Language development

Dr. C. George Boeree

Language is one of the most amazing things that we are capable of.  It may even be that we -- Homo sapiens -- are the only creature on the planet that have it.  Only the dolphins show any indication of language, although we are as yet unable to understand them.

We seem to be “built” to speak and understand language.  The specialized areas of the brain, such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, suggest that genetics provides us with, at very least, the neurological foundations for language.

Linguistics is, of course, a whole separate subject matter, but it does overlap with psychology quite a bit, especially in regards to language development in infants and children.  The ability young children have of learning a language -- or even two or three languages simultaneously -- is one of the indications that there is something special about our brains at that age.

It all begins in infancy.  From birth until around 6 months, babies make a great deal of noise.  They squeal, squeak, growl, yell, and give us raspberries.  And they coo.  Cooing is basically the production of what will later become vowels (a, e, i, o, and u).

From 6 months to about 10 months, they produce somewhat more complicated sounds called babbling.  First, they practice their vowels more precisely, starting with the round, back vowels (oo, oh, ah...) and working their way to the unrounded front vowels (ee, eh, ay...).  The first consonants are h, m, and b, which can be combined with the vowels to make syllables.  Soon, they add p, t, d, n, w, f, v, and y.  A little while later, they add k, g, and ng.

Then they start adding s and z.  It takes a little longer for babies to get sh, ch, j, and the infamous th sounds.  The very last sounds are l and r.  This is why you hear them pronouncing works as oddly as they sometimes do.  Fis does fine for fish, soozies for shoes, Wobbut for Robert, Cawa for Carla, and so on.  But keep in mind that they can perceive far more than they can pronounce -- something appropriately called the fis phenomenon.  They will not be able to say certain words, but they won’t put up with you mispronouncing them!  One of my daughters, for example, used the syllable yã (with a nasal a) to mean shoe, sock and even chair -- but understood the difference quite well.

Mothers (and fathers) play a huge part in forming the child’s language.  Even if we are “preprogrammed” in some way to speak language, we need to learn a specific language from the people around us.  Mothers typically adjust their speech to fit the child’s level.  This is called motherese.  It is found in practically every culture on the planet, and it has certain common characteristics:  The “sentences” are very short, there is a lot of repetition and redundancy,  there is a sing-song quality to it, and it contains many special “baby words.”  It also is embedded in the context of the immediate surroundings, with constant reference to things nearby and activities that are going on here-and-now.

Motherese often involves a subtle shaping called a protoconversation.  Mothers even involve infants who do little more than coo or babble in protoconversations:

Mother Child (one year old)
Look! (getting child's attention) (the child touches the picture)
What are these? (asking a question) (the child babbles, smiles)
Yes, they are doggies! (naming the object) (the child vocalizes, smiles, looks at  mom)
(mom laughes) Yes, doggies! (repeating) (the child vocalizes, smiles)
(laughs) Yes! (giving feedback) (the child laughs)

Moms also ask questions like “where is it?” and “what’s it doing?”  Any response at all is rewarded with happiness!  Of course, the conversation becomes more meaningful when the child can actually form his or her own words.  By 10 months, most kids understand between 5 and 10 words.  The fastest 1/4 of them have up to 40 words!

From 12 to 18 months (or thereabouts) is called the one word (or holophrastic) stage.  Each word constitutes a sentence all by itself.  By 12 months, most kids can produce 3 or 4 words, and understand 30 to 40.  Again, there are some kids who understand and even use as many as 80!  By 14 months, the number of words understood jumps to 50 to 100, and even the slowest 1/4 know 20 to 50.  By 18 months, most kids can produce 25 to 50 words on their own, and understand hundreds.

Two characteristics of this stage are overextension and underextension.  For example, the word hat can mean just about anything that can be put on your head, a “goggie” applies to just about any animal, and “dada” (much to the embarrassment of moms everywhere) pretty much means any man whatsoever.  On the other hand, sometimes kids engage in underextension, meaning that they use a general word to mean one very specific thing.  For example, “baba” may mean MY bottle and my bottle only, and “soozies” may mean MY shoes and no one else’s.

There are certain common words that show up in most children’s early vocabularies.  In English, they include mama, daddy, baby, doggy, kitty, duck, milk, cookie, juice, doll, car, ear, eye, nose, hi, bye-bye, no, go, down, and up.  There are also unique words, sometimes actually invented by the child, called idiolects.  Identical twins sometimes invent dozens of words between themselves that no one else understands.

