The child’s journey into language: Some frequently asked questions…

First Language Acquisition Eve ClarkBlog Post written by Eve V. Clark (Stanford University), author of the recently published First Language Acquisition (3rd Edition)

 How early do infants start in on language?

Even before birth, babies recognize intonation contours they hear in utero, and after birth, they prefer listening to a familiar language over an unfamiliar one.  And in their first few months, they can already discriminate between speech sounds that are the same or different.

 How early do infants understand their first words, word-endings, phrases, utterances? 

Children learn meanings in context, both from hearing repeated uses of words in relation to their referents, and from feedback from adults when they use a word correctly or incorrectly.  When a child is holding a ball, the mother might say “Ball.  That’s a ball”, and the child could decide that “ball” picks out round objects of that type. Still, it may take many examples to establish the link between a word-form  (“ball”) and a word-meaning (round objects of a particular type) and to relate the word “ball” to neighbouring words (throw, catch, pick up, hold).  It takes even longer for the child’s meaning of a word to fully match the adult’s.

When do infants produce their first words and truly begin to talk?  

Infants babble from 5-10 months on, giving them practice on simple syllables, but most try their first true words at some time between age 1 and age 2 (a broad range).  They find certain sounds harder to pronounce than others, and certain combinations (e.g., clusters of consonants) even harder.  It therefore takes practice to arrive at the adult pronunciations of words –– to go from “ba” to “bottle”, or from “ga” to “squirrel”.   Like adults, though, children understand much more than they can say.

 What’s the relation between what children are able to understand and what they are able to say?  

Representing the sound and meaning of a word in memory is essential for recognizing it from other speakers.  Because children are able to understand words before they produce them, they can make use of the representations of words they already understand as models to aim for when they try to pronounce those same words.

 How early do children begin to communicate with others?   

A few months after birth, infants follow adult gaze, and they respond to adult gaze and to adult speech face-to-face, with cooing and arm-waving.  As they get a little older, they attend to the motion in adult hand-gestures.  By 8 months or so, they recognize a small number of words, and by 10 months, they can also attend to the target of an adult’s pointing gestures.  They themselves point to elicit speech from caregivers, and they use gestures to make requests – e.g., pointing at a cup as a request for juice.  They seem eager to communicate very early.

 How do young children learn their first language?  

Parents check up on what their children mean, and offer standard ways to say what the children seem to be aiming for.  Children use this adult feedback to check on whether or not they have been understood as they intended.

Do all children follow the same path in acquisition? 

No, and the reason for this depends in part on the language being learnt.  English, for example, tends to have fixed word order and relatively few word endings, while Turkish has much freer word order and a large number of different word-endings.  Languages differ in their sound systems, their grammar, and their vocabulary, all of which has an impact on early acquisition.

These and many other questions about first language acquisition are explored in the new edition of First Language Acquisition.  In essence, children learn language in interaction with others: adults talk with them about their daily activities – eating, sleeping, bathing, dressing, playing; they expose them to language and to how it’s used, offer feedback when they make mistakes, and provide myriad opportunities for practice.  This book reviews findings from many languages as it follows the trajectories children trace during their acquisition of a first language and of the many skills language use depends on.

First Language Acquisition (third edition), Cambridge University Press 2016



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