Language learning begins even before birth, because the fe tus can hear muffled versions of speaking from outside the womb. Moon, Cooper, and Fifer (1993) 1 found that infants only two days old sucked harder on a pacifier when they heard their mothers’ native language being spoken than when they heard a foreign language, even when strangers were speaking the languages. Babies are also aware of the patterns of their native language, showing surprise when they hear speech that has a different patterns of phonemes than those they are used to (Saffran, Aslin, & Newport, 2004). 2
During the first year or so after birth, and long before they speak their first words, infants are already learning language. One aspect of this learning is practice in producing speech. By the time they are 6 to 8 weeks old, babies start making vowel sounds (“ooohh,” “aaahh,” “goo”) as well as a variety of cries and squeals to help them practice.
At about 7 months, infants begin babbling, engaging in intentional vocalizations that lack specificmeaning. Children babble a s practice in creating specific sounds, and by the time they are 1 year old, the babbling uses primarily the sounds of the language that they are learning (de Boysson-Bardies, Sagart, & Durand, 1984). 3These vocalizations have a conversational tone that sounds meaningful even though it isn’t. Babbling also helps children understand the social, communicative function of language. Children who are exposed to sign language babble in sign by making hand movements that represent real language (Petitto & Marentette, 1991). 4
At the same time that infants are practicing their speaking skills by babbling, they are also learning to better understand sounds and eventually the words of language. One of the first words that children understand is their own name, usually by about 6 months, followed by commonly used words like “bottle,” “mama,” and “doggie” by 10 to 12 months (Mandel, Jusczyk, & Pisoni,
The infant usually produces his or her first words at about 1 year of age. It is at this point that the child first understands that words are more than sounds—they refer to particular objects and ideas. By the time children are 2 years old, they have a vocabulary of several hundred words, and by kindergarten their vocabularies have increased to several thousand words. By fifth grade most children know about 50,000 words and by the time they are in college, about 200,000.
The early utterances of children contain many errors, for instance, confusing /b/ and /d/, or /c/ and /z/. And the words that children create are often simplified, in part because they are not yet able to make the more complex sounds of the real language (Dobrich & Scarborough, 1992). 6Children may say “keekee” for kitty, “nana” for banana, and “vesketti” for spaghetti in part because it is easier. Often these early words are accompanied by gestures that may also be easier to produce than the words themselves. Children’s pronunciations become increasingly accurate between 1 and 3 years, but some problems may persist until school age.
Most of a child’s first words are nouns, and early sentences may include only the noun. “Ma” may mean “more milk please” and “da” may mean “look, there’s Fido.” Eventually the length of the utterances increases to two words (“mo ma” or “da bark”), and these primitive sentences begin to follow the appropriate syntax of the native language.
Because language involves the active categorization of sounds and words into higher level units, children make some mistakes in interpreting what words mean and how to use them. In particular, they often make overextensions of concepts, which means they use a given word in a broader context than appropriate. A child might at first call all adult men “daddy” or a ll animals “doggie.”
Children also use contextual information, particularly the cues that parents provide, to help them learn language. Infants are frequently more attuned to the tone of voice of the person speaking than to the content of the words themselves, and are aware of the target of speech. Werker, Pegg, and McLeod (1994) 7 found that infants listened longer to a woman who was speaking to a baby than to a woman who was speaking to another adult.
Children learn that people are usually referring to things that they are looking at when they are speaking (Baldwin, 1993), 8 and that that the speaker’s emotional expressions are related to the content of their speech. Children also use their knowledge of syntax to help them figure out what words mean. If a child hears an adult point to a strange object and say, “this is a dirb,” they will infer that a “dirb” is a thing, but if they hear them say, “this is a one of those dirb things” they will infer that it refers to the color or other characteristic of the object. And if they hear the word “dirbing,” they will infer that “dirbing” is something that we do (Waxman, 1990). 9