As a teacher and a linguist (yes – I’ve studied Linguistics at University, it’s not just a fancy word I’ve thrown in to make myself look smart), I have a solid knowledge of the fundamental stages of child language development. I have read about, wrote essays on and discussed at length the different ‘expected’ milestones that a child will pass though as language learners. It’s an interesting topic, a worthy read and is absolutely no help when it comes to deciphering the endless babble that spouts from my toddler on a 15 hour a day, 60 minutes an hour basis!
So to put things in perspective this is my attempt to contrast the ‘academic’ view with the reality of child language development.
Newborn to 3 months
Academic view: children at this age (bearing in mind that all children are unique and develop at different rates yadda yadda…) will be mostly responsive to sound rather than producing their own. In other words they are starting to recognise your voice and respond to it by smiling, or if you are really lucky, by ceasing to cry. They will make basic cooing and gurgling noises as they explore their own vocal capacities and mouth functions. It is said that these noises sound ‘foreign’ to parents as children are not yet constrained by a native language and their mouths explore possible sounds that might not be used in their own tongue. Hence the younger a child learns languages the more proficient they can become.
Reality: the academics might glorify this stage as a momentous step forward in language development, heralding an innate ability for language learning, but as a parent these noises will be the bane of your life. Each gurgle will strike panic as you convince yourself your child is choking; each coo becomes a possible wheeze confirming your fear that your child has early onset bronchitis. This first stage can be thought of as the, “child makes noises to petrify a hypochondriac parent stage.”
Academic view: the babbling stage differs from the cooing and gurgling noises in that you start to recognise distinguishable consonant sounds such as p,b, or m. These sounds are now more often than not, made in response to stimulus such as when the child is particularly happy. At around about this age your child will usually laugh for the first time as well.
Reality: My reality for this stage is “iPad data usage full” due to the millions of videos I recorded of my little man lying on his back babbling away. As soon as actual speech like sounds come in to play you know that your child is actually communicating with you. Without any thought for public perception you babble back like a deranged loon, merrily bbbbbbbbub-bing in the middle of Marks and Spencer’s in response to your child’s babbling. Every sound becomes a potential word so you whip the video camera out in hope of catching that first “mmmmm-mum” word and instead capture endless hours of random sounds that still amaze you in their eloquence. This is the stage that could also be known as, “annoying parent put’s their child onto the phone every 2 seconds stage,”
7 months to 1 year.
Academic view: Those individual sounds now start to join with vowels to make their own little unique language. Words like “tata, bibibib and upup” start to come about. If only we kept a record of these early nonsense words, they’d come in handy when children take the year 1 reading test at primary school! Towards the one year mark most children will be saying their first word, with the usual suspects, “mama” and “dada” being up there with greetings such as “hi”. Sadly, it seems to be widely accepted that ‘dada’ will come first simply because it is easier to learn.
Reality: My son’s first word was ‘dog’. I should probably be grateful as at least he didn’t refer to it by its full name, “shut up barking or you’ll go to the kennels you bl@#%y dog you”. ‘Dada’ and ‘mama’ followed, coming in around the same time, so it was a tough call. In the end although we think ‘dada’ came first, (don’t they always!) it could just have easily have been “tata”, whereas “mum” was as clear as can be and I therefore take the win on that round. This stage should be referred to as “Will it be ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’ first, battle stage”.
Academic view: Now language development is really starting to speed up and your child learns to understand new vocabulary and use new words at a rapid rate. Some simple two word phrases are used, mostly containing a concrete item, such as “where dog?” or “more milk”.
Reality: This stage is all well and good as you start envisioning your child in their Oxford gown and cap, marvelling in their genius as they learn a new word pretty much every day, however bear in mind the pronunciation isn’t always quite there yet. In our house top phrases of the moment are, “more cock” and “dick dick” which translate (I assure you as) as “more choc” and “biscuit.” Very amusing once you have finally deciphered what your frustrated tot is actually after (and quite a relief), not so funny in the middle of a quiet family meal!
So that’s an overview of child language development up to two years of age and as this is as far as I’ve got with my littleun. I will await further hilarity as my son crosses into the terrible twos. Oh how I look forward to the inevitable use of the word, “no” in response to every request, or the endless stream of “why? questions all preschool children seem to develop.
What a joy language development is-particularly when the loudest word in your child’s vocabulary is’ “poo” which he uses to refer to any animal at the zoo caught defecating.
“The language of truth is unadorned and always simple.”