Child spoken language acquisition

Child language spoken development



  • children all around the world seem to acquire language by passing through a similar set of 'stages'
  • time taken between stages can vary, but the stages themselves and the order in which they happen appear to be universal
  • everyone needs to acquire a certain minimum ability of language
  • an active adult vocabulary can reach 50,000 or more words and a passive ability to understand half as many again
  • there are at least a thousand aspects of grammatical construction, dealing with the rules; some are specific governing sentence and word formation, there are the prosodic features of pitch, loudness, speed and rhythm which convey meaning
  • there is a large number of conventions governing ways in which varieties of the language differ 
  • the way you learn a 2nd language differs from the way you learn a 1st
  • most children learn to talk by the time they are 5 on a wide variety of topics using language that is clear, rich in vocabulary and varied in sentence patterns
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4 main hypothesis outline

attempts have been made to explain how children acquire their first language

there are 4 main hypotheses

2 are 'social' theories and 2 are psychological/ physiological

  • behaviourist theory (imitation and reinforcement)
  • nativist theory (innateness)
  • cognitive theory (linked to intelligence)
  • input theory (child-directed speech; interaction; 'motherese')
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Behaviourism (imitation and reinforcement)

Skinner argues that children acquire language by imitating the speech of others

  • when a child produces words successfully they recieve praise and encouragement
  • this motivates the child to repeat the behaviour

Skinner regards language as similar to other kinds of human: if we do something and it has positive, pleasant consequences, we are more to do it again

In terms of language, when the child speaks words, and later sentences, they may be rewarded e.g. if a child asks for a biscuit and is given one, then there is success and reward

The child may even see that his/her parents are happy and approving

This reinforcement assists the child's use of language and encourages development

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Behaviourism- Evaluation

In terms of phonological development and the acquiring of words (lexis) then imitation does play an important part

Children develop regional accents showing that they do imitate sounds around them

They also pick up words and 'parrot' them as they acquire a vocabulary

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Behaviourism- criticisms

  • all children pass through the same stages of language development regardless of the type and amount of adult reinforcement they recieve. If acquisition was entirely dependent on parental reinforcement then there would be more variation between individual children
  • Children cannot acquire grammar by imitation. Sentences are rarely spoken the same way twice. children must acquire the rules of grammar
    • when a child says 'wented' they are applying a rule
    • when a child mentions 'mans' (for men) they are applying another rule  
    • they have not heard adults say these words
    • Berkos wug theory: The child is presented with a drawing of an unfamiliar creature, often blue and bird-like, and told, "This is a wug." Another wug is revealed, and the researcher says, "Now there are two of them. There are two...?" Children who have successfully acquired the allomorph /z/ of the plural morpheme will respond: wugs /wʌɡz/.
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Behaviourism- criticisms

  • children can produce sentences that are entirely original and can understand an infinitive number of sentences
    • they are not limited to the sentences they have heard spoken by others
    • they discover the principles that underline the constructions and are then able to generate new utterances
  • children often seem impervious to correction
    • a parent could correct 'I felled off my bike' to 'I fell off my bike' repeatedly but until the child is happy with the 'rules' behind irregular verbs they will continue to use the more logical 'ed' for past tense
    • imitation and reinforcement often do not work
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Nativism (innateness theory)

Criticism of Skinner's approach was led by Noam Chomsky, he proposed that children have innate ability to extract the rules underlying the language from the words they hear being spoken

He believed that when the human brain is exposed to speech at birth, it will automatically begin to recieve and make sense of utterances because it has been programmed to do so. if there is no physiological deglect this language 'blueprint' develops into speech

Chomsky called this a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which was later renamed the Universal Grammar (UG)

The programmed patterns 'primary linguistic data' are general and the child has to learn the rules by applying them

According to Chomsky, different languages have different surface structures but all share the same deep structure

For examples, sentences containing a subject, verb and objective are common to all languages. Children are said to possess an innate awareness of this deep structure explaining why they are able to develop language proficiency so rapidly: from birth their brains are ready to analyse what they hear

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Nativism- Evaluation of this theory

The existence of LAD would explain:

  • the impressive speed with which children learn to speak
  • the fact that children of all cultures pass through similar stages
  • the existence of grammatical features common to all languages (universals)
  • children are able to understand and use new sentences and constructions without having had any previous experience of them
  • the fact that children whose parents only interact with them a little, learn language as well as children whose parents interact with them a lot
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Nativism- Criticism

main criticism of Chomsky's theory has been it underestimates the power and role of language as a social phenomenon

research as case studies such as Bard and Sachs 'Jim' study and the 'Genie' case, show that human contact is essential to become a competent speaker but this supports chomsky rather than challenges him

The fact that many children whose parents pay them very little attention and often speak to them in non-standard english still learn language adequately is evidence that while some interaction is necessary, its amount and quality are not that important

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The critical development period- Lenneberg

Lenneberg developed Chomsky's idea of the LAD

He hypothesised that there is a Critical Development Period within which a child must be exposed to language in order for them to develop normally

Lenneberg advocated that a child must acquire the basics of language through human interaction by the basics of language through human interaction by the time they reaches puberty

there have been occasional cases of 'wild' (or feral) children who have been deprived of normal contact with humans and have therefore never acquired language

Some have been discovered at a young age and have been rapidly caught up on language development. The cases discovered as teenagers, however, rarely manage more than a few odd words, telegraphically organised, even in the face of intensive training

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discovered at age 13 in the 1970s, she had no language because her parents spoken to her and had punished her if she made a sound

she had been denied social contact

despite years of teaching by psycholinguistics she never grasped language the grammar that even 5 year olds use:

  • spot chew glove
  • apple sauce buy store

but her case is not evidence of Lenneberg's hypothesis

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Cognition theories

Piaget came up with the ideas about intellectual development that have had an influence on education and teaching

cognitive development= the development of mental abilities and skills

stages in language acquisition are said to be linked to stages in cognitive development

Piaget's hypothesis is that children can only use a certain linguistic structure when they understand the concept involved (e.g. past tense can only be grasped when a child has a concept of past time)

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Cognition theories- object permanence

  • this is the child's ability to recognise that objects have an existence independent of his/her interaction with them
  • before they develop this awareness, children believe that an object fails to exist once it moves out of sight and that it is a different entity once it reappears
  • the development of object permanence begins during the first year but is not usually complete until the child is approximately 18 months old
  • at this time there is a sharp increase in the child's vocabulary
  • cognitive theorists believe that the 2 events are linked: once a child has realised that objects have an independent existence, the next step is to learn how to name those objects
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Cognition theories-classification

  • this is the child's ability to classify objects and actions
  • a child learns that some things are eaten, some are played with, some are sat upon etc
  • cognitive theorists believe that once a child can classify, they are ready to divide words into linguistic categories (nouns, verbs etc on the basis of their semantic, morphological and syntactic properties)
  • this 'ordering' of language prepares for sentence construction
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Cognition theories- Seriation

  • this is the child's ability to arrange objects, such as stories, in order or increasing and decreasing size
  • children who are not able to do this describe objects as 'long' or 'short' but children with an awareness of seriation are able to use the comparative terms 'longer' and 'shorter'
  • cognitive theorists argued that to make judgements on size is a conceptual skill and the child's cognitive development must be mature for this to occur
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Cognition theories- evaluation

  • there appear to be close connections between language development and cognitive development but many argue that the role of cognitive development in linguistic development is overstated
  • studies have been made of children whose mental development has been retarded but who can still speak fluently (savants)
  • it would appear that a child's ability to grasp grammar and sentence structure is independent of cognitive development
  • Piaget's work neglects language as communication (i.e. as a means of establishing and maintaining relationships with others) rather than a means of conveying thoughts
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Input theories

Input theories are mainly provided by Bruner and is the most recent of the theories of language acquisition

They stress the role of interaction in the development of language, focusing in particular on the interaction that takes place between children and parents, often called 'motherese' or 'caretaker speech' but the correct terminology is child-directed speech

A child's language acquisition is said to depend on the contribution made by parents and significant others

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Input theories- general points

general points relevant in describing how adults alter the way they speak to children, giving specific opportunities to take part in discourse

