written by: Deidra Alexander
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 8/2/2012
Questions on the way we pick up language and learn how to express ourselves always arise when a new baby is on the way or if there is a problem in a child's development. Answers to the intriguing questions surrounding these joys and pains are found on the timeline of first language acquisition.
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Can you remember the first words you ever heard? Can you remember your own first words? Probably not, since language acquisition begins very early on in life. Before you are able to practice speech and chain together thoughts for verbal output, you were learning language as a small infant. The timeline of first language acquisition begins in the first several hours after birth and continues for several years before maturation is achieved.
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Early Days of Life:
The music to a baby’s ears is the rhymes and melodies coming from the mouth of his or her mother. Science has proven long ago that babies pick up language initially from the lullabies and gentle tones of a caregiver. In their early days, the stream and beats of the words comprises a pattern that babies become in tune to and begin to grow to expect and yearn to hear.
Around this age, a child with normal speech and hearing development will start to express language through babbling and gurgling in response to stimuli, to make requests, or to initiate interaction. The language is unintelligible and nonsensical. At this stage, babies begin to use their whole bodies to speak along with their mouths. Grasping for a cup to ask for milk is commonplace as well as banging on a table with a toy hammer while screaming baby talk to get the attention of someone in the room. Babies have a lot to say even if no one understands it.
Babies close to the one-year mark will start to break away gradually from babbling and use actual words. Instead of grasping for the cup from their high chair, they will call out for the cup by name. More single word commands and requests will come from the baby right around his first birthday.
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The baby knows everyone by name and can even speak standard titles for loved ones (“mama," “dada") or call the family pet by name. As the world goes by, the child starts to listen even more to what is said above his or her head and becomes a great imitator of everyone and everything around him or her.
Two-word requests and commands start to come from the baby’s mouth. Instead of just asking for mommy, he or she will ask of mommy (“mama hair") to ask for hairstyling. At the year-and-a-half mark, he or she will have about 50 words under his or her belt if development is normal. Parents will start to notice how much faster the baby can catch on to learning words.
Toddlers can make simple sentences. Their grammar is much better and they can probably employ conversational skills. Articulation may be an issue but overall words continue to gain at a rapid pace. Language use is more complex.
Between toddler age and early elementary, thousands of words are learned. Articulation may still be a problem and grammatically incorrect use may also continue to persist. First language acquisition fizzles out at age 7 and evolves less and less over the years.
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We never stop learning. Language acquisition never ceases but most of what we know about language comes from our experiences in infancy. A baby with good development will steadily and rapidly obtain the landmark abilities. He will access the means to progress predictably on the timeline of first language acquisition.