7.1 Child Development: What are the milestones in language development during infancy?

Chapter SEVEN


7.1 Describe the milestones in language development during infancy


Kamau is 17 months old.  He is just beginning to talk.  He can say a few words. You can be able to tell whether he is asking a question or simply making a statement by his intonation.  He has begun to join two or three words to form a sentence for example “Mama—me—–milk”. His mother does not find it difficult to interpret what he says.  She has a way of holding conversations with him that other people in the home can’t.

Learning to talk is one of the child’s most remarkable accomplishment during the first few years of life.  Newborns can not use words. However they are able to communicate by crying and later on gazing and other sounds.  This chapter discusses infant’s language development, the ways they understand and produce speech before they can do either like an adult does.


Milestones in language production

There are two sides of children’s language behaviour: (1) the productive language that is the speech they produce and (2) the receptive language or the speech they understand. I will take you through each side starting with language production as I describe language behaviour from birth to about 2 years of age.


Stages in the Development of Productive Language

The child develops productive language in stages. I am going to take you these stages now.


1. Crying

Crying represents the infant’s earlest vocalization.  There are different varieties of cries. Each type of cry usually has a meaning and mothers usually learn to distinguish among the different varieties.  Crying is not a language but it represents a type of communication, as it is the means by which infants convey their basic needs. During the first six to eight weeks of life, variations of the cry are the only vocalizations that take place.  Adults through experience learn to recognize the various types of cries. Probably you have heard mothers comment about their infants cries. For example, “she cries this way when she wants to sleep” and indeed the baby sleeps almost immediately. This is evidence that adults are able to recognize an infants specific need by their cries. This enables them to respond to the child in appropriate ways.


2. Cooing and Babbling

Cooing emerges from the second month.  It consists of a repetition of vowels .For example, “aaaah” or “ooooo”.  Cooing though not language is a form of communication because it generally indicates that the infant is pleased, happy or excited.  It is expressed after a certain degree of maturation is attained. It requires muscular movements of the tongue that were not possible at birth.  Cooing occurs in both normal and deaf children. It diminishes at approximately 8 months of age.


Babbling emerges at about 6 months.  It consists of a repetition of a combination of consonants and vowel sounds, for instance dadada, mamama, bababa etc.   Infants babble in a similar way irrespective of their linguistic background. Babbling is important because it gives the infant an opportunity to exercise their vocal organs and enables them to hear the range of sounds that they are capable of making.  Babbling is the first vocalization that bears resemblance to speech. Infants also begin to vary the intonation of their vocalizations during the second half of their first year. For example, they sometimes babble with a raised or lowered pitch. These intonation patterns correspond to the signals older children and adults use for asking a question versus making a statement (Schickedanz, Hansen & Forsyth, 1990).  Variations in intonation increase during the infants second year (Bruner, 1975). Babbling is accompanied by excitation and motor movement e.g. they swing their hands and legs, move head etcetera.


Infants make sounds that arouse their interest.  Often they lie quietly while listening to sounds, other times they babble in response to the verbal stimulation around them.


3. Holophrase stage (12 to 18 months)

This is the emergence of the first word.  Children usually learn words related to food, toys, animals and people.  These words are usually concrete nouns. The child does not understand all the words learnt.  Most words are acquired through imitation hence the child may not know what they represent. Words may not be properly pronounced.


4. Two-word stage

By approximately 18 months children start using two word expression. These are usually utterances consisting of two single words. For example “mama milk”, “me go” etcetera.


5.  Telegraphic sentences

These are short and simple sentences consisting mainly of nouns and verbs.  They are referred to as telegraphic because the sentences lack some words, tense endings, plural endings on nouns and other grammatical omissions e.g. “mama me milk”-meaning mama give me milk and “soup hot”- meaning this soup is hot. These sentences can be likened to the Messages we send by telegram which are usually shortened and gramaticlly incorrect in order to reduce posting costs  There is considerable progress in sentence structure by the age of 3 years. Children’s vocabulary increase. Their knowledge of syntax (knowledge of grammatical rules) and semantics (understanding of word meanings) also increase daily as they continue using and listening to  language. By the age of 3-years they can participate in conversations.


