All normal children, regardless of culture, develop language basically at the same time. Researchers suggest that the language acquisition schedule runs in tandem with the development of motor skills. This is tied very closely to the maturation and the lateralization process of the infant’s brain (Yule, 1994).
Infants’ brain and sensory systems are prepared for the task of language acquisition and communication as early as in their mother’s womb. They can hear regular and irregular sounds which are going on outside the womb. When an infant enters the world, it has been suggested that his cries is its first step in communication. From the first day of its birth, an infant goes through various stages in communication development, from meaningless sounds and responses to the utterance of the first word (Baskaran, 2004).
1. Pre-verbal Communication
Although generally no comprehensible words are produced at this stage, it is the most important year in the infant’s communicative stage where the sounds or vocalizations produced are variable and can change dramatically. Language development in infants is not demarcative or rigid. Therefore, the attainment of the first word may occur between 10 and 11 months up to two years (Baskaran, 2004).
At this stage, communication is usually via eye contact, gestures and vocalization. The first recognizable sounds are called babbling and cooing. Other than babbling and cooing, the infant also interacts with the caregiver by crying, laughing, chuckling (Baskaran, 2004). The infant also starts to produce velar consonants such as [k] and [g], and as well as high vowels such as [i] and [u] (Yule, 1994).
Alongside vocalizations, infants also make communicative gestures. For example, at the age of 10 months, pointing is quite common, where the index finger is extended with other fingers curled in. Eye contact or gazing is another feature, where the infant usually gaze at the caregiver while gesturing and attempting to vocalize. Infants gesture a lot in their communicative attempts, such as when gazing or vocalization (Baskaran, 2004).
Most of the forms of pre-verbal communicative functions in infants have a communicative intent to them, such as requesting, rejecting or commenting. In requesting for something, the infant consistently vocalizes or gestures to get the attention of the caregiver, to do or get something, such as wanting to be carried or wanting an object. In rejecting, the infant indicates “nil-sanction” or “disagreement” to what is being offered, such as food or drinks. Commenting on something is also a possible communicative intent. For example, the infant’s gazing or pointing at an object could mean soliciting something or bonding with the caregiver, where the element of “joint understanding” is present (Baskaran, 2004).
Pre-verbal vocalizations soon take on a more consistent and meaningful pattern in a later part of the pre-verbal stage. At this stage, proto-words begin to be produced which are known as “Phonetically Consistent Forms (PCF), such as “ba” for “No” and “ee” for “Yes” (Baskaran, 2004). There are recognizable intonation patterns to the consonant and vowel combinations produced. There are also a lot of ‘sound-play” and attempted imitations. Some psychologists have suggested that pre-verbal stage give children some experience of the social role of speech because parents tend to react or respond to the vocalizations, however incoherent (Yule, 1994).
2. The One-word or Holophrastic Stage
Between 12 and 18 months, infants begin to produce a variety of recognizable single units of utterances. At this stage, a child starts to be able to identify objects close to them, such as milk, cookie and cat. Other forms of utterances such as [asæ] may occur in circumstances which suggest that the child is producing a version of “what’s that”, thus making the term single unit of utterance, or holophrastic more accurate for this stage (Yule, 1994).
3. The Two-word Stage
This stage usually begins around 18 and 20 months. By this time, a child is able to make a variety of combination of two words, such as “No pee”, “See baby” and “More cereal” (Yule, 1994). Using this combination, a child usually announce when objects appear, disappear, and move about, point out their properties and owners, comment on people doing things and seeing things, reject and request objects and activities, and ask about who, what, and where. In 95 percent of them, the words are properly ordered (Braine, 1976, Brown, 1973, Pinker, 1984 & Ingram, 1989 in Pinker, —-).
4. Telegraphic Speech
Between two and three years old, the child begins to produce a large number of multiple-word utterances. This stage is called telegraphic speech because the utterances are telegram-like, containing only content words but not grammatical inflections. For example, “I want ball” and “Cat drink milk”. However, a number of grammatical inflections begin to appear later in the stage, such as prepositions. Again, this stage shows that there is grammatical comprehension on the side of the child, because the words are properly ordered (Yule, 1994).
Baby-talk by the Caregiver
From the first attempt by the infant to vocalize sounds, the caregiver’s role is very important. Because language acquisition is determined by the infant’s surrounding and environment, the caregiver needs to provide the necessary input (all facets of language) and interact adequately with the infant to bring the language faculty in operation (Yule, 1994). The environment also needs to be emotionally rich, where emotional bonding should be strong to help to enhance the infant’s communicative development (Baskaran, 2004).
Adults generally talk differently when they talk to an infant, where the speech is modified in both segmental, which includes the consonant and vowel sounds, and supra-segmental which includes intonation, stress and juncture. In baby-talk, lexemes are also modified to be more onomatopoeic, such as “meow” to refer to “cat” and “bow wow” to refer to “dog”. The use of special intonation patterns with exaggerated stress are a particular feature of baby-talk. Researches have found that infants respond better to the use of higher and varied intonation by the caregiver. Researchers believe that the supra-segmental elements of baby-talk are the foundation towards the infant’s communicative development (Baskaran, 2004).
