It takes only a few years for children to understand and use language effectively. Researchers are beginning to learn just how they do it.
Five-year-old Michael: “Mom, did you know that baseball games need a vampire?”
Mother: “A vampire?”
Michael: “Yes, the vampire stands in the back of the catcher and catches any of the balls that the catcher misses.”
Four-year-old Lisa: “Nobody doesn’t like me.”
Father: “You mean, ‘Nobody likes me.'”
Lisa: “OK, nobody doesn’t like you.”
Michael and Lisa, like young children the world over, are engaged in one of the most challenging tasks they will ever perform: mastering the complex system, we call language. To use language, a person must combine sounds into words and words into phrases and sentences—an effort that requires the mind to select from among countless possible arrangements. It is no wonder that scientists regard language as among the most complicated behaviors of the human species.
From a child’s point of view, though, language is not complicated at all—no more so than flying is to young birds. The errors preschoolers make when they speak mask the fact that children seem to learn language almost effortlessly. At the end of the children’s first year, they can understand many things said to them and may have spoken their first words.
By the time they are two years old, most children can speak in short sentences and use language to influence the world around them. A 3-year-old can do what the most advanced computer cannot: share thoughts and ideas with others and represent events in the past, present, and future. And a 4-year-old can produce complex sentences and have rich and varied conversations.
How Children Learn To Talk – A Study
Psychologists like ourselves who study how children acquire language are engaged in psycholinguistics, a discipline that combines both linguistics and psychology elements. Psycholinguistics took off in the mid-1950s, sparked by scholars such as the linguist Noam Chomsky. Whereas earlier researchers focused on describing the rules of specific languages and their development over time, Chomsky and others were concerned with how they take shape in mind, and how they get translated into ordinary speech.
In the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists who studied children’s language gathered data by observing children at home and school and asking parents to keep records of their children’s speech. Later, lightweight tape recorders, video cameras, and other devices enabled researchers to test their ideas in the laboratory and more traditional methods. As a result, psychologists in the 1980s and 1990s have gained insights that go far toward explaining how children learn to use and understand language.
Although most people think of language as spoken language, language is not the same as speech. People with some medical conditions that keep them from speaking still have language. Similarly, the sign languages used by deaf people are natural languages that rely on hand movements and facial expressions instead of speech.
Scientists regard language as having four components: sound (or its sign language equivalent); meaning; grammar; and pragmatics, or language use. All the element has a set of rules that children must master. For more information on the components of language, see What is language? Above.
How Development of Language Begins
Newborn infants hear only long, meaningless strings of sound. Before they can understand and use language, children must learn to break apart those strings into words, phrases, and other units. They must puzzle out the relationship between terms and what they represent, and they must learn how sounds and terms can be combined to express meanings. Finally, they must discover all the ways people use language to influence and interact with others.
The journey toward language begins before birth. That fetuses can hear sounds was discovered through experiments using a specially designed pacifier connected to an audiotape player. In one 1988 experiment, psychologists working in Paris found French newborns sucked faster when they heard a recorded voice speaking French than when the same voice was speaking Russian.
In contrast, newborns from non-French and non-Russian households did not alter their sucking for either language. The French infants even increased their sucking upon hearing their native tongue when the sound was electronically filtered, muffling the consonants and vowels. This suggests that the babies responded to the melody of the language, which they had become accustomed to while in the womb, rather than to its specific sounds.
Babbling and Cooing of Babies
At first, babies produce few sounds other than grunts and cries. But at about two months, they begin to coo, making vowel sounds such as ahhh and oooh. Young infants have trouble producing consonants other than g or k. This is partly because an infant’s relatively large tongue fills much of the mouth, making it awkward and inflexible. Also, a newborn’s larynx—the voice box, where the vocal cords reside—sits high in the throat. This keeps the nasal passages open so the infant can breathe through the nose while swallowing, but it also hampers the movement of the tongue.
During the first year, the larynx descends deeper in the throat, and the child begins to babble syllables. The first sounds to appear, usually by 7 or 8 months, are b, p, d, t, m, or n, which are made at the front of the mouth and so are relatively easy to pronounce. Linguists believe this is why in most languages, children’s words for mother contain the letters m or n and their words for father contain b, p, or d—for instance, mommy and daddy in English, math, and abah in Hebrew, and anuka and apuka in Hungarian.
