in the study of language acquisition: early speech perception, word recognition, word learning and the acquisition of grammatical inflections. It is suggested that each area demonstrates how linguistic development can be driven by the interaction of general learning mechanisms, highly sensitive to particular statistical regularities in the input, with a richly structured environment which provides the necessary ingredients for the emergence of linguistic representations that support mature language processing. Similar epigenetic principles, guiding the emergence of linguistic structure, apply to all these domains, offering insights into phenomena ranging from the precocity of young infant's sensitivity to speech contrasts to the complexities of the problem facing the young child learning the arabic plural.