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How Do Children Learn Language?

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Updated September 06, 2011
Language learning is natural. Babies are born with the ability to learn it and that learning begins at birth. All children, no matter what language their parents speak, learn language much the same way. This learning takes place in three basic stages.

Basic Stages of Language Learning

Stage One – Learning Sounds

When babies are born, they can make and hear all the sounds in all the languages in the world. That’s about 150 sounds in about 6500 languages! However, no language uses all 150 sounds. The sounds a language uses are called phonemes and English has about 44. Some languages use more and some use fewer.

In this stage, babies learn which phonemes belong to the language they are learning and which don’t. The ability to recognize and produce those sounds is called “phonemic awareness,” which is important for children learning to read.

Stage Two – Learning Words

At this stage children essentially learn how the sounds in a language go together to make meaning. For example, they learn that the sounds m, ah, m, and ee refer to that “being” that cuddles and feeds them – mommy. That’s a significant step because everything we say is really just a stream of sounds. To make sense of those sounds, a child must be able to recognize where one word ends and another one begins. These are called “word boundaries.”

It’s not exactly words, though, that children are learning. What children are actually learning are morphemes, which may or may not be words. That’s really not as confusing as it sounds. A morpheme is just a sound or sounds that have a meaning, like the word mommy. The word mommies, however, has two morphemes: mommy and –s. Children at this stage can recognize that the –s means "more than one" and will know that when that sound is added to other words, it means the same thing – "more than one."

Stage Three – Learning Sentences

During this stage, children learn how to create sentences. That means they can put words in the correct order. For example, they learn that in English we say "I want a cookie" and "I want a chocolate cookie," not "Want I a cookie" or "I want cookie chocolate."

Children also learn the difference between grammatical correctness and meaning. Noam Chomsky created an example of this difference in the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Children will know that although the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make sense. They know that green is a color and can't, therefore, be colorless!

Language Development

Language develops at different rates in different children, but most children follow this pattern:

Birth
When babies are born, they can already respond to the rhythm of language. They can recognize stress, pace, and the rise and fall of pitch.

Six Months
As early as four months, infants can distinguish between language sounds and other noise, like the difference between a spoken word and a clap. By six months, babies have begun to babble and coo and that is the first sign that the baby is learning language. Babies are now capable of making all the sounds in all the languages of the world, but by the time they are a year old, they will have dropped the sounds that aren’t part of the language they are learning.

Eight Months
Babies can now recognize groups of sounds and can distinguish one group of sounds from another. They can tell where one group ends and another begins. That is word boundary recognition. Although they recognize these sound groups as words, they may not know what the words mean.

Twelve Months
At this point, children are able to attach meanings to words, and once they can do that, they can begin to build a vocabulary. They begin to mimic new words they hear and by the time they are twelve months old will have a vocabulary of around fifty words.

Eighteen Months
In order to communicate, children must know how to use the words they are learning. In this stage of language development, children are able to recognize the difference between nouns and verbs. Generally, the first words in a child’s vocabulary are nouns.

Twenty-Four Months
At this stage children have begun to recognize more than nouns and verbs and understand basic sentence structure. They can use pronouns, for example, and know the right order of words in a sentence and can create simple sentences like "Me cookie?" (which means "May I have a cookie?")

Thirty to Thirty-Six Months
By this age, about 90% of what children say is grammatically correct. The mistakes they make are usually mistakes like adding -ed to irregular verbs to form the past tense. For example, they might say "I falled down" instead of "I fell down." They have learned the grammatical rule to form the past tense by adding -ed to a verb, but have not yet learned the exceptions to the rule.

Further Language Development and Gifted Children

Children continue to expand their vocabulary and develop more complex language. Their language use really doesn’t completely resemble adult language until they reach around age eleven. That’s when children are able to use what are called although-type sentences. Those are sentences that show a concession: Even though the man was tired, he kept working. Young children would be likely to say “The man was tired, but he kept working.”

Verbally gifted children often go through these stages more quickly than other children. Some go through the stages so quickly that they seem to skip right over some of them. It is not unusual for a gifted child to babble and coo and then be relatively silent. By age one they are not mimicking words and by age two they are not using even simple sentences. They may be saying "ma-ma" and "da-da," and a few other words, but not much more. Then suddenly, at 26 months, the child begins speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences like a three-year-old. Other verbally gifted kids may be using sentences like “Me cookie” at age one. And some six-year-old gifted kids are using sentences like “I still love my Grammy even though she doesn’t know how to use the computer.”

The advanced language development of gifted kids may be one of the reasons that some of them are able to learn how to read before they turn five or even before they turn three.
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