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Early Language Acquisition in Infants

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Early Language Acquisition in Infants

By: Kimberley Powell


Initial Word-Object Associations and Future Linguistic Development
© Kimberley Powell Jan 22, 2009


Normal language development follows a series of stages, from infant babbling -- to finally learning all of the sounds of their language by the early school years.

Discovering the words of a language, and what they mean in the world, is only the first step for language acquisition. Infants must also discover how the distribution of these elements, including grammatical endings (-s, -ed, -ing) and function words (of, to, the) convey the further combinatorial meaning of an utterance.

“Although babies typically start talking around 12 months of age, their brains actually begin processing certain aspects of language much earlier,” states researchers in the March 23 2006 Temple University article" Infants Begin Learning Language As Early As 10 Months Researchers Find.” By the time they start talking, babies actually know hundreds of words.”

During this period, children discover the raw materials in the sounds (or gestures) of their language, learn how they are assembled into longer strings, and map these combinations onto meaning. These processes unfold simultaneously, requiring children to integrate their capacities as they learn, to crack the code of communication that surrounds them.

Stepping Stones in Infant Language Development

The brain must undergo substantial changes in order for an infant to read, write or even speak. Only through brain growth and development does a child become a social, emotional, and intellectual being-one who is able to build new friendships and master the complexity of algebra.

During the period from about 2-4 months, infants begin making "comfort sounds", typically in response to pleasurable interaction with a caregiver. The earliest comfort sounds may be grunts or sighs, with later versions being more vowel-like "coos". Initially comfort sounds are brief and produced in isolation, but later appear in series separated by glottal stops. Laughter appears around 4 months.

During the period from 4-7 months, infants typically engage in "vocal play", manipulating pitch (to produce "squeals" and "growls"), loudness (producing "yells"), and also manipulating tract closures to produce friction noises, nasal murmurs, "raspberries" and "snorts".

Language Structure in Infants

“Knowing word forms may also contribute to children’s inferences about how their language works. For example, 7.5 month olds do not recognize words as being the same if they are spoken with different intonations or by a man and a woman. However, by 10.5 months of age, babies recognize the same words despite changes in the speaker or the intonation used,”says K. Perera in the July 14th 1994 Journal of Child Language article "Child language research: Building on the past, looking to the future.”

At seven months of age, "canonical babbling" appears: infants start to make extended sounds that are chopped up rhythmically by oral articulations into syllable-like sequences, opening and closing their jaws, lips and tongue. The range of sounds produced are heard as stop-like and glide-like. Fricatives, affricates and liquids are more rarely heard, and clusters are even rarer. Vowels tend to be low and open, at least in the beginning.

Repeated sequences are often produced, such as [bababa] or [nanana], as well as "variegated" sequences in which the characteristics of the consonant-like articulations are varied. The variegated sequences are initially rare and become more common later on.

Infants start to utter recognizable words at roughly ten months. Some word-like vocalizations that do not correlate well with words in the local language may consistently be used by particular infants to express particular emotional states: one infant is reported to have used to express pleasure, and another is said to have used to express "distress or discomfort". For the most part, recognizable words are used in a context that seems to involve naming: "duck" while the child hits a toy duck off the edge of the bath or "sweep" while the child sweeps with a broom.

Young children often use words in ways that are too narrow or too broad: "bottle" used only for plastic bottles; "teddy" used only for a particular bear; "dog" used for lambs, cats, and cows as well as dogs; "kick" used for pushing and for wing-flapping as well as for kicking. These under-extensions and over-extensions develop and change over time in an individual child's usage.

The October 2008 Association for Psychological Science article " Baby Talk: Roots of Early Vocabulary in Infants” indicates that infants learn the forms of many words and begin to gather information about how these forms are used. These word forms then become the foundation of the early vocabulary, support children’s learning of the language’s phonological system, and contribute to the discovery of grammar.

All children will have difficulties pronouncing certain sounds as they develop their language skills. Most of the time, this is a normal part of linguistic development. Learning to speak is a motor skill, and it takes time -- just as children have to learn how to catch a ball, they have to learn how to move their tongue and lips to make different sounds.


The copyright of the article Early Language Acquisition in Infants in Early Childhood Development is owned by Kimberley Powell. Permission to republish Early Language Acquisition in Infants in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Reprinted with the express permission of Kimberley Powell.

Our Featured Author: Kimberley Powell

Kim Powell holds a Master’s Degree in Speech & Language Pathology as well as certificates in reading Braille, Applied Studies in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Child Psychology, Acquired Brain Injuries, oral deaf education and Child abuse.

Over the years, Kim has had the opportunity to work with children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, acquired brain injuries & fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. During her free time, Kim volunteers at her local Children’s Aid Society, sits on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) committee for Resources for Exceptional Children and works as a child abuse prevention educator for the Red Cross. Kim values the opportunity to work with so many children and help make a small difference in the lives of children and families. She continues to advocate for a system that will guarantee that every child/youth – regardless of geography, parental income and the level of challenge access to quality support services that respond to their individual needs.

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