  • parents speak more slowly to children. they use simplified constructions and less complex vocabulary. this makes it easier for a child to imitate the parents, and the task of learning the sounds and structures of language is made less demanding
  • parents expand the child's speech e.g. C- all gone sweets, P- yes, the sweets have gon, haven't they? Have you eaten them all?- the child's vocabulary and sense of sentence structure is gradually extended
  • parents introduce new words by using familiar sentence frames 'what's...?' 'it's a...' the new word is highlighted as the rest of the sentence (or 'frame') is familiar
  • parental interaction introduces conventions of conversation: turn taking, question and answer sequences etc assisting with pragmatic development
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Input theories- Child-Directed speech (CDS)

phonology- meanings can be assimilated if time is spent on a word

  • slower, clear pronunciation- makes language more accessible, pace of talk is slower
  • more pauses especially between phrases and sentences to give child opportunity to absorb what is being said and to respond if s/he could
  • higher pitch and more range of pitch, helping to keep the child's attention, especially if it is accompanied by varied NVC (non-verbal communication)
  • exaggerated intonation and stress: the sing-song intonation in particular makes this variety of speech particularly distinctive


  • simpler, more restricted vocabulary- more concrete nouns relating to the child's 'here and now', all objects are named in broad categories e.g. 'dog' not 'spaniel'
  • diminutive (or 'baby') forms of words- 'doggie' 'horsie'
  • reduplication 'mama' 'choo-choo'
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Input theories- Child-Directed speech (CDS)


  • simpler constructions
  • short constructions with many pauses to mark end of grammatical units
  • sentence 'frames': 'where's...?' 'Do you want a...?' 'what's that?' 'it's a...' Grammar and meaning are simplified to correspond with the child's actual ability in language (e.g. a 2 year old's average 'sentence' is 4 words so the parent uses 4 words'
  • frequent use of imperatives, a child quickly assimilates these and uses them in their speech
  • high degree of repetition to reinforce new words or structures and to clarify meaning
  • frequent questions to elicit a response. Questions use more auxiliary verbs too, developing grammatical ability, tag questions such as 'aren't we?' 'isn't it?' invite direct participation. Even when a child cannot speak they are learning important discourse patterns and skills, especially turn-taking
  • personal pronouns are infrequent, proper nouns are used instead 'give it to mummy'
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Input theories- Child-Directed speech (CDS)


  • questions and tag questions
  • expansion- to build on a child's speech and encourage new structures
  • feedback- much time and energy are spent in obtaining feedback
  • a child receives attention usually face-to-face communication deemed to be invaluable in building positive relationships and successful interaction with others
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Input theories- Bruner

Bruner puts language acquisition firmly into a social context

partly as a humorous response to the LAD, Bruner proposed the existence of LASS- The Language Acquisition Support System- system refers to the support for language provided by parents

LASS and shared reading

  • parents often use books as a focus of attention for developing babies' naming abilities
  • this can also show how parents offer a support system for their children's language learning
  • the baby doesn't only learn names of objects and actions but also learns social rules for participating in conversation
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Input theories- Bruner

Bruner found a four phase structure in a mother's interaction with her child whilst sharing a book- an example of the LASS provided by the parent

  • 1. Gaining attention- drawing the baby's attention to a picture
  • 2. Query- asking the baby to identify the picture
  • 3. Label- telling the baby what the object is
  • 4. Feedback- responding to the baby's utterance

some variation was observed when the baby correctly named the object (phase 3 was either missed out or it coincided with feedback)

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Input theories- Evaluation

  • the benefits of child-directed speech are clear but it is not possible to identify precisely the links between structures parents use and their appearance in their child's language
  • when a child advances another stage in its acquisition of language, it is hard to be certain what has caused this
  • it does not seem essential that adults address children in a particular way because children reared in cultures where adults do not alter speech when addressing children (Samoa and parts of Papua New Guinea) still appear to acquire their native language at normal rates of development
  • however, the highly structured nature of child-directed speech is not in doubt and it is taken very seriously by linguists
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it is not possible in the present state of knowledge to be certain which of the theories is responsible for language acquisition

it seems that imitative skills, a language learning mechanism, cognitive awareness and the structured input of child-directed speech all play a part in guiding the course of language development

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summary of most important points

