Language Acquisition
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What children are trying to do with their language (e.g., make requests, ask questions, make statements)


The states, events and relationships about which children talk

Meaning here refers to meaning shown in performance.


Children may have competence which they have no occasion to demonstrate.


The way in which the language is put together – its grammar





Children’s first utterances usually serve three purposes:

-  to get someone’s attention

-  to direct attention to an object or event

-  to get something they want

-  Next, they begin to:

-  make rudimentary statements (Bird gone)

-  make requests

Children begin by naming the thing referred to (the “naming insight”)

Soon they move beyond this to relating objects to other things, places and people (Daddy car; There Mummy) as well as to events (Bird gone). They are concerned with articulating the present state of things, describing or relating things and events in their world.


Because of the limited language forms which they can control, children convey information by intonation, by non-verbal means, or by the listener’s shared awareness of the situation. (It gone – the listener has seen what it is.)

Many of the remarks at this age are single words, either the names of things, or words such as there, look, want, more, allgone. They are often referred to as operators because here (as opposed to their function in adult speech) they serve to convey the whole of the child’s meaning or intention.

Other remarks consist of object name and operator in a two-word combination: Look Mummy, Daddy gone, There dog.




At this stage children begin to ask questions; usually where questions come first.

Children become concerned with naming and classifying things (frequently asking wassat?).

They may begin to talk about locations changing (e.g. people coming or going or getting down or up).

They talk simply about the attributes of things (e.g. things being hot/cold, big/small, nice; naughty doggy; it cold, Mummy).

Children’s questions at this stage often begin with interrogative pronouns (what, where) followed by a noun (the object being asked about) or verb (denoting some action): where ball? where gone?

Articles (a/an or the) appear before nouns. Basic [subject]+[verb] structure emerges: It gone, Man run, or [subject]+[verb]+[object]: Teddy sweeties (=Teddy wants some sweets).



By now children ask lots of different questions, but often signalling that they are questions by intonation alone (Sally play in garden, Mummy?).

They express more complex wants in grammatically complex sentences: I want daddy [to] take it [to] work.

Children now begin to talk about actions which change the object acted upon (You dry hands).

Verbs like listen and know appear as children start to refer to people’s mental states.

Children refer to events in the past and (less often) the future.

Children talk about continuing actions (He doing it; She still in bed) and enquire about the state of actions (whether something is finished). They begin to articulate the changing nature of things.

The basic sentence structure has expanded: [subject]+[verb] +[object] +[adverb or other element] appears: You dry hands; A man dig down there.


Children begin to use auxiliary verbs (I am going) and phrases like in the basket [preposition]+[article]+[noun].



Stages of early language acquisition




What children are trying to do with their language


The states, events and relationships about which children talk


The way in which the language is put together – its syntax or grammar





As children begin to use increasingly complex sentence structures, they also begin to:


-  make a wide range of requests (e.g. Shall I cut it? Can I do it?)

-  explain

-  ask for explanations (Why questions appear)

Because children are now able to use complex sentence structures, they have flexible language tools for conveying a wide range of meanings.

Perhaps the most striking development is their grasp (language competence) and use (language performance) of abstract verbs like know to express mental operations.

Children in this stage begin to express meaning indirectly, replacing imperatives (Give me...) with questions (Can I have?) when these suit their purposes better.

As well as saying what they mean, they now have pragmatic understanding, and suit their utterances to the context or situation.

Children by this stage use question forms (Can I have one?) and negation (He doesn’t want one) easily, no longer relying on intonation to signal their intent. They are now able to use auxiliary verbs: do is the first to appear, followed by can and will. Children may duplicate modal verbs (Please may can I...?): this may reflect understanding that may is required for courtesy, while can indicates the fact of being able to do something.

Children use one part of a sentence to refer to another part – they use (often implied) relative clauses: I know you’re there (implied that after know); I want the pen Mummy gave me (implied that after pen). Now they can do this, language is a very flexible means of communication for them.






By now children frequently use language to do all the things they need it for:


-  giving information

-  asking and answering questions of various kinds

-  requesting (directly and indirectly)

-  suggesting

-  offering

-  stating intentions/ asking about those of others

-  expressing feelings and attitudes and asking about those of others

Children are now able to talk about things hypothetically or conditionally: If you do that, it’ll...

They are able to explain the conditions required for something to happen: You’ve got to switch that on first... Often they talk about things which are always so – that is, about general states of affairs.

As well as general references to past and future, children now talk about particular times: after tea; before bedtime; when Daddy comes home...

They are able to estimate the nature of actions or events, e.g., that things are habitual, repetitive or just beginning.


By this stage, children are quite at home with all question structures including those beginning with words like What? and When? Where the subject and verb are inverted (transposed): What does it mean? When is Mummy coming?


Children use sentences made up of several clauses, whether multiple (using co-ordinate clauses) or complex (using subordinate or relative clauses, and parentheses).

Up to now grammatical development has mostly added to the length of sentences. Now children use structures which allow more economy (this is known as cohesion).

This model explains the sequence of language acquisition. Children will vary individually in when (relative to their peers) they reach each stage, but there is little variation in the sequence of language learning. By the end of Stage 5, a child’s language is in place and he or she has a basic lexicon (personal vocabulary) of several thousand words. From now on what is learned increasingly depends upon experience and environment – on opportunities to use language and to hear it used, for a wide range of purposes and a wide range of audiences in a wide range of contexts. The model does not show the acquisition of literacy, which is more subject to environment and cultural expectations.


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