Child Language Acquisition Revision

How is language acquired in general? – by stages; trial and error; learning from mistakes; not random mistakes – often virtuous errors; child builds up a set of internal ‘rules’ which they apply and subsequently modify


The first Year


Stage 1: 0-8 weeks – basic biological noises


Spluttering, rhythmic coughing, reflexive noises (hunger, pain, discomfort), vegetative noises (breathing, eating, excreting) – strengthening muscles and developing vocalisation skills. …& different kinds of crying – all babies in all the world cry in the same way


Stage 2: 8-20 weeks – cooing and laughing


Quieter, low-pitched musical noises. ½ second to a few seconds. Long vowel-like sound with a preceding consonant sound made towards the back of the mouth. Often nasal quality [g] [k] [ch] as in ‘loch’, friction sounds [sh]; guu. Kuu – cooing. Later strings of cooing sounds, but not actual connected speech. Some syllable sounds of equivalents – [ga] [gu] often diphthongs [au] [ou].


Why is cooing important?: control of muscles of vocal organs. Tongue movements and the 100+ muscles involved in producing vowel and consonant sounds …Lip-thrusting – mistaken for trying to talk. Could be imitating the parents’ lip movement, but no sounds.


Stage 3: 20-30 weeks – vocal play …steady, longer and more confident sounds


Varied vowel-like and consonant-like sounds, including nasal sounds [mmm] and [nn] and fricatives [fff]. Produces range of sounds including glides – low to high pitch and high to low pitch; practice a variety of sounds. Towards the end of the stage, noises of consonants and vowels sound like they are together – start of babbling …practicing range of sounds. Crystal: “oral pioneering work” – organs of voice mechanisms beginning to assume positions which will be fixed for the rest of life.


Stage 4: 25-50 weeks – Babbling


[abababababa] [mamamamamamamama] also known as reduplicating monosyllables A much smaller range of sounds produced than Stage 3, but those sounds made are practised over and over: baby getting more skilled at making right sounds.  After 9 months, sounds of consonants and vowels change with each syllable of ‘words’ made e.g. [adu] and [maba]. Friction sounds which are most difficult to make begin to be produced [s] and [sh] …Friction sounds often replaced by sounds which are easier to pronounce, e.g. ‘see’ is pronounced ‘ti’…Still no consonant clusters yet e.g. [sp] [gl] [tr]


Stage 5: 9 months – 18 months – melodic utterances


From 9 months melody, rhythm and tone of voice develop. Occasionally, a chunk of babble stands out as having more shape, all of a sudden




The Second Year (12-24 months)


Research by Benedict: by 18 months a child can speak about 50 words, but can understand about 5 times this (250). But: problems trying to identify whether children do comprehend a word or not.


Example of child who says ‘bowl’ whilst mother is dishing out dinner. Child is able to label the bowl and appears to comprehend what it means. When asked the same whilst the mother is washing up, child is puzzled and unable to answer. What reasons could there be for this apparent confusion? [Perhaps he thought ‘bowl’ meant ‘food’ or ‘dinner’.] Context is vitally important.


Early stage is a labelling process – attaching names to things and seeing if they fit


What do children talk about during the second year?


Usually children will talk about what is around them; put simply: the here and now. Different ‘fields’ of meaning in new speaker’s language are evident.


People: relations e.g. mummy, granddad, grandma, baby, milkman,


Actions: (a) way things move (b)

things that can be moved (c) people

who move things


bye-bye, hello, night-night, upsy-daisy, all gone, fall down


Verbs: give, show, kiss, get, splash, tickle, play, say go(ne)


Stopping action: no, don’t


Food: milk, juice, drink [dink], biscuit [bik], banana [nana]


Parts of body and functions: mouth, eyes, nose, pooh, wee-wee


Animals: dog [doggie], moo-cow, baalamb, woof or woof-woof


Social words: yes, no, please, thank you


Descriptive words: hot, small, big, dirty


‘Empty’ Words…pronouns: that one, that thing, there…



Generally, in second year, words can be divided into two key groups: action words and naming words


Katherine Nelson (1973) 60% of words are naming things, then events/actions, then modifiers, then personal/social words


Overextension and underextension occur in the second year – lasts into the first half of the third year


Underextension: Joanna’s shoes: Joanna calls her shoes ‘shoes’. When shown a pair of her own shoes and a pair of her mothers shoes, and asked to point to the shoes, she will always point to her own. Narrowing of the meaning of a word.


Problem of production and comprehension: the child has got to get the sense of what a word actually means – the concept, the actual object etc in context. This is what goes on for most of the second year.