A month or two after babbling begins, most children start emitting strings of repeated syllables, like babababa and didididi. Why babies do this is unknown, but researchers note that it is just one of many repetitive activities—like banging the arms and scissoring the legs—that babies enjoy around this time. Soon, however, babies begin to vary the sounds they babble, and they start producing speechlike gibberish. This kind of babbling can continue until the baby is about 18 months old.
When Do Babies Say Their First Word
Around the time that babies start to babble, they also begin to recognize individual words. Researchers have evidence that babies can pick words out of the speech stream by about nine months. In a study reported in 1994, psychologist Peter Jusczyk of the State University of New York at Buffalo repeatedly played a recorded story to 8 1/2-month-old infants. Afterward, Jusczyk played various words through a loudspeaker for up to 20 seconds each and measured how long the babies looked toward the source of the sound. The children looked longer at the speaker when it played words that had appeared many times in the story than when it played other words, indicating that they recognized the sounds of those words they had heard more often.
Probably the first word that actually has meaning for a baby is his or her own name. By 6 or 7 months, a baby will turn if called by name. Gradually, children begin to associate more and more words with the objects and ideas they represent.
In a 1994 study, psychologists at San Diego State University distributed a list of some 400 common words to parents and asked them to mark off those they believed their children understood. The psychologists concluded that most babies enter their second year comprehending about 100 words, though they speak only a few at most.
Another leap forward occurs during the second half of the first year, as babies learn to use sounds and gestures to communicate. By catching her mother’s eye, reaching toward the mantelpiece, and emitting an insistent “Uh,” a 9-month-old can indicate that she is interested in the shiny vase standing there and would like to examine it close up. Communication becomes even more effective when the baby learns to point, usually at 10 to 12 months. Through the extended forefinger, the child can now refer directly to things in the world—an essential step on the road to language.
Shortly after pointing begins, children say their first words. Now, for the first time, toddlers can refer to things even when they are not visible, a major milestone in language development.
Babies, the world over start talking with the same types of words. Most early words stand for things the baby handles, such as bottles and sock, or things that move, such as dog, car, and mama. Other words, such as up and more, have to do with the baby’s daily routine. A baby’s words may not mean what adults mean by them. The word go, for instance, might stand for cars, trains, or buses. The baby might use all gone to mean “I ate my lunch” or “The bird flew away” and more to mean “Give me more” or “Do it again.”
How Vocabulary of children starts to grow
At first, the child’s spoken vocabulary grows slowly. By 18 to 24 months, most children can say about 50 words, though these are not always pronounced in easily recognizable ways. For reasons that are not well understood, this 50-word threshold marks the start of a period of rapid word growth. By some estimates, babies 18 to 24 months old learn an average of 9 new words each day. Psychologists often refer to this period as the naming explosion.
The 50-word watershed is also essential for another reason: It heralds the beginning of grammar, when children combine words for the first time in truly creative ways. Before this point, some children learn whole phrases or sentences, such as “What’s that?” or “I love you.” But from the child’s perspective, researchers believe, such productions represent one long word, whats that and iloveyou. The child is unable to separate out individual words and replace them with others to produce, for instance, “I love kitty.”
Journey From Words to Sentences
The beginning of grammar dramatically expands the ideas a child can express with a limited store of words. In their grammatically incomplete way, children can now talk about people doing things (“Daddy throw”), people and their possessions (“Mommy sock”), and interesting events (“Plane fly”). Children’s early word combinations are often called telegraphic because they leave out all nonessential elements, including words like the, to, my, and is, and word endings like s, ing, and ed.
Just as children comprehend many words well before they can produce them, they seem to understand more grammar than they can produce. In experiments beginning in the 1980’s, we showed toddlers pairs of videotapes featuring characters from the television program “Sesame Street.” On one screen, the children—who were 17 months old on average—saw Big Bird tickling Cookie Monster, while on the other they saw Cookie Monster tickling Big Bird. A recorded voice then instructed the children to “Find Big Bird tickling Cookie Monster” or the reverse. The children consistently showed they understood the instructions by looking longer at the correct screen.
