So how does a child acquire language? If it were just a question of listening and imitating people around them they wouldn't come out with words like ‘runned’ and ‘knowed’.
Studies of language acquisition have shown that children take an active part in the process, constructing and refining grammatical rules for themselves as they mature. No one teaches them these rules; in fact, the majority of parents/carers are not aware of the rules themselves and would be hard pressed to explain them. Yet as the child grows they learn to use pronouns, verbs, adjectives and to form complex sentences in order to communicate with others and manipulate the world around them.
Reinforcement has been suggested as playing a part in the process, although studies have shown this plays little part in the actual development of the child’s knowledge of the grammatical structure of their language. Parents/carers generally react positively to any attempts at spoken communication by their child, encouraging them to persist, but not correcting them for ‘bad grammar’. In fact, ‘mistakes’ are sometimes viewed as ‘cute’ by parents/carers and the child actively encouraged to repeat them for others!
Another theory that has been proposed is learning by analogy – hearing a sentence, internalising the structural rules and using this as a basis to form new sentences. But languages don't work like that. What works for one sentence doesn't necessarily work for another, and the kinds of mistakes this could generate are rarely heard from children. For example, a child could say ‘I coloured the blue ball’ or ‘I coloured the ball blue’. They could use a different colour word, ‘I coloured the red ball’ or ‘I coloured the ball red’. Analogy might lead them to use a different verb and say ‘I bounced the ball blue’ as well as ‘I bounced the blue ball’, but this type of structural mistake is not common.
Another suggestion is the ‘special’ way that adults sometimes talk to very young children, slowing their rate of speech, emphasising certain words, even raising the pitch. It has been shown, however, that this language is rarely syntactically simpler than ordinary speech, and it varies from culture to culture, with some groups rarely using it at all.
While imitation, reinforcement, analogy and ‘special’ speech play a part in the child's acquisition of language they do not explain the whole picture. Why do children use non-grammatical forms if they have never heard them around them? Where do their completely novel utterances come from? How is it they make certain types of language errors, but not others?
It has been explained as part of an innate drive to create an internal grammar. The child is part of a creative process, where they take the language going on around them and construct the grammatical rules of their language. Deaf children of signing parents/carers have been shown to go through parallel developmental stages in the acquisition of sign as other children do in the process of developing verbal communication.
Watch this YouTube video which describes a study on child language acquisition:
BBC - Language Acquisition 1
The child featured in the video is going through normal stages of language development.
- Reflect on what might language delay look like?
- What could be signs that a child is not following a typical pattern?
In the next section we look at the stages more closely and discuss what can typically be expected at different ages.
Prior to 21/2 years old
As early as three months, children start to use combinations of vocalisations and facial expressions at a level higher than chance in order to attempt to communicate. Gestures and the acquisition of language go hand in hand, with behaviours such as pointing apparent by 12 months, and verbal utterances well coordinated with non-verbal movements or expressions by two years.
A child’s speech begins with early vocalisations at two or three months followed by babbling (playful, vocal sounds) around five to seven months then jargon (strings of sounds or syllables produced with a variety of stress and intonation) from eight to 24 months. By this time they are absorbing the sounds uttered by the people around them, selecting those that they hear most, frequently, pruning away those they don't, and building their inventory of sounds in their mother tongue.
Typically infants produce their first recognisable words between eight and 12 months of age. Their vocabulary increases slowly to begin with, but often goes through a spurt at about 16 to 18 months where their vocabulary can appear to double. During this time, the child may start to make lexical errors confusing similar sounding words, such as ‘bag’ for ‘dog’, or extending a single word, e.g. ‘cat’ to cover all four-legged animals. This is considered a typical stage of development that usually corrects with time.
Around the time of their second birthday, children begin to put words together producing two-word utterances increasing their ability to communicate meaning, e.g. ‘Daddy gone’. From there they string more words together in the stage known as ‘telegraphic speech’, e.g. ‘dog here food eat’ where they are able to use the content words, but leave out the smaller ‘function words’, such as ‘is’, ‘can’, ‘to’, etc.
By 19 to 24 months a typical child’s speech is 25 to 50 per cent intelligible.
21/2 to 3 years old
As well as increasing the length of their word combinations, the child has the beginnings of phrase and sentence structure, using words together, such as ‘in the car?’, ‘Don’t touch!’. They understand the SVO order of English and will say ‘Mummy throw ball’ rather than ‘Ball Mummy throw’.
Their receptive language is usually in advance of their ability to express themselves. At this age, a typical child can usually produce and use 200–600 words in a meaningful way, but may understand many more. Words seem to be learned in a sequence, i.e. objects, events, actions, adjectives, adverbs, spatial concepts, temporal (time) concepts.