As young children learn words, they often use them differently than adults do.  Sometimes they do not use words as broadly as an adult does. This is called under extension. For example a young child might use the word “bag” only to refer to the mother’s bag because it was in this context that she first learned the word.  In this case she has under extended the word’s meaning. Other times they over extend the meaning of a word.  An urban child might call his grandmother’s goat a dog because it has four legs and a tail like a dog.  In this case the child has overextended the meaning of a word.

7.2 Discuss the milestones in receptive language

Milestones in Receptive Language

The other side of children’s language behaviour is the receptive side.  This involves the child’s ability to understand the meaning of individual words.  This is also called language perception. Together with human speech sounds, children hear all kinds of sounds; the moving vehicles, the sound of cows, the barking of dogs, the cracking of the chicken for instance.  However the human sounds have special significance for the baby (Schickedanz, Hansen & Forsyth, 1994) According to a study by Wolff (1969), by the second week of life, a crying infant is quieted by a voice more effectively than by other sounds.


Children develop language perception before they are able to produce words.  That is children understand before they can speak. They understand quite several words when they can only say only two or three (Goldin-meadow, Seligman & Gelman, 1976 cited by schickedanz et, al, 1990). In everyday life, there are many multiword utterances that children in the one-word stage seem to understand for example “Tell mummy good might” “Drink your milk baby”.  This understanding is made possible by reference to the context in which the sentence is said.

7.3 Explain how adults can enhance the infants language development

Sociocultural And Environmental Influence On     Children’s  Language Development?

The Boy of Aveyron

I want to start by summarizing a very interesting real story called the “Boy of Aveyron”. In 1799, a nude boy was observed running through the woods of France.  The boy was captured when he was approximately 11 years old. It was believed he had lived in the wild for at least 6 years. According to Lane (1976) he was named victor.  When victor was found he could not communicate indeed, he was not able to communicate effectively even after a number of years. Is it likely that his inability to communicate was due to his years of social isolation.  A child does not develop language in a social vacuum. He is exposed to a language environment, most of the times, from the moment he is born. According to Snow (1989), early exposure to language is necessary for acquisition of competent language skills.  As a result of this exposure, children from a variety of cultural contexts acquire their native language without explicit training or teaching. However there are factors that provide facilitative effects. Santrock (1996) discusses some social supports that enhance language development.  I have presented this discussion in the next section.

Social supports for language

During these early stages of development, children need the benefit of adult language social supports.  Such support improves the development of language. Children therefore need to hear speech around them. The adult speech reinforces the child’s vocalization.  Parents provide support to their children in different ways for example fathers and mothers talk to their children in different ways. The unique communication style among adults is known as motherese.  It’s so called because it’s observed more frequently among mothers of infants.  Motherese is simple redundant language. In motherese, adults often raise their voice and use brief sentences.  This mode of communication is designed to teach babies to talk.


Other than motherese, there are other strategies that adults use to enhance the child’s acquisition of language.  These include recasting, echoing, expanding and labeling. Recasting involves phrasing the same or a similar meaning of a sentence in a different way like for instance turning it in to a question.  For example, if a child says, “Mama – me – milk”, the adult can respond by asking, “who wants milk?” Echoing refers to repeating what the child says to you.  Expanding involves restating what the child has said in a linguistically sophisticated form.  In the above example, a mother can respond by saying “mama give me my milk. Labeling is giving the names of objects.  This greatly aids the child’s vocabulary development.


These strategies are used naturally and in meaningful conversations.  Parents should not use any deliberate method to teach their children to talk.  Language experts agree that intervention should occur in natural ways with the aim of encouraging language development.