  • to acquire language, children must be part of a social and linguistic community
  • physical development plays a part in children's ability to articulate the particular phonemes making up a language
  • children have an instinctive awareness of language patterns which allows them to experiment with new structures
  • children must be able to intellectually conceptualise the world around them
  • children can gain new words and sounds through imitation but not the meanings
  • parental reinforcement highlights 'correct' versions although children are impervious to correction
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The functions of children's language

Knowing what language is used for is part of a child's early pragmatic development

children are motivated to learn language because it serves different functions or purposes for them

Mark Halliday identified 7 functions that language has for children in their early tears and David Crystal added another 2

Even before a child can speak a single word they are using 'language' for certain purposes- a cry can be instrumental, a smile can be interactional/personal and a bawl can be regulartory

interactions between child and parent prepare the child for later participation in conversations- Bancroft observes the game peek-a-boo has parallels with a typical conversation- turn taking, participants responding to contribution, common purpose and sequence, it's enjoyable

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Non verbal aspects of speech (NVAS)

  • from the age of 6 weeks a baby's hand movements, facial expressions, voice tone and lip movements are different when their parents are talking to them
  • gaze is very important- the parent works out where the baby is looking and comments on the object e.g. baby looks sideways, parent goes 'what are you looking at?'
  • Harris et Al found that pointing coincided with a child's first understanding of object words (concrete nouns)

John Dore has a simpler system- 3 1/2 month baby and parent

  • labelling- touches a doll's eyes and says eyes
  • repeating- says what an adult has just said
  • answering- answers an adult's question
  • requesting action- unable to push a peg through a hole says uh uh uh whilst looking at parent
  • calling- shouts for parent across room
  • greeting- shouts hi
  • protesting- shouts when parent attempts to put on shoe
  • practising- utters word when person or object not present
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Phonological development- before birth

  • inside the womb a child can detect rhythm
  • a chinese embryo can detect the pitch rhythm of oriental language, a french baby the syllable timing of the language and an english baby the stress-timed rhythm
  • Mehler and others in 1988 found that French babies as young as 4 days old were able to distinguish French from other languages as they sucked on dummies more strongly
  • Children are born with special feature detectors to respond to the acoustic properties of speech
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Stage 1- 0-8 weeks- basic biological noises

  • during the first few weeks the child expresses itself vocally through crying
  • cries are reflexive noises
  • the quality of sound is similar to a 'mouth-wide-open' vowel such as [a] hardly any features of a cry resemble later consonants
  • babies from different countries make the same sound
  • the child can vary its rhythm and pitch patterns
  • context often helps a parent understand what a cry means
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Stage 2- 8-20 weeks: cooing and laughing

  • sounds are quieter, lower pitched and more musical
  • beginning of this period- consists of a short vowel-like sound usually preceded by a consonant-like sound made towards the back of the mouth usually nasal in quality
    • sounds like 'coo' and 'goo' and the reduplicated 'ga-ga'
  • child is developing increased control over vocal chords
  • cooing involves motor activity and more extensive movement of the tongue and there is more lip movement
  • by now sounds are being formed in the velar region of the mouth ('ga-ga' and 'coo')
  • child becomes increasingly aware of what its mouth and vocal chords can do- start of the phoneme
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Stage 3- 20-30 weeks: vocal play

  • cooing sounds die down, single vowel-like or consonant-like sounds are repeated over and over again
    • several sounds are made at the front of mouth [mmmm] and [nnn]
    • or friction sounds such as [fffff] baby is getting practise for future speech
  • consonant-vowel (CVCV) sequences are more noticeable e.g. 'mama' 'dadada'
    • there is a greater range of consonant-vowel sound and the nasal aspects of 'm' and 'n' developing
  • uvular sounds made by the back of the tongue and labial sounds formed at the lips are giving the baby a vocal work-out
  • in this period parents notice much more variety in their children's noises
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Stage 4- 25-50 weeks: babbling

  • abababababab/dadadada- reduplicative babbling
  • adu and mabu are variegated sequences
  • more complex friction sounds are present 's' 'sh'
  • consonant clusters are avoided

rules of babbling- starting with easy and getting more difficult

  • stopped sounds- air is momentarily stopped from being released (P)
  • reduplication- where the same combination is repeated (baba)
  • variegated babbling (baga)
  • consonant clusters- number of consonants are combined (/fr/)
  • friction sounds- where there is a vibration whilst air is released (e.g. 's' in 'pleasure')
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Stage 4- 25-50 weeks: babbling

during the babbling phase, the number of different phonemes produced by the child increases initially- phonemic expansion

by the age of 10 months this reduces- phonemic contraction- and range of sounds are restricted to those of the child's mother tongue

