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Language Acquisition in Children

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Language Acquisition in Children

Child language acquisition (CLA) refers to how children develop the ability to understand and use language. But what process do children go through exactly? How do we study CLA? And what is an example? Let's find out!

Stages of first language acquisition in children

There are four main stages of first language acquisition in children. These are:

  • The Babbling Stage
  • The Holophrastic Stage
  • The Two-word Stage
  • The Multi-word Stage

The Babbling Stage

The babbling stage is the first significant stage of language acquisition in children, occurring from around 4-6 months until about 12 months of age. During this stage, the child hears speech syllables (sounds that make up spoken language) from its environment and caregivers and attempts to imitate by repeating them. There are two types of babbling: canonical babbling and variegated babbling.

  • Canonical babbling is the type of babbling that emerges first. It consists of the same syllables being repeated over and over e.g. a baby saying 'ga ga ga', 'ba ba ba', or a similar string of repeated syllables.

  • Variegated babbling is when different syllables are used in the babbling sequence. Instead of using one syllable repeatedly, the child uses a variety e.g. 'ga ba da' or 'ma da pa'. This occurs around two months after canonical babbling starts, at around eight months of age. Children may also begin to use intonation that resembles actual speech at this stage, while still only producing meaningless sounds.

Language Acquisition in Children, parents speaking to baby, StudySmarterBabbling is the first stage of language acquisition (Pexels)

The Holophrastic Stage (The One-Word Stage)

The holophrastic stage of language acquisition, also known as the ‘one-word stage’, typically occurs around the age of 12 to 18 months. At this stage, children have identified which words and combinations of syllables are the most effective for communicating and may attempt to communicate a full sentence's worth of information. For example, a child may say 'dada' which could mean anything from ‘I want dad’ to ‘where is dad?’. This is known as holophrasis.

A child's first word will often resemble a babble and, while they may hear and understand a wide range of sounds, they can still only produce a limited range themselves. These words are known as proto words. Despite sounding like babbles, they still work as words because the child has assigned meaning to them. Children may also use real words and typically adapt them to suit their speaking ability. Sometimes these words are used incorrectly as the child attempts to learn and use them. For example, they may call every animal a 'cat' if they grew up with one.

The Two-word Stage

The two-word stage occurs at around 18 months of age. At this stage, children are able to use two words in the right grammatical order. However, the words they use tend to exclusively be content words (words that hold and convey meaning) and they often leave out function words (words that hold a sentence together, such as articles, prepositions, etc.).

For example, a child might see a dog jump over the fence and simply say ‘dog jump’ instead of ‘A dog jumped over the fence.’ The order is correct and they say the most important word, but the lack of function words, as well as a lack of tense use, makes the information very context-dependent, much like in the holophrastic stage.

At this stage, the child’s vocabulary starts at around 50 words and consists mostly of common nouns and verbs. These often come from things their caregivers have said or things in their immediate environment. Typically, as the child progresses through the two-word stage, the ‘word spurt’ occurs, which is a relatively short period during which the child's vocabulary grows much larger. Most children know 50 words by around 17 months of age, but by 24 months they may know up to over 600.¹

The Multi-word Stage

The multi-word stage of language acquisition in children can be broken up into two distinct sub-stages: the early multi-word stage and the later multi-word stage. Children move on from two-word phrases and begin to form short sentences of around three, four, and five words, and eventually even more. They also begin to use more and more function words and are able to form more complex sentences. Children typically progress rapidly through this stage as they understand many of the basics of their language already.

The early multi-word stage

The early part of this stage is sometimes called the ‘telegraphic stage’ as the children's sentences seem to resemble telegram messages due to their simplicity. The telegraphic stage takes place from around 24 to 30 months of age. Children mostly ignore function words in favour of using the most important content words and usually start using negatives (no, not, can't, etc.). They also tend to ask more questions about their surroundings.

For example, a child might say ‘no want veggies’ instead of ‘I don't want vegetables with my food.’ While children at this substage still don't use function words in their own sentences, many do understand when others use them.

The later multi-word stage

The later multi-word stage, also known as the complex stage, is the final part of language acquisition. It starts at around 30 months of age and has no fixed endpoint. At this stage, children start to use a variety of function words and there is a great increase in the amount of words children can use. Their sentence structures also become a lot more complex and varied.

Children in this stage have a concrete sense of time, quantity, and the ability to engage in simple reasoning. This means they can talk confidently in different tenses, and verbally explain ideas such as putting ‘some’ or ‘all’ of their toys away. They can also start to explain why and how they think or feel things, and may also ask others.

As children reach the age of five and above, their ability to use and understand language becomes more or less fluent. Many children still struggle with pronunciations, but they are able to understand when others use these sounds. Eventually, older children gain the ability to confidently read, write, and explore a variety of new topics and ideas. Typically, school will also help children to further develop their linguistic skills.

