Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

7.4: Developmental Patterns of Language

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Children acquire language at their own pace, mastering the components of language as they develop. The entirety of their developmental journey is filled with cues that they give to and receive from others. Children’s individual development has biological, environmental, and contextual influences. This voyage is profoundly different for each child based on their language experiences, which impart meaning to their attempts at communication. Even with individual differences, there are some predictable patterns. Language development occurs as children develop receptive and expressive language in ways that foster social communication, and there are identifiable stages or windows of growth.

    7.4a Receptive Language

    For the purpose of this textbook, receptive language is the ability to understand information transmitted by others. This includes understanding the words or sentences one hears as well as the meaning of what is communicated through gestures or signs, or in written form. Receptive language implies comprehension of the material being received, and it develops prior to expressive language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). We generally understand more words than we use. All humans have more receptive than productive vocabulary, whether using their home or a new language (Cleci-Murcia & Oshtain, 2001). Receptive language requires knowledge of the meaning of the gestures or words being communicated (McGuiness, 2005).

    Children have more receptive language than expressive language as seen by these children listening attentively
    Children have more receptive language than expressive language as seen by these children listening attentively. Children Listen © Flickr is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    There is some evidence that we do respond to sounds prenatally, indicating that receptive language begins before birth. Babies in utero may sometimes respond to a loud noise, suggesting that they can hear (Marno et al., 2016). In addition to sound, there is evidence that babies are learning patterns of speech and react in the womb by kicking or demonstrating elevated heart rate (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001). This early exposure results in a preference for language or native tongue of the mother in a newborn (Marno et al, 2016). Babies show a change in their heart rate when a speaker uses their mother’s native tongue compared to a speaker using a different language (Minai et al, 2017). Newborns even change their thumb-sucking rhythm and pattern in response to the language and the speakers they hear (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001).

    Parents engage infants in language that differs from other points in the life cycle. They speak to babies using high-pitched voices with exaggerated pronunciation and movements (Koester & Lahti-Harper, 2010). This child directed speech is also referred to as motherese or parentese, although it is used by other adults besides parents. Hearing infants respond to child directed speech with greater alertness and exclamatory sounds. Parents who use sign language also demonstrate a form of child directed speech with exaggerated movements and facial expressions (Masataka, 1996). Child directed speech is purposeful, and demonstrates attentiveness toward the infant (Koester & Lahti-Harper, 2010), but it is impossible to truly say if it is occurring because the parent initiates or the child elicits the exaggerated response. Either way, it is clear that there is something innate about our desire and capacity for connection which is reinforced in our early communication attempts. In other words, we bring our preadapted language capacity into the world, and the environment in turn shapes our development in these areas.

    During infancy the child amasses an understanding of the sounds required for the language they are exposed to. Children are born with the capacity to produce and distinguish the sounds required for all languages, though they prefer their home language (Marno et al, 2016). Within one year, their brains begin to strengthen the connections they need to support their home language, and prune away or disuse the connections that do not help them meet their communicative goals. By 10 months of age, their ability to distinguish among sounds that are not in their home language has diminished (Conboy & Kuhl, 2011), though this loss does not occur in their native tongue. This process of distinguishing the sounds of one’s native language strengthens the ability to learn language overall (Kuhl et al, 2005). Receptive language is developmental, and benchmark timeframes overlap each other.

    The Development of Receptive Language

    The developmental progression of receptive language is outlined in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers. The guidelines state that “The infant demonstrates the meaning of language by listening” (see page 36) and “The toddler demonstrates understanding of spoken language (or signed) language”. (see page 107)

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding receptive language. The Guidelines indicate that children at this age and stage of development “use words and phrases acquired through conversations, listening to books read aloud, activities, and play” (see page 76).

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    Pause and Connect: Linguistic Genius of Babies

    Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies | TED Talk

    After viewing this TED Talk answer the following questions:

    1. What new information or insights did you gain from this video?
    2. According to Dr. Kuhl’s research, what is the critical point (age) for children to learn language?
    3. Define what Dr. Kuhl means when she calls young children “ citizens of the world” and “culture-bound listeners”?
    4. According to the video, was human interaction, tv/video, or audio the most effective way for babies to learn and distinguish the sounds of Mandarin?

