By Kamil Wiśniewski, July 26th, 2007

First language acquisition is a complex process, not fully accounted for yet, with as many facts discovered as questions that still remain to be answered. Although it seems that the majority of children acquire a mother tongue without any major difficulties there are certain conditions that have to be fulfilled in order for young people to learn to speak. One such requirement is that a child cannot be deaf, as exposure to some linguistic input pays a major role in the language acquisition process. Moreover, the exposure to language needs to occur before certain age, otherwise no oral communication will take place.

On the other hand, when the language acquisition takes place it usually follows a schedule, whatever language is to be learned. Thus contrary to popular belief the process does not start when the child utters its first word. At the age of one month most children are able to distinguish between their mother’s voice and the voices of other people, as well as some differences in the rhythm of speech and intonation. In many cases it is apparent that children are able to understand the tone of voice as early as at the age of two to four months, differentiating between joyful, angry, or soothing tones. When the child is between six and nine months old some simple utterances of parents are associated with situations in which they are used, and thus infants learn the meanings of the first words. By the end of the first year babies usually understand more or less 20 words.

Communication with children seem vital for their acquisition of language, however, what is characteristic of that interaction is that very often adults do not use normal sentences that they would use while conversing with another adult. When parents talk to their children they frequently use simplified vocabulary, they speak slower and with exaggerated intonation. This type of speech is called caregiver speech or motherese and is also characterized by a common use of questions, slow speed of speech and numerous long pauses. It seems that such a type of speech is used in order to facilitate interaction which stimulates the language acquisition process.

The ability to communicate develops gradually since the very beginning of the infant’s life. The first stage of developing linguistic competence is called cooing as the sounds that children make resemble [k] or [g] and it lasts until about fourth or fifth month of life, when children also start to hear the differences between some vowels. When the child begins to produce combinations of sounds – at about six and eight month this stage of language development is called babbling, which lasts till about twelfth month with more and more complex combinations produced. Then at between twelfth and eighteenth month a holophrastic or one word stage begins. It is characterized by the use of whole words, yet often not to refer to one entity, but to a whole phrase. When a child reaches the age of about eighteen to twenty months the two-word stage usually starts, and the child usually knows about fifty words.

The next stage is called telegraphic speech as children do not use almost any grammatical constructions and utter strings of words such as food now. When such speech brings desired results such as requested behavior or reply from adults children start using it more and more and with time some prepositions and grammar inflections start to appear and the vocabulary is quickly expanding.

As a general rule correcting children’s grammar at such an early age does not bring any results. While if a child uses a wrong word it can be quickly corrected, but when it comes to grammar even repetitive corrections of a similar mistake might not make the child to say a correct form. It seems that such mistakes vanish with time as infants participate in natural conversations.

References:

  • Yule G. 1996. The study of language. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Brown K. (Editor) 2005. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics – 2nd Edition. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Crystal D. 2005, The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language – 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Wilson R. A. (Editor) 1999. The MIT encyclopedia of cognitive sciences. London: The MIT Press.

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