Language Acquisition in Children Father talking to child StudySmarterAt the multi-word stage, children can talk about a variety of topics (Pexels)

Methodology in child language acquisition

So, how exactly do we study child language acquisition?

Types of studies include:

  • Cross-sectional studies - comparing different groups of children of different ages. This method helps to get results faster.
  • Longitudinal studies - observing several children over a period of time, from several months to decades.
  • Case studies - in-depth studies of one or a small number of children. This helps get a more detailed understanding of the child’s development.

There are several methods to measure a child’s development. For example:

  • Observations e.g. recording spontaneous speech or repetition of words.
  • Comprehension e.g. pointing at an image.
  • Act-out e.g. children are asked to act something out or make toys act out a scenario.
  • Preferential-looking e.g. measuring the time spent looking at an image.
  • Neuroimaging e.g. measuring brain responses to certain linguistic stimuli

Language acquisition example

An example of the study of child language acquisition is the Genie Case Study. Genie had minimal interaction with others as a child due to her abusive upbringing and isolation. Due to this, her case drew many psychologists and linguists who wanted to study her and study the idea of a 'critical period' for language acquisition. This is the idea that the first few years of a child’s life are a crucial time to learn a language.

Researchers provided Genie with stimulus-rich environments to help her develop her language skills. She began to copy words and could eventually put together utterances of two to four words, leaving researchers optimistic that Genie might be able to fully develop language. Unfortunately, Genie did not progress past this stage and was not able to apply grammatical rules to her utterances. It appeared that Genie had passed the critical period for language acquisition; however, it is also important to remember the impact of abuse and neglect on her childhood. Case studies like Genie’s are key components of research into language acquisition.

The role of the environment in language acquisition in children

The role of the environment in CLA is a key area of study for many linguists. It all comes back to the 'nature vs nurture' debate; some linguists argue that environment and upbringing are key in language acquisition (nurture) whilst others argue that genetics and other biological factors are most important (nature).

The Behavioural Theory is the main theory that argues for the importance of the environment in language acquisition. It proposes that children do not have any internal mechanisms for learning a language; instead, they learn language as a result of imitating their caregivers and those around them. Interactionist theory also argues for the importance of the environment and propose that, whilst children do have the innate ability to learn language, they require regular interaction with caregivers to achieve full fluency.

Opposing theories to these are the Nativist theory and the Cognitive Theory. The Nativist Theory argues that children are born with an innate 'Language Acquisition Device' that provides children with a baseline understanding of language. The Cognitive Theory argues that children learn language as their cognitive ability and understanding of the world develops.

Language Acquisition in Children - Key takeaways

  • Child language acquisition (CLA) refers to how children develop the ability to understand and use language.
  • There are four main stages of language acquisition: the Babbling stage, holophrastic stage, two-word stage, and multi-word stage.
  • There are different types of studies and methodologies that we can use to carry out research on language acquisition e.g. longitudinal studies, case studies, preferential-looking etc.
  • An example of the study of child language acquisition is the Genie Case Study. Genie was raised in isolation without speaking a language. Due to this, her case drew many psychologists and linguists who wanted to study her and study the idea of a 'critical period' for language acquisition.
  • The nature vs nurture debate is central to studies of child language acquisition. The behavioural and interactionist theories argue that language develops mainly due to the environment of a child whilst the nativist and cognitive theories argue that biological components are most important.

¹ Fenson et al., Lexical development norms for young children, 1993.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language Acquisition in Children

The four stages are the Babbling stage, holophrastic stage, two-word stage, and multi-word stage.

Many linguists argue for the idea of a 'critical period' of language acquisition. This is the idea that the first few years of a child’s life are a crucial time to learn a language. After this, children are not able to achieve full fluency. 

Child language acquisition (CLA) refers to how children develop the ability to understand and use language. 

The first stage of language acquisition in children is the Babbling Stage. This occurs at around 6 to 12 months and it where children attempt to imitate speech syllables such as 'ga ga ga' or 'ga ba da'.

An example of the study of child language acquisition is the Genie Case Study. Genie had minimal interaction with others as a child due to her abusive upbringing and isolation. Due to this, her case drew many psychologists and linguists who wanted to study her and study the idea of a 'critical period' for language acquisition. 

Final Language Acquisition in Children Quiz

Question

What is meant by language acquisition?

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The process of humans developing the ability to understand and use language.

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Babbling is the _______ major stage of language acquisition. Fill in the blank.

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First

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What happens in the babbling stage of language acquisition?

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The child repeats sounds with a combination of consonants and vowels.

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What are the types of babbling and how do they differ?


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Canonical babbling is the duplication of the same syllables, variegated babbling is the repetition of different vowel and consonant combination syllables. Jargon babbling is when the babbling begins to sound like a conversation.

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When does the babbling stage of language acquisition occur?


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4-12 months.

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When do infants typically learn their first words?


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1 year

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True or false? Infants develop the ability to babble after the larynx has descended in the throat.


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True, before the larynx descends in the throat, infants' ability to make sounds are very limited.