    7.4b Productive or Expressive Language

    Productive or expressive language is how we use vocabulary to describe objects, actions, and events. In this textbook, expressive language includes the language we produce to communicate our meaning and messages to others. This can occur through the use of verbal or non-verbal sounds, gestures, words, or written language. Expressive language and productive language are interchangeable terms that imply that the child is expressing or producing language for the purpose of having their intent understood. Expressive language develops later than receptive language (Celci-Murcia & Oshtain, 2001) and one’s expressive or productive vocabulary is less than receptive vocabulary. As Celci-Murcia & Oshtain (2001) point out, expressive language usage implies receptive language mastery, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Infants show recognition of common daily words long before they produce their own first words. Children turn their head at hearing their own name before they can say it, and they will eagerly clasp and unclasp their hands upon hearing that they are about to eat a preferred familiar food.

    Preverbal stages of language development.

    Language development occurs along a trajectory that begins with preverbal expression.

    Productive/expressive language evolves through stages that move from early sounds to word formation. Stark (1986) created a framework for describing expressive language, outlined in the table below.

    Stage Stage Name Age of Onset Characteristics
    Stage 1 Reflexive crying and vegetative sounds At birth
    • Crying
    • Sneezing
    • Burping
    Stage 2 Cooking and laughter 6-8 weeks
    • Noises
    Stage 3 Vocal play Between 17 and 30 weeks
    • Consonant sounds from front of mouth such as muh, puh, nuh, buh, duh,
    • Some presence of vowel sounds
    • Noises with mouth such as blowing raspberries or clicking the tongue
    Stage 4 Canonical/reduplicative 7-9 months
    • Syllables in consonant-vowel combinations (ma-ma-ma)
    Stage 5 Non-reduplicative babbling 10 months
    • Various consonant-vowel combinations
    • Takes on rhythm and pitch of conversation

    Our first vocalizations are cries, beginning at birth, and reflect our preverbal language production. While it may begin as an instinct, these early cries let a caregiver know that a baby is distressed and requires care. This certainly is an early form of communication. Over time, children add other types of sounds to their collection whether accidental, such as a sneeze, or intentional such as a grunt. The first stage reflexive crying and vegetative sounds, includes vocal cord vibrations, burping, and blowing, and other sounds made accidentally or on purpose (Stark, 1986).

    The second stage begins between 6 and 8 weeks and includes cooing and laughter. Children in this stage sound a bit like owls as they repeat these vowel sounds over and over (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). During this stage, children begin to laugh and signal their pleasure through use of the social smile that emerges sometime between 4 and 8 weeks.

    The third stage, vocal play, emerges when children are between 17 and 30 weeks old. In vocal play children make vowel sounds and other sounds including consonants or friction sounds, such as by blowing raspberries or clicking their tongue. In this stage, children also add consonant sounds to their cooing, called babbling (Fagan, 2015). These preliminary attempts, called marginal babbling, see children producing some consonants with vowel sounds, but without true syllables. A child may produce consonants at the front of the mouth, such as “buh”, but might not necessarily produce the vowel sound in a clearly distinguishable way.

    The fourth stage, canonical or reduplicative babbling emerges when children are between 7 and 9 months old, and is distinguished from the previous stage by distinct syllable sounds. Babbling becomes more complex over time, taking on closer approximations of words, and the rhythms and pitches of the home language (Lipkind et al, 2013). This more complex version of babbling is called variegated babbling (Gratier, et al, 2015) or canonical babbling (Vihman & Greenlee, 1987).

    The fifth stage, non reduplicative babbling is the production of sounds that sound very much like language, even if the words do not match. Children use distinctive consonant combinations, and the rhythm and pitch of the language sounds like speech. In addition, parents and children engage in communicative exchanges called protoconversation (Gratier, et al, 2015). Protoconversation occurs when the baby coos or babbles and the parent responds to the baby. Even though the conversation may not communicate a particular meaning, or could appear to be nonsensical, it is actually very helpful as children are hearing language sounds, learning about conversational turn taking, and learning that someone will listen to them.

