Have you been anxiously awaiting your little one’s first word, wondering if it will be “dada,” “mama,” or something else entirely? Watching the process of your baby acquiring a language is fascinating, but it doesn’t happen overnight—in fact, it happens over time from the moment your baby is born!
You may have learned here at smallTalk that babies don’t actually learn language, they acquire it. The process of language acquisition is subconscious, and needs to happen when there is a natural source of communication. What makes language acquisition different from language learning is that it is transmitted, not taught, so there’s no need for your precious babe to worry about learning how to conjugate verbs (if this jogs your memory back to your high-school French class, no need to panic!). This is why babies are stellar at picking up languages!
Let’s take a closer look into the stages of language development in infants.
All languages are learned by babies in the same way, following the same basic steps or development stages, regardless of what that language is. Even sign language appears to be learned by following a variation of these steps! This fact is one of the reasons why experts believe that the human brain is pre-programmed or hard-wired to learn language. While babies generally progress through these stages sequentially, it’s important to know that each baby is different and the timelines for each stage are just approximations. Nevertheless, it’s good to know what to expect as your baby begins producing sounds that later turn into full-on language use.
Stage 0: Crying
It’s important to note that before any kind of speech development begins, babies use crying as their most primal means of making themselves understood. And while crying is not really language, it is still a form of communication. Ask any parent– they will tell you that babies have different cries for different reasons! Babies can let people know how they are feeling based on how they are crying, communicating their needs effectively (once their parents learn to decipher them!).
Stage 1: Cooing (0-4 months)
During the cooing stage, which often starts around the two-month mark, babies start making a variety of different sounds, most of which are vowel sounds. In this period, babies can discriminate between the 800+ phonemes found in the word’s languages. The sweet sounds your baby makes in the cooing stage might make her remind you of a little dove– and this is exactly where the name of this stage comes from.
Stage 2: Babbling (5-12 months)
During the babbling phase, babies start to utter combinations of consonants and vowels, very often sounding like “goo-goo, ga- ga.” It is during this stage that babies lose their fascinating ability to hear all 800+ of the world’s phonemes, likely for the sake of efficiency. In this way, they are able to zero in on the sounds necessary for the language(s) they hear the most in their home and community settings, which is usually around only 50. In fact, if a child is not exposed to a phoneme within the first few years of life, it will be hard for them to hear or pronounce it– which is the reason why people who learn languages later in life have accents (due to the inability to produce a particular sound).
Prosody, or the pitch and melody components of language, is also learned during the crying, cooing, and babbling stages– so your little one is already absorbing linguistic patterns well before they can actually speak.
Another interesting fact? Even babies who are born deaf cry, coo, and babble, although they can’t hear themselves. This is why babies are tested for hearing as early as possible (sometimes even in the hospital). Nonetheless, these beginning stages of language development are truly universal.
Stage 3: One Word (Holophrastic) Speech (9-18 months)
Baby’s first word usually emerges between 9 and 18 months (remember, all babies are different and this is just a general range). A holophrase refers to a single word sentence, or rather, a word that is meant to signify a whole sentence when a child can not yet form complete grammatical phrases on her own. In this stage, a child who says the word “cookie” can be using that single word to mean “I want a cookie,” or “I see a cookie,” or “May I have a cookie, please?”. And how can adults decipher what is actually meant by the one word used? Thanks to prosody!
In the holophrastic speech stage, it is common for babies to overgeneralize, or to use a single word to signify many unrelated things. For example, a baby in this stage of language development may have learned the word “doggie,” and will use that word to name all animals with four legs.
Stage 4: Two Word (Telephrastic) Speech (18-30 months)
This stage of language development derives its name from the use of telegrams, which actually charged by the word- making succinct messages ideal and cost- effective (and imposing character limits long before Twitter ever existed). Children in this stage use the most important words to make themselves understood, and cut out the non-essential ones, composing sentences of two, three, or perhaps four words which are remarkably efficient at getting their point across. A phenomenon known as “fast mapping” happens during this phase– or the ability of children between the ages of two and six to learn words after only hearing them once, and map them onto their cognitive schema of vocabulary. Ever wonder why young children seem to have an *uncanny* ability to repeat a less-than-desirable word they’ve heard once? You can thank fast mapping for that.
Fast mapping is yet another reason why children are likened to “sponges” when it comes to language learning, and why they pick up languages with such ease. This speaks to the benefit of teaching language early on, and why many schools are starting to teach additional languages beginning in kindergarten rather than waiting until high school or junior high. It’s also a compelling argument for priming your baby’s brain for multi-language learning as soon as they are born.
Stage 5: Whole Sentences/ Basic Adult Structure (30 months +)
By the age of four, most children have command of basic adult sentence structure, which sets the groundwork for sophisticated syntax and language use that comes later on with continued exposure to language. At this stage, vocabulary development increases at an exponential rate:
1 year old: 1 to 3 words
2 years old: 50 words
3 years old: 200-300 words
4 years old: 1000+ words
So, what’s the best thing you can do for your baby to develop their language skills? Expose them to quality language as early as possible, and to multiple languages if you can.
There are so many fascinating intricacies when it comes to the process of language development, and many advantages to creating a multilingual environment for your little one. Because the stages of language development are universal, unlearned, and uniform across all languages in the world, experts have come to believe that the human brain is pre-programmed to learn language, and that the ability to acquire language can be thought of as a human instinct. Even more interesting than this?
- There is no genetic predisposition for acquiring one particular language over another
- All human languages are equally easy to acquire as first languages
- Children can acquire two or more first languages
smallTalk can help you prepare your baby’s brain to become multilingual. To find out more about how we do this, check out the science behind our products.
- Research Study – Language Development in Children