7.4 Analyze the factors that impact language acquisition


1. Exposure to Language

The more a child is exposed to good language models and to each of the four areas of language the more proficient the child becomes in that language. The opposite is also true. So the two most important aspects of exposure are; the quantity of time of exposure and the quality of language models. Since learning a language take time for mastery the child can’t learn a language if he/she doesn’t hear it spoken or see it written or if the langue model whom they are to imitate is not proficient in the language.


2. Stimulation to Motivate Learning

Cognitive Stimulation enhances the probability of children developing concepts that they want to communicate about. Hence, they want the labels – that they will obtain from those around them.


Linguistic Stimulation is the use of language by those around the child. In hearing the language being used by significant persons in their lives, children hear the sounds/grammar and meaningful language units that can be used for communication. As we learned earlier, the more they hear a language used in all of its potential functions and forms, the more easily and rapidly they are able to learn the language.


If caregivers use motherese it simplifies the process of language learning for the child. Motherese is a simplified version of a language that has shorter sentence structures (grammar) and simpler words (vocabulary/ lexicon). Used with a language learner to assist in communication and learning of the language.


Positive Emoltional Stimulation ensures that the children feel loved and secure so that they are able to learn freely without anxiety. Providing love and nurturing care (meting all of their physical needs quickly) provides this needed emotional security.


3. Health (and Nutrition) Status of the Child

If children are sick or malnourished they are less likely to be able to attend to the language around them or to have the motivation to learn to communicate in that language.  Consequently, the children are less likely to learn the language


Physical Health includes the status of the child’s health physically in terms of presence of illnesses or brain damage caused during birthing, or by illnesses or accidents.  If the child is physically well, he or she is highly motivated and able to learn the languages of important people in their lives (Significant Others) such as the primary caregiver and immediate family members. When a child suffers from severe malnutrition there is energy depletion and learning is retarded. The same applies to illnesses especially severe illnesses. Usually after nutritional and health status improves there is a period of catch up growth or growth spurt that in this case applies to the language usage.


Brain damage to the areas of language learning that occurs at these young ages causes the brain to adapt other near by areas or those in the other hemisphere (side of the brain) to language learning. Thus, language learning is only shortly delayed unless the damage is severe. The brain is very placid (flexible) at these ages and is somewhat flexible as to where language (and other capabilities) are processed.


Psychological Health refers to the development of positive emotional states and social relationships so that the child feels secure and capable. When children are exposed to excessive negative stimulation (excessive yelling, physical abuse, etc) the front part of the brain is excessively stimulated and appears to interfere with the stimulation to other areas needed for learning. This explains why children in abusive households appear jittery, withdrawn and very cautious even if they have never been abused themselves.


4. Individual Capacity and Individual Differences

Children are not the same and there are differences in capacity and learning characteristics that impact their ability to learn languages.


Rate of Learning varies from child to child depending upon genetic codes. Some biologically learn very quickly, while others learn moderately fast and others more slowly. This could be generally in reference to learning anything or specific to language learning.


Type of Intelligences also impact. Children who have high Linguistic Intelligence (one of the multiple intelligences identified by Howard Gardner)  they are more likely to learn language(s) more rapidly and with less effort.


Level of Overall Intelligence also contributes to language learning. Children with low overall intelligence (low Intelligence Quotient or IQ) require many more language experiences and opportunities to learn. They require more time and many more experiences with motherese forms of language. They will learn but at a different rate.  The more serious the deficit in intelligence, the slower the rate of learning and the lower complexity of the language will be learned.


5. Gender

Boys tend to learn language slower than girls. This appears to biological due to brain differences. By older ages the differences are less apparent.


6. Multiple Language or Single Language Learning

The more languages that a child is exposed to and is trying to learn impacts the rate of language learning. There is naturally some cross learning but the brain is capable of identifying the different language structures and forms if it is exposed to adequate language models for some time. Any “mistakes” in language learning at this age should not be considered as errors but as evidence of the breadth and depth of the languages being learned and the status of the language learning. Since we continue to learn languages and about our languages throughout our life, this is an early stage of language learning.

Definition of terms

Further Reading


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s