Children all around the world seem to acquire language by passing through a similar set of stages; although the time it takes to move from one stage to the next can differ from child to child. The same pattern of development occurs regardless of the language, but children do not develop at the same pace.
Stages of Development
It is possible that even before birth a child has acclimatised to the sounds of its native language. Research suggests that whilst in the womb, babies become used to the rhythms and intonation of the language being spoken around them.
During the first few weeks of a child’s life, the child can express itself vocally. Different kinds of ‘cry’ can be identified – from one signalling hunger or distress for example. This suggests that cries are distinctive noises and as such, cannot really be described as ‘language’.
Cooing, also known as gurgling or mewing, is another universal stage of development and generally occurs when babies are around 6-8 weeks old. It is thought that during this stage the child is discovering its vocal chords and sounds like ‘coo’ ‘goo’ and ‘ga-ga’ are made.
This is the most important stage during the first year of a child’s life. It usually begins when the child is between 6 and 9 months. At the onset of babbling, the baby begins to make sounds that more closely resemble adult language.
Combinations of sounds are produced such as ‘ma’ ‘ga’ and ‘da’. Sometimes these sounds are repeated producing what is known as reduplicated monosyllables eg: ‘mama’, ‘dada’, ‘baba’. Such sounds still have no meaning, but parents are often eager to believe their child is speaking its first words. As well as babbling, the baby is likely to blow bubbles and splutter.
This is where the number of different phonemes produced by the child increases initially.
Phonemic expansion and contraction
During the babbling phase, the number of different phonemes (units of sound) produced are increased, known as phonemic expansion. Later at about 9 or 10 months the number of phonemes occurs (phonemic contraction). In other words, the child retains the sounds of its native language but discards the ones it knows aren’t needed. We know this happens because research has shown that at this age, the sounds made by babies from different nationalities are different.
Intonation and gesture
Another development during the babbling stage is the patterns of intonation begin to resemble speech. For example, there might be a rising tone at the end of an utterance, adding emphasis and rhythm. Another method of communicating without speech is for a child to point at something with a facial expression that seems to say ‘I want that’ or ‘what’s that?’ These gestures show a desire to communicate.
Although the child may not yet have begun to speak properly, it doesn’t meant they don’t understand the meaning of certain words. The comprehension of phonological patterns and the meanings that they represent develop more quickly than the child’s ability to reproduce them. Words that are recognised are likely to include family members, responses to questions such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and basic expressions like ’bye-bye’.
The first word stage
A child is usually about a year when it speaks its first recognisable word.