Grammar development


Starts with a single word. One word stage usually lasts for about six months. Building up vocabulary. 60% utterances at this stage are nouns and 20% express actions (Nelson 1973).


Sometimes these one-word phrases seem like actual sentences, e.g. ‘biscuit’ could mean ‘I want a biscuit’ or ‘There is a biscuit over there’ etc. Known as holophrastic stage or a holophrase. This means using single words as if they are whole phrases.


Dada? – is that Daddy?

Dada! – There’s Daddy! [statement]

Da-da – pick me up Daddy [insistent]


Two-word phrases (about 18 months)


When begun, this stage will usually be moved through very quickly – often only a few weeks. The two-word phrase has the same pattern as adult language – usually S+O. ‘My bed’ not ‘Bed my’. Inflectional verb endings acquired at this stage e.g. plurals on words and verbs endings for progressive tense walk-walking


Jean Berko’s Wug (1958) – Presented child with strange looking animal called a Wug. Child had never seen this before or heard the name. The researcher called it Wug – then showed picture of two Wugs and said ‘Two…?’ to the child. If child has learned plurals with –s ending, then child would says ‘two wugs’. This proves that children don’t just learn plurals off by heart, there is a rule that the child internalises and then uses in unrelated circumstances.


Children begin to play around with word order in a sentence e.g. use of prepositions (in there, on head). Possession (my cat, me sore). 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).


Trends in sound development – Year 2


Children change the sounds of words if they can’t make the actual sound:

  • don’t like friction sounds [f] – prefer stopped consonant e.g. pish for fish; tii for sea
  • don’t like sounds at back of mouth [don] gone; [tii] key
  • [w] and [j] instead of difficult [l] and [r] leg – jeg
  • harmonisation of sounds, so sounds in one part of word replace other ones, e.g. [d] in dog becomes [g] – [gog]
  • tii – tree; kai – sky – children don’t like consonant clusters
  • don’t like consonant clusters at the end of words [ha] hat; [bu] bus
  • dropping of quiet syllables e.g. banana – nana; giraffe – raf


Reduplication takes place when children pronounce the different syllables in a word the same way. Usually, at this stage, these words have two syllables. Water, for example, might come out as [wowo]… bottle might be [bubu]. Sometimes, the words sound quite unlike their adult counterparts, e.g. [mumu] for window. Sometimes, even words with one syllable and reduplicate that… e.g. ball becoming [bobo]


Berko and Brown (1960) – Talked to child who called his inflatable plastic fish ‘fis’. They imitated pronunciation as per child and said ‘Is this your fis’. Child said ‘No. My fis’. Child rejected his own pronunciation when said by adult. Adult then said ‘this is your fish’ and the child replied ‘Yes. My fis.’ – Reveals that children can’t make the right sound but expect adults to say the word correctly and see what they are saying as what the adult is saying, even though it isn’t.


The Third Year of Language Development


The most important aspect of the third year is the sheer amount of progress and development which a child makes.


Year 2                                                              Year 3

Open it                                                             Daddy comed to see it in the garden

Put in box                                                         I can see Mummy and Daddy in the                                                                                            mirror

Fall down car                                                   Can me put it in like that?


Obvious differences: sentences are longer. They get longer because children have more to say and they need increasingly more complex grammar in order to be able to say these things.


Child begins with sentences that usually have two parts: an object and a verb: kick ball. Later on this sentence is extended by adding a subject at the start: man kick ball, boy kicki ball. This is extended further by including something like an adverbial, indicating time, place or manner in which something is done: e.g. man kick ball fast; boy kick ball now; me kick ball later etc. The same process is at work for commands , which start off as very simple sentences ‘Push car’ to ‘Push car into the garage now’. The process of making longer, more complex sentences can be called ‘sentence filling’ where the child builds up longer sentences by adding to shorter ones. For example:


The white car

The big white car

The three big white cars

The three big white cars with shiny wheels


Children learn questions during this stage: the three stages of learning questions are first with no grammar but with emphasis or rising intonation at the end (possibly mimicking what adults do in questions); second stage is understanding and being able to use wh- words (who, where, what, why, when etc) and finally, being able to invert or rearrange the auxiliary verb and the subject of a sentence to make a question e.g. ‘Mummy is…’ becomes ‘Is mummy…’?


The telegraphic quality in children’s speech at two years old has been lost by this stage. This means that sentences are fuller and more grammatically correct, with prepositions being used instead of omitted. ‘Man kick ball’ becomes ‘Man is kicking that ball.’