Although the child’s utterances at this stage may be egocentric, they generally have communicative intent. As their ability to participate in interpersonal communication increases, they start to express their own opinions and personalities.
3 to 4 years old
This is a period when the language development of the child appears to accelerate. As they approach four years of age, they use more complex sentences containing three or four words. Regular plurals, such as ‘dogs’, ‘cars’ are used, though this rule may be extended to cover irregular plurals.
Expressively they are able to use between 800 and 1,500 words and can label most of the objects in their immediate environment. They start to use pronouns and prepositions more consistently, and ask a lot of questions starting with ‘What?’ or ‘Why?’ The child can maintain a conversation and uses communicative functions such as protests: ‘Don't touch that!’, ‘Don't want that!’ They start to use words related to time, e.g. ‘yesterday’, ‘lunchtime’ and can usually sing several nursery rhymes.
By 42 months, the typical child comprehends up to 4,200 words and can follow two-part requests, e.g. ‘Put your toys away, then come to brush your teeth’. They understand gender differences and the concept of what ‘two’ is.
4 to 5 years old
Between four and five years the child's speech starts to sound more adult-like and is intelligible to strangers most of the time. They speak in complete, quite complex, sentences and can use comparisons. They are adept at using the past tense and can tell a story or describe something that has happened to them. An understanding of abstracts is developing and they may use expressions such as ‘I hope’. They can distinguish between ‘same’ and ‘different’ when it comes to general characteristics such as age.
The child asks more questions, e.g. ‘How?’ and ‘Who?’ and can categorise items. They can understand three-step instructions, such as, ‘Take your boots off, put them by the door, and put your slippers on’. They can point to four or 5 five different colours and identify shapes like triangles, circles and squares.
5 to 6 years
As the child understands and uses increasingly complex sentences, their grammatical errors decrease and they have a greater command of the irregular forms. Their vocabulary becomes more sophisticated. They define objects by their function or use and can use spatial terms, such as ‘on top’, ‘behind’, ‘far away’, with confidence. They can state their home address, recognise some coins and count to ten. The child can use questions to ask for information.
They can also modify their speech according to the situation, adjusting to the other person and knowing how to increase their level of politeness.
Primary school years
Once the child starts school the language demands on them increase and change. Written language plays an important role, and the child must adapt to the communicative expectations of classroom discourse. The typical child at this age has mastered basic vocabulary, sentence structures and functions of their native language, but they must now acquire higher levels of language performance, such as decontextualised language and metalinguistic awareness.
The academic vocabulary the child acquires in the classroom expands to allow them to take part in discussion and learning in the various different subject areas. Their speech continues to develop fluency and their growing pragmatic awareness is demonstrated by their competence at modifying their communicative style to the demands of different interactive situations. Their participation in conversations demonstrates a growing ability to manage turn-taking, maintain topics, and handle breakdowns in the communication.
Communicative functions that can be handled by a child at this age include: requests for information, action, clarification and attention; statements; disagreements; and performatives (jokes, teases, protests, warnings and claims).
Secondary years and beyond
Once a child reaches the age of 11, their language should be at an advanced stage of development. They have not only mastered the skills required during the primary years, but they can produce and understand detailed narratives and complex sentences, make some inferences and engage in metalinguistic discussions. If they are learning in a language that is not their native language, they can make comparisons between their languages and discuss the differences.
The skills that increase during secondary school years are usually related to the literate end of the oral-literate continuum, with the child’s abilities extending towards critical thinking. In speech the child uses a higher percentage of elaborated forms, but the main observable difference is in the quality of their writing. They use more precise terminology and understand multiple meanings of words. They understand how words are connected in various ways, e.g. by derivation or meaning, such as antonyms and synonyms.
They begin to use and understand language that has a figurative, rather than literal, function. They use puns and learn to use and comprehend metaphors, similes, proverbs and idioms. Slang and peer group language become important as the teenager seeks to portray their own identity and individuality.
School plays an important role in the development of the teenager’s language with the introduction of new forms of discourse, such as lectures and expository texts. These extended forms of communication accompany the cognitive development of the adolescent period and greatly enhance the student’s ability to analyse their own thinking processes, to consider hypotheses, discuss abstractions and use logical operations.
- In your school, who do you talk to if you are concerned about a learner with potential speech and language delay?
- Does the school have visits from a speech and language therapist?
- What resources are there to develop oral skills in your school?
- Is there a learner in your class who has some difficulties with fluency of speech, pragmatic skills or understanding?
In sum, children begin Year 1 with an expressive vocabulary of around 6,000 words. By the end of school, they have learnt to use approximately 36,000 more. On average they learn five words a day. In order to comprehend printed school English, they need a receptive vocabulary of 55,000 words (Chall, 1987; Gunning, 2004).