Multiword Stage

The multi-word stage is the final phase in the language acquisition process of children.  After the telegraphic stage (around 24 months of age), children continue to develop their language skills and move into what is known as the 'later word stage' or 'multi-word stage.' During this stage, children begin to produce longer, more complex sentences with more varied grammatical structures and vocabulary.

Multiword Stage Multiword Stage

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Table of contents

    This stage is broken down into two sub-stages: the early multi-word stage and the later multi-word stage. This period of a child's language development starts at around 2 years old with an indefinite endpoint.

    Early multiword stage

    The early multi-word stage typically starts at 24 months and ends at 30 months old.

    Although language used in this stage is relatively simple, there is a clear progression from the previous two-word stages. Children gradually add a variety of new morphemes to their speech and they can form longer utterances with three or more words. Their sentences possess more advanced syntax too.

    Multiword stage: telegraphic stage of language development

    An alternative name used for this stage of development is the telegraphic stage, named after traditional telegram messages. Telegrams usually omit function words to reduce the word count and subsequently reduce the cost of the message being sent. Children at this stage speak in a similar way. However, there is quite a different reason for why children omit function words and that is because they haven't learned how to use them yet!

    The utterances at the telegraphic stage are similar to those used in the two-word stage since essential linguistic devices are still omitted from their speech, such as:

    • Auxiliary verbs - do, is, has.

    • Articles - the, a, an.

    • Prepositions - on, to, for.

    • Conjunctions - because, but.

    While progressing from the previous stages, children will continue to develop their ability to articulate different sounds. They can confidently use vowel sounds and up to 20 consonant sounds in their speech. The presence of pronunciation errors are less common as children's organs of articulation (the tongue, upper lip and lower lip) mature.

    Multiword stage, child talking on the phone, StudySmarterFig. 1 - At the multi-word stage, children are confidently able to articulate numerous sounds.

    Later multiword Stage

    The later multi-word stage is the last stage a child will go through before achieving native proficiency in their language. It usually starts at the age of 30 months and has no definite endpoint.

    At this stage, children are no longer limited to just content words. Children have now learned to include a variety of function words in their sentences such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. They also tend to use proper grammar more often and can easily form multiple-clause sentences.

    Linguistic devices such as determiners, prepositions and inflexions are among the most important lexemes that are added at this stage.

    The vocabulary of a child never stops growing even into adulthood. Learning is a lifelong process which is why this stage of language development doesn't have a definite endpoint.

    Development of the later multiword stage

    As children progress through the multi-word stage, they build on language skills that they gained in the previous stages and reach the state of full competency in their language. Areas of language that are mastered include phonology, semantics and grammar.

    Acquisition of morphemes

    The psychologist Roger Brown conducted research on 14 morphemes in the English language and how children acquire them. He concluded that between the age of 2 and 4 years old, children acquire the 14 morphemes in a predictable pattern, which was observed in their speech.¹

    It was found that there wasn't any significant relationship between the age of the child and the use of individual morphemes. It was observed by linguist Dan Slobin that the order morphemes which were added to a child's speech was governed partially by the complexity of the grammatical rule that was applied.²

    Later multiword stage examples

    For example, a child in the later word stage might say, 'I want to go to the park with my friends,' instead of 'I go park with friends.' They might also start to use more complex sentences, such as 'If it rains, we'll stay inside and play games.'

    Let's have a look at some examples of morphemes that children acquire in the multiword stage.

    MorphemesExample in a sentenceAge of acquisition (months)

    Present progressive affix -ing

    Daddy walking.

    19-28

    Preposition "in"

    Juice in cup.

    27-30

    Preposition "on"

    Put on table.

    27-30

    Regular plural -s

    Dogs running away.

    27-33

    Irregular past possessives

    It broke.

    Teddy fell over.

    25-46

    The possessive -s

    Dad's chair.

    26-40

    Uncontractible copula

    (verb to be)

    He is.

    (In response to 'who is here?')

    27-39

    Articles

    I see a doggy.

    I want the ball.

    28-46

    Regular past tense -ed

    Mummy picked the flower.

    He walked here.

    26-48

    Regular third person -s

    My friend rides a bike.

    26-46

    Irregular third person

    He has a bike.

    Daddy does the cooking.

    28-50

    Uncontractible auxiliary

    He is

    (in response to 'who's coming to play?')

    29-48

    Contractible copula

    They're here.

    It's raining.

    29-49

    Contractible auxiliary

    He's crying.

    Daddy's busy.

    30-50

    A child is considered to have mastered a stage if they are able to use the morpheme correctly at least 90% of the time.

    There is an unexpected order between the acquisition of irregular past tense (5th in sequence) and regular past tense (9th in sequence). This leads to the peculiar situation where young children correctly use the past tense by saying 'broken' and 'ate' but later change to using the past tense incorrectly by saying 'breaked' and 'eated'. Although the child has made a grammatical error, it shows that they have learned a rule of grammar - despite using it incorrectly.

    Questions

    In the process of learning to ask questions, children enter the multi-word stage with rudimentary capabilities but develop their skills by gradually learning new words and syntax.