Intonation and gesture

  • patterns of intonation begin to resemble speech e.g. rising intonation for a question
  • other variations emphasis or rhythm may suggest greeting or calling
  • also increased pointing
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Stage 5- 9-18months: melodic utterance

  • melody, rhythm and tone develop- also called 'scribble talk'
  • children from other language backgrounds now sound increasingly different from each other


  • come in between babbling and melodic utterance and adult-like words
  • proto-words seem to function as words even they do not sound exactly like them e.g. wawa- water and bobo-bottle
  • conditions aiding the emergence of proto-language
    • child-parent interaction
    • 'significant others' joining in
    • repetitive, ritualised activities- bathing, feeding, dressing, bedtime
    • context related talk (here and now)
  • babies as young as 2 months respond to the meaning of different tones of voice and by 6 months can relate different utterances to their situation
  • the research of Helen Benedict revealed that comprehension ability is at lead a month ahead of production
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Stage 5- 9-18months: melodic utterance

speech interaction

  • from the moment a child is born a mother talks to it even through it does not have any language
  • it appears to be instinctive to promote communication even the child's biological noises are seized upon as stimuli for talk
  • research has shown that a mother's linguistic behaviour is not random, she used a large number of questions followed by pauses, to show the baby that a response is expected, there is much greeting and a mother only speaks when the child could feasibly respond- cycle of silence and speech is believed to be the fundamental structure of older conversations and anticipates these
  • beyond 6 months there will be more extended commentaries as the child is more purposeful in their exploration
  • by the time the first word appears the child knows quite a lot about what conversation is and how to take part
  • the first year, considered the pre-verbal stage of language development is when the child learns to listen
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beyond the first year- later phonological developm

  • it is impossible to be precise about later phonological development because the order in which vowels and consonants are acquired can vary from child to child
  • general trends provided mainly by the work of David Olmsted
    • consonants are first used correctly at the beginning of words- because 1st consonant is stressed, 2nd is not in English
  • Olmsted revealed that [p] [b] [k] [n] [f] [d] [g] [m] and [h] were commonly used well in initial position but only the first 5 of these were developed in the final position
  • vowels and diphthongs (2 vowel sounds together) were developing by the end of the second year showing that at least 8 vowels/dipthongs were in use
  • by age 4 all vowels and dipthongs were in use and only a few consonants were causing problems
  • fricatives are difficult, children often replace a fricative with a stop e.g. 'see' becomes [tii]
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Virtuous errors


  • velar consonants are replaced by alveolar consonants e.g. 'gone' becomes 'don'
  • consonant clusters are avoided- tree [tii], glue [gu], plastic- [patik


  • consonants are often avoided at the end of words e.g. hat- ha, noise- noi
  • unstressed syllables are omitted e.g. banana- nana, pyjamas- jamas


  • an extra vowel sound might be added to the CVCV structure preferred by young children- 'egg' might be 'egu'
  • occasionally occurs to split up a cluster to make a word easier to say e.g. bared for bread
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Virtuous errors

De-voicing- process of taking the voice out of final consonants 'pig' might become 'bik'


  • opposite of de-voicing, at the beginnings of words babies are more likely to voice an unvoiced consonant as in 'pet' becoming 'bet'

harmonising (or assimilation)

  • one consonant or vowel becomes similar to another e.g. 'dog' might become 'dod' or 'gog'


  • repetition of a whole syllable as in choo-choo
  • gives the child the change to practice pronunciation in stages- allows the child to master the syllable structure and stress first then work on pronunciation
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Fis phenomenon