As children approach and then pass their second birthdays, their sentences grow longer and their grasp of grammar becomes more refined. Gradually, children add the grammatical forms that were missing from their two-word utterances. For instance, a 20-month-old who doesn’t want her sandwich might say “No eat” or “No lunch.” By 27 months, the child might produce a three-word sentence, “No eat lunch.” A few months later, the sentence might include a subject: “I no want lunch.” Finally, by 3 years or so, no gives way to the grammatically correct don’t: “I don’t want lunch.”
Children add grammatical structures to their speech in a predictable order, beginning with the most common ones and concluding with less often used or more complex ones. In English, one of the last structures children master is the passive voice. Many children have difficulty with such sentences as “The boy was kicked by the horse” until their elementary school years.
By age 4 or 5, though, children’s use of grammar is approaching that of adults—as is their grasp of the pragmatics of language. A 2½-year-old, for instance, told to “watch your head,” would probably interpret the command literally causing the child much puzzlement. A 4-year-old would correctly interpret the command as an indirect warning to be careful.
How Parents Can Help Children
Although children pass through the stages of language learning in the same order, they don’t do so simultaneously. Some developing children normally speak their first words, start combining words, or reach other milestones as much as a year after others in their age group.
In general, observers have noted that first-born children seem to talk earlier than younger siblings, perhaps because a larger family’s demands leave parents less time to talk with their younger children. Also, children being raised to speak two or more languages may take some time to sort out one language from another, a feat they typically accomplish by age 3.
To keep a child’s language on course, experts advise that parents talk with the child as much as possible, even before the baby can respond. Talking about the here and now helps babies link words to the events and objects they represent. Experts suggest that as parents play with their babies or perform various tasks, they should describe what they are doing, saying, for example, “Daddy’s changing your diaper now.”
Parents can also encourage babies to express themselves by imitating the baby’s own sounds and giving the child a chance to “talk”—for instance, asking questions and waiting for the baby to coo in response.
Parents can employ a technique called scaffolding to help strengthen and enrich the child’s speech with toddlers and preschoolers. In scaffolding, parents expand a child’s utterance into grammatically correct speech, then prompt the child to venture additional talk. If a child says “Puppy wet,” for instance, the parent might say, “Yes, the puppy wet the bed. What should Mommy do?”—prompting a response such as “Mommy dry bed.” In general, parents can encourage children to talk by favoring questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer, asking, for example, “What is the cat doing?” rather than “Do you see the cat?”
Lagging of Language Development
When children are given many opportunities to hear and use language, what appear to be problems in most cases correct themselves. Sometimes, though, children fail to reach language milestones along with others their age because something is hindering their language development. Parents should trust their instincts if they think something is wrong and consult a doctor or specialist in language disorders.
Specialists who deal with disorders of speech and language are called speech-language pathologists. These professionals can evaluate a child’s ability to understand and produce language. They can then design a program tailored to the aspects of language the child needs to work on.
If a child seems not to be reaching language milestones, especially if the child does not react to others’ speech, the problem could be a hearing impairment. Using computerized hearing tests, audiologists—specialists who diagnose and treat hearing defects—can screen even newborns for hearing problems. Testing for such problems early is crucial, doctors say, because failure to treat or compensate for hearing loss can lead to long-term language delay.
Ear Infections Affect Hearing and Speaking
Most cases of hearing impairment in young children are temporary and easily treatable. A common cause is otitis media—an infection of the middle ear that results in a build-up of pus and mucus behind the eardrum. Sometimes, the fluid drains out naturally. But more often, it remains in the ear, muffling hearing. If untreated, the fluid build-up and impaired hearing can last for months or even years, often without producing apparent symptoms.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), based in Rockville, Md., about a third of American children suffer three or more bouts of otitis media by age 3. Studies have found that some of these children start to talk later than their peers, though they seem to catch up in most areas by age 4.
A doctor can diagnose otitis media by looking in the ears through an instrument called an otoscope. Usually, the condition can be treated at home with antibiotics. If a child has frequent ear infections, the doctor may recommend a procedure in which surgeons implant a tiny tube in the ear to allow fluid to drain out. The tube is removed when there is no longer a risk of infection.