    Initially, children heavily rely on using intonation to indicate the difference between the use of a statement and a question. They use intonation by changing the pitch, tone, and volume of their voice for certain phrases or words, which makes it clearer to distinguish when they are asking a question. They learn this from adults, who also use intonation in their speech to distinguish between questions and statements.

    Multi-word stage question marks StudySmarterFig. 2 - Children in the multi-word stage understand the use of intonation in questions.

    Children use intonation to ask questions before developing the ability to use question words.

    If the sentence 'He found it in the garden' is spoken without the use of intonation, then it's quite clearly a statement. However, if the child applies intonation by using a higher pitch on the word 'garden', the sentence is much more likely to sound like a question.

    In the next stage, children learn how to use common question words, such as what, why and who. They combine these words with words in their vocabulary to form basic questions.

    What mummy doing?

    The next development is the use of more advanced syntax. Children will learn and use auxiliary and modal verbs to form grammatically complete questions. So as an alternative to telegraphic type questions such as 'Where mummy?', They will say 'Where is mummy gone?'.

    Negatives

    A child's ability to form negative sentences follows predictable patterns where the language and grammar develop. A child's first use of negatives will be in the form of 'one-word' holophrases.

    A child may use the word 'No!' to refuse an action or question.

    Multiword Stage, angry child, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A child learns to become more precise when forming negative sentences.

    The next stage involves children building on the words 'no' and 'not' as a pivot word, making them more precise in their use of negatives. (A pivot word is typically a function word that holds the most importance in the sentence e.g. 'all-gone' or 'no'.

    A child may say: 'no mummy' and 'not milk'.

    In the final stage, children will use the correct syntax and auxiliary verbs to complement their use of negatives

    A child may say: 'They didn't like it.' and 'My toy isn't any good'.

    The 'WUG' test in the multiword stage

    A topic of interest for researchers has been whether children learn morphological rules themselves or by imitating adult language. In 1958 the psycholinguist Jean Berko looked to uncover this argument by conducting research on children using the 'WUG' test. The word WUG was used because it's a credible pseudo word that the child is unlikely to have heard before.

    In the test, a child was shown an image of a simple creature which had the nonsense name 'WUG' and was told: "This is a WUG". The child was then shown an image of two 'WUGS' and was asked to complete the sentence: “There are two ____”.³

    The results showed that children starting from three years old used the correct plural form of the word, by saying 'WUGS'. The major conclusion from the test was that young children are able to produce suitable plurals for words they have never heard before. This implied that they had internalized linguistic rules rather than memorized them from adult speech.

    The test was also completed with other questions that used possessives, conjugations and other morphemes, and they reported the same conclusions as the test conducted for plurals.

    Multiword stage: mistakes in articulation

    At the start of this multiword stage, children still exhibit some pronunciation errors in their speech, although the majority of their speech is clear and understandable. This is attributed to their underdeveloped articulating organs. The organs of articulation should be fully developed by around 6 to 7 years old when the child will no longer display any pronunciation errors.

    Voiceless 'th'

    This error is observed when children pronounce 'thank' as 'fank'. This error can affect a child's spelling, as they tend to spell words in the same way that they articulate them.

    Voiced 'th' replaced with 'v'

    This error can be observed when pronounce children 'with' as 'wiv'.

    Gliding

    When liquid sounds (l and r) are replaced with glide sounds (w and y). It's part of a child's language development process and usually disappears at 5 years old. This error can be observed when pronounce children 'ring' as 'wing'.

    Multiword Stage - Key takeaways

    • The multi-word stage has two distinct stages: the early multi-word stage and the later multi-word stage. The early multi-word stage is also known as the telegraphic stage because of its similarities to how telegrams were written in the past.

    • The later multi-word stage starts at around 30 months old and has no definite endpoint.

    • Children develop the ability to use the fundamental 14 morphemes in a predictable way. Children master the ability to ask questions and use negative sentences in this stage.

    • Research shows that children learn how to apply linguistic rules rather than memorize them.

    • Children may display pronunciation errors at the early period of this stage, and they are usually corrected by around 6 to 7 years old.


    1. Brown, RA, First Language, Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1973.

    2. Slobin, DI, Cognitive prerequisites for the development of grammar, 1973.

    3. Berko, Jean, The Child's Learning of English Morphology , 1958.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Multiword Stage

    What is the pre-talking stage?

    The stage where infants form cooing or vowel-like sounds before they can form entire words.

    What is the telegraphic stage?

    In the telegraphic substage, the child starts to form simple sentences that mainly consist of content words. It is known as the telegraphic stage because of its similarities to how telegrams were written in the past.

    What is the later multi-word stage?

    The later multi-word stage is the second part of the multi-word stage. Children at this stage perfect their ability to form sentences that include content and function words while using the correct grammar.

    What happens in the Holophrastic stage?

    The stage where infants have learned a few words that they use to communicate more complex ideas.

    What are the 5 stages of language development?

    The 4 stages of language development are the babbling stage, the one-word stage, the two-word stage, the early multi-word stage and the later multi-word stage.

    What is the multiword stage?

    After 24 months of age, children continue to develop their language skills and produce longer, more complex sentences with more varied grammatical structures. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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

    Which of the following is a negative statement?

    Which of the following sentences uses a past regular morpheme?

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