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How Children Learn to Talk

One late winter afternoon, I bundled up my son and carried him outside to the yard. He was a 2½-year-old boy whose speech was delayed for a variety of reasons; he had a couple dozen nouns and a few essential verbs. What did he think? What did he dream about? I didn't know, and as we waited for the lunar eclipse we'd come outside to see, I talked to him about magic and orbits and stars. I explained what I knew about the coming spectacle. When I was done, he suddenly spoke five words in a row, all belonging to him: "Sun breaking moon with shadow." He was telling me, in his own way, what he'd seen in the sky, in a phrase he'd fashioned on his own. It was a moment I'll never forget.

Call it a miracle. Call it instinct. Call it soul. Language is the ship that sails between us. When our children utter words, we hail their extraordinary accomplishment. When they begin to speak in sentences, they introduce us to their minds, and we are humbled by what they have to say.

But where does the gift of speech come from? How is it that the vast majority of children learn to speak without the help of drills, grammar lessons, or speech coaches? Certainly, it isn't a matter of mere imitation: Our children make their own mistakes; create their own sentences and stories; demand the things they want, which are not always what we want for them.

And it isn't easy: Words are but symbols shaped by arbitrary sounds; the rules of grammar are confounding even to adults. Think of all that's difficult about learning a second language. Our toddlers master it with a facility that is astonishing.

Sounds and Words

Sounds and Words

Acquiring language is a complex process that hinges on a juggler's cache of spectacular skills. To start with, a baby must be able to organize sensory information, to sort the brightness of light from the warmth of a bath from the taste of her finger and the noise coming from her mother's mouth. She must then become skilled at segmenting and categorizing the continuous stream of sounds that constitute speech  -- she learns to insert, if you will, an auditory version of "white space" between the phrases and words that rush out of the mouth in torrents, so as to distinguish where one ends and the next begins. Think, for example, of all the ways the endearment "Aren't you beautiful?" could be heard. "Rnchubutifel?" "Rnchubu tifl?" "Rnchu buuuuuu te ful?" Which syllables belong with which others? How does a child discover that the one-word contraction "aren't" is really two words in one?

As if disentangling sounds weren't enough, a child must also take a leap of understanding to recognize that speech is linked to meaning, that it tells stories. Speech is more than babble, more than noise. It's suggestion, instruction, caution, and culture. Plus, the way we manipulate words with suffixes, articles, and plurals shapes and contributes to their meaning.

At first, expressive language arrives one word at a time, as early as 10 months for some children. By 18 months, on average, a child has accumulated some 50 words, and from here her vocabulary grows at a fiery pace. Between the ages of 2 and 6, children learn the meaning of some 8 new words a day. By the time they enter school, they have a mind-boggling 11,000.

This vocabulary explosion is typically associated with an actual spurt in brain development, says neurobiologist Lise Eliot, author of What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. "Between thirteen and twenty months, children's brains grow increasingly specialized in the way they respond to words," she says. At each stage of language development  -- whether it's acquiring vocabulary, conjugating verbs, or understanding grammar  -- scientists believe there is heightened activity in different parts of the brain.

Rules and Mistakes

Rules and Mistakes

Forming a sentence isn't just about nurturing the burgeoning dictionary in one's head. Sentences are constructed not only with words but also with syntax, the grammar that arranges our utterances into culturally comprehensible phrases. "Outside I go to want" might have all the makings of meaning, but it's garble until the words are put in their right order, and it's the sort of mistake we don't often hear our children make.

Humans seem to have an inherent sense of the rules. In other words, from a very young age we "get" grammar. And in every language around the world, getting grammar, explains Eliot, means getting two things: Meaning is created by fiddling with the arrangement of words, and different variations  -- all those -ing's and -ed's and -s's  -- give words new meaning too.

Word order is the first concept that children seem to master. They're not paying attention to tenses, or inflections, or possessives, at first. They're simply strutting the noun out before the verb: "I goed now." "Jane sleepy soon." "I thirsty." We know precisely what they mean, and they've engineered it all themselves, not copying what they've heard per se but assembling what they somehow know, what their brains already seem hardwired to understand.

It's between the ages of 2 and 4 that the sentences start taking on some pizzazz. Grammatical skills explode early in a child's third year, just as vocabulary did when he was somewhere around 18 months. Children seem to get the hang of the "-ing" ending first: "I shopping." Next come the prepositions "in" and "on": "I sitting on Daddy." Then come plurals, and next possessives ("Cats is sitting on Daddy's shirt"), then the articles "a" and "the." The past tense comes tripping along subsequently, so that by the time a child is 4, he's capable of almost anything except those tricky irregular verbs, the ones that change depending on how you use them: fly/flew ("I flied the kite"), take/took ("Mommy taked me home"), and so on.

Interestingly, it's the mistakes our children make when they wrestle with those irregular verbs that prove just how intelligent they are with language. And it's at ages 3, 4, 5, and even older that the exceptions to the rules they've learned so well prove to be so confounding to them. "I was" becomes "I beed"; "I ran" is "I runned"; and "I hit" is instead "I hitted."