  • Roger Brown was speaking to a child who referred to a 'fis' meaning 'fish'
  • Brown replied using 'fis' and the child corrected him but again using 'fis'
  • finally Brown reverted to 'fish' to which the child responded 'yes, fis'
  • shows how a child can understand far more than they can produce
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  • towards the end of the first year intonation patterns are proceeding well
  • simple two-word utterance can be delivered with many functions
  • gradually the child masters sounds and the prosodics of the language and by the age of 3 can use almost all the vowels and twice as many consonants
  • David Olmsted discovered that at the age of 4 all the vowels were in place and only a few consonants caused problems:
    • L in the middle and final positions- yellow, full
    • ng in singer
    • t in the middle position
    • the two 'th' sounds- then, thin
    • z at the beginning of words
    • the consonant [dz] in 'judge'
    • the consonant [z] sound in pleasure
    • 'ch' in middle position
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  • by 5, there are some subtle friction difficulties e.g distinguishing fin, thin, sin and shin; w and r may also be a challenge for some children
  • the most important development between 2 and 4 years is the ability to master consonant closers- doubles- /sp/ /pr/ /tr/, triples: /spl/ /str/ quadruples /mpst/
  • at the age of 6 the child knows enough about phonology to be able to play with language
  • phonological competence is generally completed by the age of 6 except for the subtleties of intonation
  • even at 10 years there is still much to learn on the inflection on the adult voice and the relationship between production and comprehension skills
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Lexical and semantic development

  • by the end of the first year an infant is acquiring enough sound to begin to make proto-words and is gradually moving towards the first 'real' word usually uttered between 12-18 months
  • between 12 and 18 months an infant has a vocabulary of about 50 words and by the age of 2 it has command of about 200
  • although a child may be able to say a word and can articulate it clearly, they may not necessarily grasp its meaning
  • lexical development is the learning of words
  • semantic development is the range of meanings attached to words
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Lexical Development

  • from the point when a child's first word is identified there is a steady lexical growth in production and comprehension
  • research by Helen Benedict revealed that a child learns on average 10 words a month and will actively use them and yet a child can understand 22 new words a month
  • Helen Benedict recognised that a child understands 5 times as many words as they are capable of producing at 18 months
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First words

  • studies have shown that there are predictable patterns in the words and types of words first acquired by children
  • Katherine Nelson made a study of the first words of children and found
  • young children have little sense if the concept of time and therefore talk about the 'here and now' (Piaget theory)- children will not acquire language to describe a concept until they understand the concept
  • Entities
    • people- significant relationships: mummy, daddy
    • food- drink, juice, water, apple, cake
    • humans- baby, man
    • clothes- shoes, hat, nappy
    • vehicles- car, boat, tractor, choo-choo
    • animals- dog, cat, lion
    • toys and games- ball, bricks, peepo
    • household objects- cup, spoon, brush, light
    • body partys- moth, toes, handies, nose, wee wee
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First words

  • properties- modifiers
    • hot, all gone, more, dirty, cold
  • actions
    • (up), sit, see, eat, go, (down)
  • personal//social
    • hello, bye, no, yes, please, thank you
  • situational words (deictics)
    • here, there, that mine

entities are nouns, actions are verbs and the properties act as modifiers

By classifying words in this way, Nelson made the observation that the largest group of the words (60%) were nouns, mainly concrete, 20% were words that expressed or demanded actions and the next largest group were modifiers and used to describe people and objects

words that serve only a grammatical function are absent

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Semantic development- virtuous errors


  • word is given a broader more general mean e.g all mean are 'daddy'
  • as vocabulary grows the child learns words to fill the gaps, e.g. once all fruits were 'apples' the child will now know 'oranges' 'pears' etc
  • Categorical over-extension/ semantic features hypothesis- baby over-extends on the basis of the features that combine to give an object meaning e.g colour, shape such as any moving thing with 4 legs is a 'cat'
  • Analogical over-extension/ functional similarities hypothesis- over-extension results from similarities in the uses to which objects are put e.g. things used to hold liquid might all be called 'cups'

Statement- when a child makes a statement about something as a way of labelling

  • e.g. child points to cupboard and says 'biscuit' child doesn't mean that the cupboard is called biscuit but that it is where the biscuits are kept
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Semantic development- virtuous errors


  • occurs when a word is given a narrower meaning than it has in adult language
  • an example is when a child uses the words 'shoes' to apply only to the child's own shoes