Another feature of baby-talk is it encourages response and even conversation from the child. This conversational structure provides an interactive role to the child, although the child has not become a speaking participant. It is pragmatically conducive environment for language development, especially in turn-taking and politeness (Baskaran, 2004; Yule, 1994). An example of this is as follows (from Anderson et al., 1984, in Yule, 1994):
Mother : there’s you cup of tea
Child : (takes up)
Mother : you drink it nicely
Child : (pretends to drink)
Mother : oh – is that nice?
Child : (assents)
Mother : will Mummy drink her tea?
Child : (assents)
Mother : I’ll drink my tea
Attention focusing is another feature of baby-talk which encourages pre-verbal communication. Generally, by the age of six to seven months old, a child’s motor ability develops and the child is able to hold or grasp objects. The caregiver should take advantage of this and say something about the object (Baskaran, 2004). For example, when a child holds a rabbit toy, the caregiver can say, “What is that? Is that a rabbit? It’s a rabbit.”
Caregiver speech is also of simple sentence structure and has a lot of repetitions. If a child needs to learn how to put sounds and words together, these simplified models produced by the caregiver in interacting with the child are good models to the basic structural organization involved in the language (Yule, 1994).
Milestones in Language Development
The following is a chart that traces the stages of language acquisition of a child from 12 weeks old to four years old.
|Approximate Age at Onset of Behaviour||Vocalization and Language|
|12 weeks||At this age, an infant markedly cries less than when it was eight weeks. When talked to or nodded at, the infant smiles, followed by squealing-gurgling sounds, also called cooing. At this stage, an infant can sustain cooing for 15 to 20 seconds. It also starts to produce palatal sounds, such as [j] and [n].|
|16 weeks||The infant starts to respond to human sounds more definitely, turn its head and eyes searching for the speaker. It can distinguish between vowels [i] and [a], and the corresponding adult mouth producing these sounds. Occasionally, the infant makes chuckling sounds.|
|20 weeks||The vowel-like cooing sounds begin to be interspersed with more consonantal sounds.|
|6 months||Cooing starts to change into babbling, resembling one-syllable utterances. Vowels and consonants do not have very fixed recurrences, with most common utterances such as [ma], [mu], [da], or [di].|
|8 months||Reduplication or more continuous repetitions become frequent and intonation patterns become distinct. At this stage, utterances can signal emphasis and emotions.|
|10 months||Vocalizations are mixed with sound-play such as gurgling or bubble-blowing. The infant appears to wish to imitate sounds, but the imitations are not quite successful. It begins to be able to differentiate between sounds heard by making differential adjustment.|
|12 months||At this stage, identical sound sequences are replicated with higher relative frequency of occurrence, and words such as “mamma” or “dadda” are emerging. The infant also shows definite signs of understanding some words and simple commands such as “Show me your eyes”.|
|18 months||The infant has a definite repertoire of words, usually more than three but less than 50. There is still much babbling, but now of several syllables with intricate intonation pattern. Generally, the infant makes no attempt at communicating information and is not frustrated at not being understood. Words may include items such as “come here”, but there is limited ability to join any of the lexical items into spontaneous two-item phrases. At this stage, the infant understanding is progressing rapidly.|
|24 months||At this stage, the child’s vocabulary is usually more than 50 items, and some children are able to name everything in their environment. The child begins to spontaneously join vocabulary items into two-word phrases, where all the phrases appear to be his own creation. There is definite increase in communicative behaviour and interest in language.|
|30 months||At this stage, a child’s vocabulary increases the fastest, with many new additions every day. Babbling is not present anymore, and the child gets frustrated if he is not understood by adults. The utterances consist of at least two words, and many have three or even five words. Sentences or phrases have the characteristics of a child’s grammar, rarely repetitions of an adult utterance. Intelligibility is still not yet very good, but it varies among children. A child at this stage seems to be able to understand anything within hearing distance and directed to him.|
|3 years||Vocabulary at this stage is about one thousand word, with about 80 percent of utterances intelligible even to strangers. Although mistakes still occur, generally, grammatical complexity of utterances is roughly that of colloquial adult language.|
|4 years||At this stage, language is well-established. Although utterances have the grammatical structure of adult language, a child usually uses his own style.|
Language acquisition process in infants is remarkable, especially for the speed in which it takes place. By the age of five or six years old, children are already sophisticated language user. Other than social factor, interaction with other language users is also vital in language acquisition of children. Although there is variation among children in terms of the age at which features of language development occur, a child generally goes through several stages, which are the pre-verbal communication, the one-word or holophrastic stage, the two-word stage and telegraphic speech.
Baskaran, L. (2004). Developmental Linguistics: Communication and infancy. Language and Linguistics Faculty, UM.
Jannedy, S., Poletto, R. Weldon, T. (Ed.). (1994). Language Files (6th Ed.): Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Department of Linguistics: The Ohio State University.
Pinker, S. (—-). Language Acquisition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved on 7th January 2004 from http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/papers/pg104/pinker.langacq.htm
Yule, G. (1994). The Study of Language: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.