Children everywhere make the same kinds of mistakes precisely because they've become so smart about the rules  -- they're trying to impose their brain's desire for grammatical order. (They're also fearless when it comes to self-expression.)

Why Talking Matters

Why Talking Matters

The miracle of language isn't simply that a particular child learns her native one in a particular way. It's that all children, in every corner of the world, seem to acquire language similarly, moving from babble to first words to two-word sentences to a comprehension of grammar rules  -- and all on roughly the same developmental schedule. They acquire language and invent it too, coming up with such unburnished jewels as "We holded the baby rabbits"; "The alligator goed kerplunk"; and "Horton heared a Who."

The fact that a language instinct may well be at work in our kids does not, of course, dim the importance of the conversations we have with them. Language is a social code. Words are acquired when they're heard; the patterns and nuance in our speech inspire the patterns and nuance in our kids'. Every language has its own glitches and idiosyncrasies  -- and even within a particular language there are widespread variations. Children from the Bronx, Texas, south Philadelphia, and New Orleans may all be speaking English, for example. But the sounds of the words they say, the expressions they use, the twangs, drawls, crushed vowels, and clipped consonants will reflect the conversations they hear all around them.

So, learning a language can't happen in a complete vacuum. Our brains may be predisposed to acquiring and using words in certain ways, but a child born into utter silence will live a life of utter silence, and a child raised on only radio and TV will not advance linguistically the way children do who are nurtured with the give-and-take of conversation.

There's also a certain critical window for language acquisition; children who've had no exposure to language in their crucial language-learning years may, once the doors to society are flung open to them, slowly accumulate vocabulary, but a consistent understanding of syntax will remain beyond their reach. This sad truth was reaffirmed in 1970 when California authorities discovered a horrifically abused young girl who had lived in isolation for 13 years. She learned words after a while but never mastered their arrangements. She had lived too long in silence to ever gain access to the full privileges of language.

In Their Own Words

In Their Own Words

When our children speak to us, they're shaping our worlds as well as theirs. When they express a fascination with a car, when they opine about their peas, when they profess wonder at the sky, when they tell us that they love us, they are relaying not only facts but their secrets too. They're engaging us in who they are and who they're becoming, and we, as their parents, get to stand near and listen, stepping into the dance of their desires and their words.

Language brings us closer to our children, it's true. But it also makes us more acutely aware of just how distinct our little people are, how extraordinary and irreplaceable. Call it a miracle, call it instinct, but in language lies the heart of our humanity.

National Book Award nominee Beth Kephart's most recent book, Still Love in Strange Places, was published last April.

What Kids Say, and When

Age: 6 to 9 months

Sounds/Words: Mmm, Bbb, Ppp, babbling

What's Going On: The noises that are usually the easiest for babies to make are known as bilabials  -- sounds made with lips together  -- so that's why youÕll probably hear them more often in the early months.


Age: 9 to 12 months

Sounds/Words: Fff, Sss, Zzz

What's Going On: Babies are learning to put their tongue and lips in the right place to make the so-called fricative sounds (Fff, Sss, Zzz). You'll also start to hear inflection and singsong speech  -- the melody of conversation, if not the words.


Age: 10 to 14 months

Sounds/Words: First word

What's Going On: First words can be almost anything, though nouns usually come before verbs. Some early verbs include "make," "go," and "do."


Age: 12 to 18 months

Sounds/Words: 2 words a week, to total 50 by 18 months

What's Going On: By now, the "language trilogy" is common: The baby looks at something (or someone), points, and then says one or two words. Mispronunciations are common: "daw," "doe," or "dawd" instead of the more challenging "dog."


Age: 18 to 24 months

Sounds/Words: 200 words

What's Going On: It's a naming explosion, with some babies constantly asking "What dat?" or just "Dat!" (the Th sound is still difficult at this age).


Age: 2 to 3 years

Sounds/Words: 500 words

What's Going On: Questions, questions, questions! "What Mommy do?" "Where Daddy go?" "Why?" is a favorite word, but kids also make up their own. Common mispronunciations include mixing up consonants, like "aminal" for "animal," probably because it's physically easier to go from "M" to "N" than the other way around.


Age: 3 to 4 years

Sounds/Words: 800 words

What's Going On: Preschoolers start to figure out contractions ("won't," "can't") as well as prepositions ("in," "on") and a few time expressions ("morning," "afternoon"). They may also make up words, such as "yesternight" for "last night."


Age: 4 to 5 years

Sounds/Words: 2,000 words

What's Going On: Kids speak clearly, can construct five- and six-word sentences, and make up stories. Sounds that can still be troublesome: Sss, Rrr, Vvv, Jjj, Th, Sh, and Ch.


Age: 5 to 7 years

Sounds/Words: 11,000 words

What's Going On: By first grade, kids are retelling and discussing stories. They have thousands of words at hand and will know more than 50,000 as adults.



For more on children's speech development, check out How Children Learn to Talk.