  • no apparent basis for the non-standard use of a word
  • e.g. calling waves 'wows' after hearing them being referred to and pointed at as 'wows' because of their size

as memory grows there will be fewer virtuous errors as more words/ meanings are acquired

by the age of 2, spoken vocabulary exceeds 200 words

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Labelling, Packaging and Network Building

Jean Aitchison identified these 3 stages or process that occur in language acquisition

1. Labelling

  • making link between the sounds of particular words and the objects to which they refer

2. Packaging

  • understanding a word's range of meaning, under-extension and over-extension occur before this stage is successfully negotiated

3. Network Building

  • involves grasping the connections between words: understanding that some words are opposite in meaning for example, and understanding that relationship between hypernyms and hyponym
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Lexical Creativity

  • children appear to be rarely stuck for words and make up words where they do not exist
  • they are experts at coining to fill gaps in their vocabulary
  • to create new words child use prefixes and suffixes that they already know and compound words, they also show remarkable conversion abilities
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  • from the Wug theory it can be seen children appeared to know instinctively the 's' inflection makes the plural and they soon realise that generally '-ed' is the ending required to form the simple past tense
  • a child learns the word formation rule and that the endings are not just extra sounds but an extra bit of meaning
  • child also learns that these sounds and meanings are detachable and can be used often to alter meanings of words in the same way
  • unfortunately for the child learning English there are many exceptions and this is when the virtuous errors are made, especially on irregular past tenses and irregular plurals e.g. mouses, mans, falled, breaked
  • they are also impervious to correction by adults, preferring to rationalise and perfect the grammatical process for themselves
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By grasping common prefixes the child is able to further extend their vocabulary

  • for example a child can make a word negative by grasping the prefixes 'dis' and 'un'

all languages change and adapt to the needs of their speakers and when new words are needed, it is handy to construct them from the existing word stock by using predictable processes that are recognised and used by children even as young as 2 1/2 years old

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The ability to convert a word's grammatical class usually by adding a prefix of suffix

child can recognise the grammatical change- know that the verb refers to an action (e.g. to sing) and the noun (e.g. singer) refers to an instrument for carrying out the action

there is another type of conversion common in english- adjectives are directly converted into verbs meaning e.g. 'to slim' meaning 'to make or to become slim'

  • children experiment with this e.g. 'I'm darking the sky' for 'I am colouring in the sky a dark colour'

children are more inventive than adults because their vocabularies are still growing and they might not yet know where the existing word for a concept they are trying to express

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=process used to describe whole words being combined

children are inspirational in their use of compounds

  • e.g. plate egg (a fried egg) noun + noun
  • cup egg (boiled egg) noun + noun
  • hit boy (bully) verb + noun

we can analyse compounds in terms of the word classes being combined and the meaning relationship between them

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Grammatical development- One word stage

  • Average child is about a year old when they speak the first word
  • roughy between 12 and 18 months the child speaks in one-word utterances: 'milk', 'mummy' 'cup' and so on
  • occasionally more than one word will appear but the phrase will be used a single unit 'allgone' 'allfalldown'
  • 60% of words used have a naming function
  • 20% express actions
  • single words take place of more complex grammatical constructions e.g. juice can mean i want some juice' or 'i've spilt my juice'
  • linguistics call these utterance holophrases
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two-word stage

  • 2 word sentences begin to appear when the child is about 18 months old, though single words continue to be used for some months after this
  • combinations of two-word stage
    • a person performs an action e.g. mummy gone
    • a person or object is described e.g. silly hat
    • an action affects an object e.g. daddy pen
    • an object is located e.g. there teddy
    • and object is given a possessor e.g. baby table
  • the same sentence could express different meanings this ambiguity arises partly because inflectional affixes are absent
  • until the child develops syntactic component, the creativity and flexibility of language cannot be developed, the child has to move from a stage when meaning is realised in sound and gesture
  • the adult system makes a distinction between the types and meanings of sentences- declarative, interrogative and imperative, these distinctions are carried out by aspects of word order and the presence or absence of syntactic markers, the child builds these up progressively
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Issues in the two-word stage


  • some parents have recorded a transitional phase between holophrase and two-word stages
  • words are brought together but the sequence is not uttered as a single rhythmical unit