    Holophrases/Single Words

    Holophrases/single words appear as children move from babbling to producing more organized and familiar sounds. The sounds that children use for babbling, may be sounds that they hear in language and can mimic, but may also represent their first words (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). This may occur even if it is hard to recognize the word from an adult perspective. Examples of this may be a sibling’s name that is hard to pronounce such as “La-la” for “Greta” or “Go” for the more difficult to pronounce “John.” In addition, a child may use a word to denote a whole phrase or intention they are meaning to communicate. For example, “Fue-da” (an approximation of “afuera” which means “outside” in Spanish) may communicate that the child wants to go outside. In a seminal study of parents and children from three cities, Bates et al, (1994), project that children may utter their first word as early as eight months, increasing to a vocabulary of approximately 10 words at the end of the first year, and 312 words by the time they are at the end of the second year. Productive language includes signs and gestures, and as with receptive language development, has a trajectory that allows for individual differences.

    There are substantial individual differences in language development over time. Some children show evenly distributed growth in vocabulary, while other children exhibit a vocabulary “burst” (Bates et al, 1992). Just as physical development has a range of normativity (e.g., walking between 10 and 16 months) language development also has ranges for demonstrating communication skills, as outlined in the chart below.

    Two-Word Phrases

    Two-word phrases emerge as children master single words, then start to put them together in combination, “Me Cookie!” The developmental range for this is approximately 14 to 24 months with 20 months reported as the mean age (Bates, et al, 1992). There is a strong relationship between the development of words and word combinations, however there are variations in how children combine words to use language. In previous research, approximately 20% of children produced combinations of words with vocabularies under 50 words, while another 15% of children were not producing any word combinations even though their vocabularies were between 100 and 300 words (Bates, et al, 1992). Children typically add words to the two word combinations in phrases that first appear without grammar elements (Fenson et al, 1994). For example, when Imani said, “I no like it: go-fish (goldfish),” this demonstrates how a child uses short phrases to communicate their ideas without following grammatical rules.

    The Development of Expressive Language

    The developmental progression of expressive language is outlined in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers. The Guidelines state that “The infant develops expressive language” (see page 38) and “The toddler develops expressive language” (see page 108).

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline in detail the standards for preschoolers regarding expressive language. The Guidelines indicate that children at this age and stage of development “Speak audibly and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas” (see page 70)

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    Pause and Connect: The Baby Human: To Talk

    After viewing this fascinating video clip, answer the following:

    When do babies develop language?

    Why do babies cry?

    What words do babies have the greatest response to?

    7.4c Social Language

    Language cannot be considered outside of its social role as the purpose of language is to understand and be understood. This carries with it the weight of expectations, hopes, needs, and wishes. How we use sounds, gestures, and actions to communicate are social in nature. Conversations, after all, must eventually have conversational partners. Vygotsky emphasized the transactional nature of language as he considered the influence of the social world on our cognitive development. Vygotsky emphasized that language was a tool for learning, rather than merely a reflection of what the child knows (1986). In fact, the conversational style of those nearest the child influences their language development as they mimic those around them. Adult behaviors such as expanding children’s utterances, and recasting and commenting on these utterances, is helpful for growth. Parents also differ in their conversational style, and so do siblings. Social language indicators include things like responding and turn-taking, or other signs of pragmatic language. Children’s language develops when they have experiences with conversational partners who engage with them and nurture their growth.

    The Development of Social Learning

    The development of social learning is detailed in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers The guidelines state that “The infant engages in social interaction” (see page 37) and “The toddler engages in social communication” (see page 111).

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding social language. The guidelines state that a child at this age and stage of development “Participates in collaborative conversations with diverse partners during daily routines and play” (see page 70).

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    Pause and Connect: Italian Conversation

    Young children often copy the non verbal gestures they see. Describe the facial expressions and the gestures that this child uses.

    This adorable child is also demonstrating the use of pragmatics. What are pragmatics and what are some examples of pragmatics that you see this child using?

    This page titled 7.4: Developmental Patterns of Language is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.