According to ASHA, about 1 in 1,000 American children have permanent hearing loss severe enough to affect language. In many cases, a doctor can fit the child with a hearing aid or other device to enhance any remaining hearing. Some children can regain some hearing through a cochlear implant, a device that is surgically implanted in the ear.
Many experts recommend that children whose hearing cannot be helped by a hearing aid or other device be exposed to people fluent in a sign language as early as possible. Deaf children who learn to sign develop language the same way hearing children do, researchers believe, whereas those not exposed to either speech or sign language may always have poor language skills.
Language Delay in Children
In addition to hearing loss, rare conditions such as severe mental retardation interfere with language development. In children with the form of retardation known as Down syndrome, for instance, studies suggest that language development is commensurate with the child’s mental age rather than chronological age.
But for some children whose language development is not progressing on course, doctors can find no obvious explanation. Specialists refer to these children as language-delayed. Some experts estimate that delayed language affects between 1 and 3 percent of American preschoolers.
Delayed language does not necessarily represent a serious problem. Some children have no difficulty understanding speech but, for unknown reasons, do not begin to speak until they are 4 years old or even older. Some medical problems, such as poor muscle development in the jaw,
can keep a child from trying to produce speech. If a doctor does not diagnose such a problem, many specialists say, parents need not worry as long as the child’s understanding is developing on course.
For other children, delayed language is more critical. As they grow into adolescence and beyond, these children may have trouble learning and recalling new words. They may find it hard to produce or understand long or complex sentences. They also may have difficulty with pragmatic aspects of language, such as understanding indirect requests.
Researchers do not understand why some children become language-delayed. A likely explanation in many cases, specialists say, is that children with this problem have some underlying disorder affecting areas of the brain necessary for language learning. Researchers are exploring new techniques, including scanning devices that produce images of the brain, which, they say, may begin yielding answers to this puzzle by the year 2000 or 2005. In the meantime, early diagnosis and treatment offer the best hope for language-delayed children. Researchers have found that by using specific strategies—such as teaching children to imitate particular utterances—speech-language pathologists can help these children overcome at least some language deficits.
Researchers have come a long way toward understanding the ordinary course of language development and the circumstances that can interrupt it. A more difficult question is how children acquire language. How are children transformed from gurgling newborns into linguistically creative preschoolers?
One camp in the debate over this issue consists of psycholinguists who believe that the human brain is genetically programmed to learn language. These researchers argue that exposure to speech triggers the emergence of language, much as water and sunlight trigger the germination of a seed. A second camp holds that the driving force behind language is the desire to communicate. These experts stress the role of caregivers in children’s language learning.
Noam Chomsky invented the trigger theory of language learning when he argued that all languages share a set of basic rules that are hard-wired into the brain—for instance, the rule that a sentence must include a noun and a verb. According to Chomsky and his followers, “children use their inborn knowledge of how language must work to figure out the specific rules of their native tongue.”
Supporters of the Chomskian view note that from birth, infants are sensitive to subtle variations in the sounds and melody of speech, suggesting that their brains are specifically tuned to process language. As children grow, Chomsky supporters argue, they seem to learn language easily and without being taught.
Studies show that parents rarely correct mistakes in their toddlers’ grammar—evidence, these researchers claim, that children decipher the grammar of their language on their own. In addition, in the Chomskian view, mistakes such as “I bringed it” and “Nobody doesn’t like me” show that without realizing it, children figure out general rules and try to apply them in a consistent way.
Studies of children deprived of language also bolster the theory that language is innate, supporters claim. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago studied 10 deaf children whose hearing parents wanted them to learn English, rather than American Sign Language, through methods such as speechreading. The children each invented a set of signs for objects, actions, and characteristics, along with a rudimentary grammar—even though the children’s exposure to language was minimal.
Members of the second camp take issue with the idea that children decipher grammar on their own. These researchers argue that while parents may not explicitly correct children’s grammar, they do so implicitly by repeating and recasting the child’s speech. In their view, parents also shape their own speech to a child’s needs, increasing its complexity as the child’s comprehension grows.
Whichever camp is right, researchers agree that language is a product of both nature and nurture. Parents can provide children with a linguistically poor or linguistically rich environment—making the difference, perhaps, between a competent speaker and an exceptional one. But for all children, learning language is a remarkable achievement.