Imitating parents

  • when a child tries to repeat what an adult says but they may omit some of the words, but those that are retained will again usually be in an appropriate grammatical order
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Telegraphic Stage

  • from the age of about 2, children begin producing three and four word utterances
  • some of these will be grammatically complete but most will convey the message at its most economical, without the appropriate grammatical words and accurate inflections
  • the condensed structure at the early telegraphic stage omits determiners, auxiliary verbs and prepositions
  • questions, clauses and statements are being used and different clause patterns are evident
  • by the end of the 3rd year, clause structures of 4 or 5 elements can be noticed
  • progress is rapid during the telegraphic stage- by the age of 3, sentences with more than one clause start to appear, and co-ordinating conjunctions (and, but) begin to be used- allowing the child to talk forever
  • non-fluency occurs as the child copes with new linguistic skills- repetition (or stammer) is not a speech defect but thinking time
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Telegraphic Stage

to summarise: sentences are twice as long, there are many things to say, child is planning ahead, some thoughts are quite complicated

parents role is vital in this stage:

  • the information is released in stages
  • a conversation takes place
  • mother constructs child's sentences using clues
  • mother expands, creating fresh linguistic horizons

a great deal of grammatical knowledge is required before constructions are used correctly

the sorting of many grammatical errors is a particular feature of 4-year old speech

many irregularities of syntax and morphology are being mastered

sentences involving sub-ordination increasing give way to complex sentences

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Acquisiton of inflections

research has identified a predictable pattern in the acquisition of inflectional affixes

Roger Brown studied children's language development between the ages of 20 months and 36 months and found a regular sequence of stages:

  • 1. ing- link to piaget- no link to time, cognition of time
  • 2. plural '-s'- dogs, concrete nouns- can see the concept
  • 3. possessive '-s'- would expect this later as can't see possession, however there is a possessive impulse as extension of social identity
  • 4. 'the' 'a'- late acquisition as serves purely grammatical function
  • 5. past tense '-ed'- won't develop until understand concept of the past
  • 6. 3rd person singular verb ending '-s'- it is irregular
  • 7. auxiliary 'be'- most irregular verb in the english language

brown also observed that the preposition 'in' appeared before 'on' and the irregular past tense form appeared before the regular

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Acquisiton of inflections

Cruttenden divided the acquisition into 3 stages:

1. children memorise words on an individual basis and have no regard for general principles

2. show awareness of the general principles governing inflections and as a result may apply regular endings to words that require irregular inflections (overgenralisation)

3. correct inflections are used including irregular forms

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grammatical issues- pronouns

it has been suggested that a child will move through 3 stages between 3 and 5 years old:

1. pronouns are avoided altogether e.g. 'mummy do it'

2. the subject and object pronouns are confused e.g. 'him did it'

3. the possessive pronoun appears but is incorrectly used e.g. 'this is him's car'

in general children learn pronouns first for things they have already named and these tend to be things in the immediate here and now

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Asking questions

asking questions involves quite complex constructions, research by Clarke suggests that children acquire this skill in 3 stages

1. questions rely on intonation alone

2. question words are generally acquired: what and where first and then why, how and who (interrogative pronouns)

3. only in 3rd year- auxiliary verbs are used and subject verb order is reversed e.g. joe is here ---> is joe here? (syntactical reversal + auxiliary verb)

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Saying 'no' (negation)

Ursula Bellugi suggests 3 stages for forming negatives

1. (2 years) single dependence upon the words 'no' and 'not' used either singly or in front of other expressions: 'no want' 'not my bed'

2. (2 years 3 months) variety of method with 'don't' and 'can't' being used without variation of tense e.g. 'i can't catch you' 'no' and 'not' continue to be used in the appropriate place e.g. 'he no bite you'

  • in the 2 word stage, children can use the negative very effectively, although inaccurately for many situations
    • non-existence- 'not there'
    • rejection/ refusal- 'no drink'
    • denial of truth or accuracy- 'not sam'

3. (2yrs 9months) more negative forms are acquired (didn't, isn't) and the negative constructions are generally used more accurately e.g. 'this can't stick'

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LIFE SAVER! thankyou!

Somia Anmol


this was an amazing help! couldn't have found something better than this a day before my exam! thankyou!!!!

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