Between 18 to 24 months (approximately), we see the beginnings of two word sentences, and telegraphic speech.  Here are some common examples, showing a variety of grammatical functions taken over by simple conjunction of the two words:

see doggy, hi milk
that ball, big ball
daddy shoe (i.e. daddy’s shoe), baby shoe (i.e. my shoe)
more cookie, more sing
two shoe, allgone juice (numbers and quantities)
mommy sit, Eve read (subject-verb "sentences")
gimme ball, want more (making a request)
no bed, no wet (negation)
mommy sock (subject-object "sentences," i.e. mommy get my sock)
put book (verb-object "sentences," i.e. you put the book here)
After 24 months, children begin to use grammatical constructions of various sorts.  Here are some in their usual order of development:
I walking (-ing participles used as verbs)
in basket, on floor (prepositions)
two balls (the plural)
it broke (verbs in an irregular past tense)
John’s ball (possessive  ‘s)
There it is (the verb to be)
A book, the ball (articles)
John walked (verbs in the regular past tense)
He walks (third person singular of verbs)
She has (irregular third person singular)
It is going (the progressive formation of verbs)
It’s there (contractions)
I’m walking (complex verbs)
Notice that simple irregular verb tenses learned before regular tenses!

These things are by no means restricted to English, or to any particular language:  They are universal.  For example, all children begin with telegraphic sentences:

Man clean car (The man is cleaning his car)
Obachan atchi itta (Obachan ga atchi e itta, "my aunt went that way," in Japanese)
Articles (in languages that use articles) are learned as a general idea first, and only refined later:
uh = a, the (see uh car?)
uh = un, une, le, la in French
duh = die, der, das, etc. in German
Grammatical gender is not an easy thing to learn, ether. French masculine and feminine words and German masculine, feminine, and neuter words are just a matter of memorization.  The same difficulty applies to different classes of verbs.

Aspect (such as differentiating between things that are done once and for all, and things that are done repeatedly -- the perfect and the imperfect) is learned before tense (past-present-future).  Tense is actually quite difficult, even though as adults we take it for granted.

There do seem be languages that are easier for children to learn, and others that are more difficult:  Some languages (Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish, for example) use many suffixes to indicate a variety of grammatical and semantic qualities.  These suffixes are very common, complete syllables, and fully regular-- and are learned easily and early.

On the other hand, some languages (e.g. Chinese, Indonesian, and to some extent English) prefer to use small words called particles (e.g. the, of, in, and, and so on).  These tend to be learned late, because they have no meaning of their own and are often unstressed and unclearly pronounced.  Notice, for example, that "is" and "not" are often reduced to 's and n't!

A third group -- which contains most European and Semitic languages -- have a mixed system, including lots of very irregular, unstressed endings and particles.  If you recall the effort you put into remembering the German article or Spanish conjugations or Latin declensions of the nouns, you realize why children have a hard time learning these things as well.

Language learning doesn’t end with two year olds, of course.  Three year olds are notorious for something called over-regularization.  Most languages have irregularities, but 3 year olds love rules and will override some of the irregulars they learned when they were 2, e.g. "I go-ed" instead of I went and "foots" instead of feet.  Three year olds can speak in four word sentences and may have 1000 words at their command.

Four year olds are great askers of questions, and start using a lot of wh- words such as where, what, who, why, when (learned in that order).  They can handle five word sentences, and may have 1500 word vocabularies.

Five year olds make six word sentences (with clauses, no less), and use as many as 2000 words.  The first grader uses up to 6.000 words.  And adults may use as many as 25,000 words and recognize up to 50,000 words!

One of the biggest hurdles for children is learning to read and write.  In some languages, such as Italian or Turkish, it is fairly easy:  Words are written as they are pronounced, and pronounced as they are written.  Other languages -- Swedish or French, for example -- are not too difficult, because there is a lot of consistency.  But other languages have terribly outdated spelling systems.  English is a clear winner among languages that use western alphabets.  We spend years of education on getting kids to memorize irrational spellings.  In Italy, on the other hand, spelling isn't even recognized as a school subject, and "spelling bees" would be ridiculous!

And then there are languages that don't use alphabets at all:  Chinese requires years of memorization of long lists of symbols.  The Japanese actually have four systems that all children need to learn:  A large number of kanji symbols, adopted centuries ago from the Chinese; two different syllabaries (syllable-based "alphabets"); and the western alphabet!  The Koreans, on the other hand, have their own alphabet with a perfect relationship of symbol to sound.

© Copyright 2003, C. George Boeree