However, the process is learnt over a long period of time and doesn’t happen overnight. Look at these example and comment on the errors made:


My cat eating a mouse (verb not yet fully developed)

He do falling over (again, verb not fully developed)

Daddy give me big kiss (give should be gave – past tense not used; and indefinite article not used ‘a’)

When a child learns adjectives, which position would you expect the adjective to occupy in a child’s sentence?


(1) Black dog chase cat            (2) Dog chase black cat             (3) Black dog chase black cat


Most research suggests that actually the object in a sentence that usually has the adjective attached first, followed some time later by 1 and then 3. Why?


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).


Stative 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) in 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].


Development of word endings is a significant area of development in the third year. We have already seen evidence of –ing and –s at year two.


Verb ending to express distant past time, usually –ed but also irregular forms ‘see-saw’ and ‘go-went’


Verb ending to express recent past time – -ed (I’ve asked) but many more irregular forms such as ‘take-taken’ and ‘go-gone’


–s verb ending to indicate in present tense that the subject of a sentence is singular e.g. ‘he walks’, ‘the old lady runs to the bus stop’


verb shortening e.g. ‘he’s coming’ instead of ‘he is coming’




Plural endings on nouns. Children often begin by using the correct form of a plural such as ‘geese’ or ‘men’ and then appear to regress when they say ‘geeses’ or ‘mans’. What has happened is that the child has picked up the irregular plural form and has learnt it before they have learnt and applied the rule that plurals generally take a –s on the end. This is explained by the fact that when they do get this –s rule, they make virtuous errors like ‘geeses’ and ‘mans’


Other examples of mistakes made at three year stage:


You bettern’t do that

It just got brokened

That’s much more better

My hand’s the biggest than Ben’s

That’s the mans’s car


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 age three, words have begun to take on multiple meanings, where before the child could only grasp that a word had a single meaning. Think about the different meanings of the word ‘chair’. Semantically, words often have more than a single meaning and children have to realise this from the contexts in which these words are used e.g. Funny, Call, Leave, Side, Low


Idioms also begin to be understood – so that a parent who says ‘Now the tables are turned’ isn’t literally talking about any tables at all. This understanding of idiomatic aspects of language starts at three years but is not fully learnt until much much later in the child’s life.


Longer words also begin to be used at this stage. For example, ‘elephant’ and ‘telephone’ – often words of three or more syllables.




The third year is a period of massive development and consolidation of language skills. At two, children are linguistic toddlers. At three, they’re linguistic analysts, full of questions and arguments. They say more and what they do say is said with fluency and accuracy. There are still lots of errors that need to be sorted out but the linguistic groundwork for future years of conversation and interaction has been put in place.





Examination Question


Discuss competing theories about Children’s language acquisition by exploring the data below and examples of your own.






1. Comment critically on the theories

2. Offer alternative interpretations for the same raw data

3. Analyse fully all evidence used

4. Ensure that there is an overarching argument binding together your answer – so plan carefully

5. Structure your answer into focused paragraphs

6. Ensure that you comment on semantic, grammatical, pragmatic and phonological aspects



Example 1

A four-year old talks about what he wants to be when he grows up.

Adult What do you want to be when you grow up?

Child A dowboy.

Adult So you want to be a dowboy, eh?

Child (irritated) No! Not a dowboy, a dowboy!


Example 2

Kate (2 yrs 6 mths) is sitting on the knee of a family friend.

Adult (pointing to one of Kate’s feet) What’s that?

Kate A footsie

Adult (pointing to both feet) What are these?

Kate Two footsies – no, two feetsies, I mean.





Example 3

Matthew (2 yrs) watches his mum spoon stewed rhubarb from a saucepan into a bowl.

Matthew Dis rubile looks like biscetti.


Example 4

Child: The daddy doll’s more big than this one.

Mother: Yes, it’s much bigger isn’t it?

Child: It’s more bigger.


Example 5

Child: My want to hold your hand.


Example 6

Child: Mummy’s got a poorly ankle. She hurt it when she felled over.


Example 7

The child uses the following terms

Helicuck            = helicopter

Little helicuck             = seagull

Big helicuck            = aeroplane






7 thoughts on “Child Language Acquisition Revision

  1. I found this so helpful. Dont do alevel english but was jst fascinated, i am currently doing maths, biology, chemistry and sociolohy nd nw wishing i had dne english…. thanks so much wz so detailed and found it engaging and entertaining….:))

  2. This is a very concise explanation of English child language acquisition. I have a two year old granddaughter who is language delayed. This helped me in remembering the stages of language acquisition.

  3. These notes are brilliant,
    Does anybody have the answers to the examination question, I want an idea of how i would answer it in the exam?

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