How Do Children Learn Language?
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 develops at different rates in different children, but most children follow this pattern:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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