How Do Children Learn Language?

Father reading to his toddler son

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Language development is an amazing process. In fact, learning language is natural, an innate process babies are born knowing how to do. Interestingly, all children, no matter which language their parents speak, learn language in the same way. 

Overall, there are three stages of language development, which occur in a familiar pattern. So, when children are learning to speak, understand, and communicate, they follow an expected series of milestones as they begin to master their native tongue. However, note that individual children will progress at their own pace along this timeline within an expected range of deviation.

Language Development Stage 1: Learning Sounds

When babies are born, they can hear and distinguish all the sounds in all the languages in the world. That’s about 150 sounds in about 6500 languages, though no language uses all of those sounds. The sounds a language uses are called phonemes and English has about 44. Some languages use more and some use fewer.

In this stage, babies learn which phonemes belong to the language they are learning and which don’t. The ability to recognize and produce those sounds is called “phonemic awareness,” which is important for children learning to read.

The best way to promote language development for babies is simply to talk to your child. Babies learn by experiencing (and listening to) the world around them, so the more language they are exposed to the better. Additionally, you can put words to their actions. Talk to them as you would in conversation, pausing for them to respond, then you can say back what you think they might say. However, note that simply talking to them attentively is enough for them to pick up language.

Baby Language Milestones

Though all children learn in basic stages, language develops at different rates in different children. Most children follow a familiar pattern.

  • Birth: When babies are born, they can already respond to the rhythm of language. They can recognize stress, pace, and the rise and fall of pitch.
  • 4 months: As early as 4 months, infants can distinguish between language sounds and other noise. For instance, they know the difference between a spoken word and a clap.
  • 6 months: By 6 months, babies begin to babble and coo and this is the first sign that the baby is learning a language. Babies are now capable of making all the sounds in all the languages of the world, but by the time they are a year old, they will have dropped the sounds that aren’t part of the language they are learning.

Language Development Stage 2: Learning Words

At this stage, children essentially learn how the sounds in a language go together to make meaning. For example, they learn that the sounds m-ah-m-ee refer to the “being” who cuddles and feeds them, their mommy.

This is a significant step because everything we say is really just a stream of sounds. To make sense of those sounds, a child must be able to recognize where one word ends and another one begins. These are called “word boundaries.”

However, children are not learning words, exactly. They are actually learning morphemes, which are the smallest, discrete chunks words can be broken into. A morpheme may be a word on its own or may be combined with other morphemes to form a word. So in “mommy,” there are two morphemes: “ma” and “mee.”

Help your child build their language skills by reading to them often. And of course, keep having child-centric conversations with them as studies show that babies learn language best within a social context. Another way to encourage their communication and social skills is to mimic their noises (such as their babbling) and say them back to them. You can also mirror their facial expressions and describe their actions as well as narrate what is happening around them.

Understanding Plurals

The word mommies has two morphemes: mommy and –s. Children at this stage can recognize that the –s means "more than one." They also begin to associate that meaning with other words when the sound is added.

Baby and Toddler Language Milestones

As your baby develops over the second half of their first year and into toddlerhood, their ability to make sounds and respond conversationally will continue to improve.

  • 8 months: Babies can now recognize groups of sounds and can distinguish word boundaries. Although they recognize these sound groups as words, they are still learning what these words mean. Babies of this age are more likely to comprehend the meaning of words related to their everyday experiences, particularly food and body parts.
  • 12 months: At this point, children are able to attach meanings to words. Once they can do that, they can begin to build a vocabulary. They also begin to mimic new words they hear.
  • 18 months: In order to communicate, children must know how to use the words they are learning. In this stage of language development, children are able to recognize the difference between nouns and verbs. Generally, the first words in a child’s vocabulary are nouns.

Language Development Stage 3: Learning Sentences

During this stage, children learn how to create sentences. That means they can put words in the correct order. For example, they learn that in English we say "I want a cookie" and "I want a chocolate cookie," not "Want I a cookie" or "I want cookie chocolate."

Children also learn the difference between grammatical correctness and meaning. Noam Chomsky created an example of this difference in the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Children will know that although the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make sense. They know that green is a color and so it can't be colorless and that ideas don't sleep. However, they also know that the noun and verb structure of the sentence works.

To promote language development during this stage model good speech habits by speaking clearly, looking at them in the eye, not interrupting, and giving them a chance to talk. You can also add on to what they say to give them an idea of more complex ways to articulate their ideas and requests. Ask your child lots of questions and encourage their questions too to keep the dialog going.

Toddler and Preschooler Language Milestones

Your toddler and preschooler is now using full words, simple sentences, and eventually more complex dialog.

  • 24 months: At this stage, children begin to recognize more than nouns and verbs and gain an understanding of basic sentence structure. They can use pronouns, for example. They also know the right order of words in a sentence and can create simple sentences like "Me cookie?", which means "May I have a cookie?".
  • 30 to 36 months: By this age, about 90% of what children say is grammatically correct. The mistakes they make are usually things like adding -ed to irregular verbs to form the past tense. For example, they might say "I falled down" instead of "I fell down." They learned the grammatical rule to form the past tense by adding -ed to a verb but have not yet learned the exceptions to the rule.
  • Beyond 3 years: As they grow, children continue to expand their vocabulary and develop more complex language. Their language use doesn’t completely resemble adult language until around the age of eleven. 

By the pre-teen years, kids begin to use what are called although-type sentences. These sentences show a concession such as, "Even though the man was tired, he kept working." Young children would likely say “The man was tired, but he kept working.”

Language Development Concerns

Contact your child's pediatrician if your child's language skills seem to be developing slower than expected. Also, mention any other communication-related concerns you may have or if any other developmental milestones appear to be lagging to their pediatrician. Often your child may just be developing their language skills slower but within the normal expected range, but sometimes a delay may point to another issue.

Early intervention is important for many speech-related (and other developmental) concerns and can help to bolster these skills.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that children develop language at their own pace, and the best way to help is to talk, sing, and read to them. Other than that, simply enjoy your child's coos, ma-mas, and da-das while they last.

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