No matter how many theories concerning how babies acquire languages are discussed by scientists, children everywhere follow a similar pattern in their biological organized schedule to acquire languages.
The first sound made by all infants is crying. All infants can do this immediately after birth. Crying exercises their lungs and vocal cords. Although crying may signal distress, discomfort, boredom, or other emotions in the first months of life, it is not an intentional attempt to communicate, and it is not language-specific.
From six weeks onwards, infants engage in cooing and laughing. Coos are generally vowel-like sounds which are often interpreted as signs of pleasure and playfulness,
Before the so-called babbling period, there is an extended period when infants engage in vocal play, making all kinds of verbal experimentsâ€”aâ€™s, eâ€™s oâ€™s and uâ€™s. During these stages, babies seem to perform the first gross activities required for the production of speech.
Babies babble language-like sounds anywhere between four and six months and generally continue to do so until they reach around one year of age. Babbling is characterized by consonant or consonant-vowel sounds such as ma-ma or ba-ba.
Babbling begins to conform to the sound patterns of the adultsâ€™ language between six and ten months of age. It is seemingly innate and unconscious, but also interactive and social. All infants, including those who are born deaf, go through a period of oral babbling.
By the time children are a year old, they have learned a great deal about the way adults use sounds to express differences in meanings, but their own ability to produce those sounds lags some way behind. Some 1-year-olds can recognize several dozen words, involving a wide range of vowels and consonants, but their own ability to pronounce these words may be restricted to just two or three consonants and a single vowel.
Now, at last, sometime around their first birthdays, children begin to assign specific meanings to the sounds they produce. This naming insight, the discovery that things have names, is a major leap forward. Infants use single words to communicate a variety of complex functions.
Childrenâ€™s words at this stage tend to be concrete objects which are grounded in and central to everyday experiences and interactions (such as light, tree, water), rather than abstract concepts. These words tend to be content words (bear, bed, doggie) rather than function words (the, on, and). In general, young children talk about what is going on around them, the here and now.
The vocabulary is built around several semantic fields:
- People: mainly relatives and house visitors (e.g. daddy, mommy, grandma, grandpa, postman)
- Actions: the way things move and routine activities (e.g. give, kiss, hello)
- Food and food occasions (e.g. milk, juice, drink, apple)
- Body parts, clothing, animals, vehicles, toys, household objects
- locations (in, look, up)
- social words (no, yes, good)
- descriptors (hot, big)
- pointing words (that, them).
As in many other stages of their linguistic development, childrenâ€™s capacity for comprehending words outpaces their production ability. For instance, at around the age one, children can typically understand about 70 different words, but only productively use about six. There is about a four- to six-month delay between when children can comprehend a given number of words and when they can produce that many words themselves.
Around age two, children enter the two-word stage, characterized by use of phrases which are not more than two words. Sometime around the end of the second year, childrenâ€™s productive vocabulary begins to develop rapidly; this is sometimes known as the vocabulary spurt or the word spurt.
During this period, children begin to add about 200 words a month to their vocabularies. At approximately two and a half years of age, children begin to produce phrases of three or more words, entering what is called the multi-word stage (e.g., Graham go out, Daddy cook dinner, Baby food all gone).
By the age of three, children utter long sentences, though some things, such as pronouns, still cause problems. At around three and a half, children talk freely. By this time, they have acquired most of the constructions used by adults. This is true of monolingual children, and also bilingual ones. A few gaps still exist for all children up to the age of around ten, and word-learning goes on throughout life.
This biological time-clock ordains the stages in which the language web is woven, though not the exact dates. Scientists acclaim that humans are scheduled to acquire language within a critical period between the ages of two and thirteen, a time preordained by human nature. After that, the acquisition of language may become difficult.
P.S. The class notes of Dr. phil. GÃ¼nther Lampert, an English linguistics professor in Mainz University, and the seminar notes of Jean Aitchison, Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford, were used for reference during writing this article and I would like to give a special thanks to Dr. phil. GÃ¼nther Lampert and professor Jean Aitchison.
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