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True or false? An infant can produce meaningful sounds once they can move their jaw.


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False. Movement of the jaw and phonation is required for an infant to make meaningful sounds.

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True or false? Babbling only refers to children making sounds.


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False. There is a form of babbling known as manual babbling were children that learn sign language babble through the use of physical movements.

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Can infants with autism babble?


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Yes, they can babble, although the time for babbling to start may be delayed.

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True or false? Deaf children can't make sounds.


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False. Deaf children will cry, coo and make sounds after birth. Deaf children may experience difficulty in developing language skills depending on the severity of the hearing impairment.

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What happens in the one-word stage of language acquisition?

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Infants begin using single words to communicate more complex ideas to the adults around them.

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What type of speech sounds do infants first learn?


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Vowels

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At what age does the one-word stage typically take place?


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12-18 months

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True or false: Consonants are easier to enunciate than vowels.


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False. Vowels are easier to enunciate since they can be produced with an open configuration of the vocal tract.

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Why is the enunciation of consonants usually learned after vowels?


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The pronunciation of consonants requires a partly or fully obstructed vocal tract, making them technically more difficult to pronounce than vowels.

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True or false: Infants tend use new letters that they have learned at the start of a word.


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True. Enunciating a new letter is easier when it's at the beginning of a word.

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What is meant by overextending a word?


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When a word is given a broader meaning than its intended meaning.

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What is meant by underextending a word?


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When a word is given a narrower meaning than its intended meaning.

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Why do infants substitute sounds in words?


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If they aren't able to enunciate a sound in a word, they will replace it with a sound that they can enunciate, which leave the interpretation to the adults.

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True or false: The use of substitution for sounds is rule-governed.


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True. Infants always use the same sound as a substitute for a sound they can't produce.

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How many words do toddlers typically know at the start of the two-word phrase?

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50

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True or false: Toddlers typically use adjectives when talking in the two-word stage.


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False. Toddlers in the two-word stage often use nouns and verbs in their speech.

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Why do adults find it difficult sometimes to interpret a toddlers' speech?


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Toddlers rarely use function words and grammatical morphemes in their speech, they mainly use content words. This makes their sentences contextually dependent.

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True or false: A toddlers' speech could have multiple meanings.


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True. Since toddlers' speech rarely includes syntactic markings, it becomes difficult to interpret what the toddler is saying with certainty.

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Why does an adult need to consider the context of a toddlers' speech?


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The context is helpful in adding information to the toddlers' speech, which can help it to make more sense.

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True or false: Pivot words are often the first word in a two-word phrase.


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True. Pivot words typically appear as the first word (although they can also appear as the second).

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What type of word usually makes on 'open' word?


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Open words are usually nouns or verbs and form the content part of a phrase.

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What is assimilation?


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When a difficult sound is replaced with an easier one to help with pronunciation.

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What is a gliding error?


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When liquid sounds (l and r) are replaced with glide sounds (w and y).

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Which of the following phrases is a stop error?


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'Sea' is pronounced as 'tea'.

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The multi-word stage is the _______ stage of language acquisition.

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Fourth

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True or false: The later multi-word stage ends at around 6 years old.


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False. It has no fixed endpoint since learning a language is a lifelong process.

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True or false: Children acquire the use of morphemes randomly.


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False. Research has found that children learn how to use morphemes in a predictable order. 

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What factor governs the order that children learn morphemes?


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The complexity of the grammatical rule that the morpheme is applied in.

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How does the use of intonation help children ask questions?


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Children can adjust the intonation of specific words in a sentence to make it clearer to the listener that they are asking a question.

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Which of the following is a negative statement?


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'That's not my toy.'

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Which of the following sentences uses a past regular morpheme?


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'He landed on the floor.'

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Which of the following sentences uses a possessive morpheme?


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'That's Bill's car.'

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Which of the following sentences uses a past irregular morpheme?


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'Daddy ate it all.'

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Which of the following are common mistakes in articulation made in the multi-word stage?

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Voiceless 'th' e.g. 'fanks'

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At what age do children stop making mistakes in articulation?

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Around 6 to 7 years old.

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What does language acquisition mean?

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Language acquisition refers to the way humans are able to develop the ability to understand and use language.

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What happens in the babbling stage of language acquisition?


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 In the babbling stage, the child repeats phonemes in a sequence.

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What are the two types of babbling and how do they differ?


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The two types of babbling are canonical and variegated babbling. Canonical babbling is the repetition of one phoneme and variegated babbling is the repetition of different phonemes.

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When does the babbling stage of language acquisition occur?


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6-12 months.

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What happens in the holophrastic stage of language acquisition?


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In the holophrastic stage, children begin to learn or create words and use one word in place of a sentence.

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What is another name for the words that children create in the holophrastic stage?


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The words children create are examples of proto words.

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What is holophrasis?


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Holophrasis is the act of using one word instead of a complete sentence or phrase.

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When does the holophrastic stage occur?


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12-18 months.

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