Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

9.3: Language milestones in the first two years

  • Page ID
    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    This table summarizes some of the typical language development milestones that children reach in the first two years of life. Remember, though, that language learning is not a race! Children vary immensely from each other, and with appropriate access to other humans using language, nearly every child will develop a mental grammar in due time.

    Age Babies can…
    Before birth respond differently to pregnant parent’s voice than other voices (hearing fetuses only).
    0;0 respond differently to prosody of pregnant parent’s spoken language than to other language (hearing infants only).
    0;6 notice differences in handshapes (sighted infants only) and speech segments (hearing infants only).
    0;6 begin to produce rhythmic babbling with syllable structure.
    0;9 produce first words (sign-acquiring babies).
    1;0 categorize phonetically different segments into phoneme categories of the ambient language.
    1;0 understand meanings of about ten common words.
    1;0 produce first words (speech-acquiring babies).
    1;2 interpret novel words differently depending on syntactic category.
    1;3 assign compositional meaning depending on syntactic structure.
    1;6 produce utterances of two or three words.
    1;6 understand meanings of about 50 words.
    2;0 interpret meanings for novel verbs depending on syntactic frames.
    2;0 ask questions.

    9.3: Child Language Acquisitions Stages

    Child Language Acquisition Stages, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    We're going to go into the stages of child language acquisition. This is based off of about 50 years’ worth of data collection, observation, trials, and studies—all ethically above board. That means that at no point was a child was kept in a room, was never talked to, and then we observed how they developed. That has never happened; no one has done that. Ethically, as a researcher, at least to my knowledge. Rather, this is based off of observation. When we bring a child into observation for language acquisition and other aspects of child development, we see them in a lab. We see them play with each other; we give them specific stimuli and we record what they do with it. That being said, know that everything I’m going to cover in this section has an important caveat: Answers may vary. We're going to talk about these stages with respect to certain ages, but understand that answers may vary. No two children will hit the same milestones in the same way, including within a family. I'll use my two nephews as an example; my older nephew is currently eight-years-old and my younger nephew is coming up on six. The two of them developed very differently with respect to language. The older child was running a mile a minute with respect to the language. This kid could talk in complex sentences by the time he was three and a half; when he started kindergarten, verbally he was leaps and bounds ahead of his classmates. Reading for him came a little bit later, but the speaking-wise, he was out the door and running. My younger nephew wasn't the same; in part, it had to do with certain issues with his hearing and with congestion and allergies. As a result, the hearing in his left ear is mildly compromised. Also, he just has a more introverted, shy nature. If he knows you, he will talk to you, quite a bit. But with other folks, he won't talk with them, especially those outside the family. His linguistic development was slower than that of his brother. That's just two personalities, two children.

    Answers may vary. Got it?

    Let's start off with the initial stage, which is pretty much right after birth, the first couple months. We're talking about babbling, the first sounds that an infant makes: cooing, crying, laughing, etc. If you've been around infants, you know that set of sounds. If you are a new parent, you're still learning how to differentiate the different cries, that they mean different things; those who are experienced parents or experienced caregivers recognized the differences more readily. In the first few months of life, infants are reacting to stimuli, of all things, not just language. They're reacting in different ways; there is that magic when you see an infant start to smile, especially when they hear the voice of their regular caregivers; they start cooing and laughing when they're around those folks. It is really amazing to hear and watch. What is interesting is that in the first few months, they just react to everything. That makes sense because they're literally brand new; they're still trying to figure things out.

    Somewhere around the six-month mark is when things start to change—this is true with respect to all aspects of development, but in this case, we’ll focus on language. Those of you who are around young children and infants, you know that right around six months is when the motor skills start coming into effect: they're starting to hold their head up better, if not completely; they're starting to get this concept of grasping when they want to, not just as a reaction to something hitting their palm. With respect to language, the first aspects of language start to take hold. They're starting to respond to language sounds that they're around regularly. We know this because we we've put infants into rooms with their mother or father or other caregiver, and said caregiver talks in whatever language or languages that are common, and at right around six months the infant is going to start receiving and focusing on those sounds, more so than sounds that are not part of the language at all. We’ve documented this both with man-made sounds, as far as like machinery, and nature sounds, along with other language sounds. It's really interesting to see this.

    I did a minor version of this experiment with my older nephew when he was that young; I would routinely either talk in English to him or Spanish or Italian; my brother and my sister-in-law only speak English and they don't interact much with other languages. Because they saw me work with him and how he would start to react when I spoke in Spanish or Italian, they started exposing him to other languages, both on TV and then in life. This kid, while not multilingual in any sense, constantly wants me to teach him new Spanish and new Italian words. The lingual bug that I put into him at that early stage has stayed with him.

    It is also interesting to point out that we even see this in deaf children. This means that it's not just because of what they're hearing, that deaf children right around that six-month point are starting to emit sounds; they are putting things together. How they're doing this, we’re still not sure. But we do know that they're trying to make sounds, even if they are in an environment where they cannot hear. The other part of that discussion is CODAs, or Children of Deaf Adults. They do the same thing, even if they are hearing. If one or both of their caregivers is deaf, then primary sign language is going to be used, but the child will also start trying to speak at that six-month mark, and have some of the same patterns that a normal scenario would also include. It's really interesting to see how this plays out.

    From here let's talk about the holophrastic stage, when we're talking about one word phrasing. That means that one word carries an entire phrase. There is lots of repetition. This stage is right around the one-year mark; if you've been around a one-year-old, you know what I’m talking about. This thing is a bottle, and think of a one-year-old’s version of it, probably something close to [baw] or [baba]. Intonation plays a heavy role, so “[bába]!” (😄) is a different phrase than “[bába]?” (🤔) and different than “[bàba]” (😞). Those are three different phrasings for that child based off of what they're trying to communicate; “[bába]!” (😄) could be something like ‘I want my bottle!’ or ‘where is my bottle?!’, kind of emphatic. “[bába]?” (🤔) is questioning, and might mean ‘where is my bottle?’, ‘is that my bottle?’, something along those lines. “[bàba]” (😞) with the down intonation might imply something like ‘I don't have my bottle’ or ‘I kind of wanted, but I don't know where it is’ or ‘my bottle is empty’. There's usually a lot of gesturing along with holophrastic phrasing. It's not surprising that around this age is where we get the most use out of baby signs, which are home sign languages. This is around the one-year mark, and it doesn't stop at one year; it's a continuum.

    From here, we go to the two-word stage; we're talking 18 months to two years, somewhere in there. It could be earlier or later; again, my older nephew was out of the two-word stage definitely by two, but my younger nephew continued on into almost three-years of age; different child, different setup. When we're talking about this two-word stage, pivot words are crucial; they're the structure upon which the entire phrase pivots. They have a lot of roles, and frequently involved adpositions (preposition in English). Think of phrases like allgone: allgone shoe; allgone milk, allgone lettuce, allgone outside. It can mean anything, so all gone is the pivot word and then whatever is with it is ‘gone’ or ‘over. Another example is on: blanket on, fix on, bandage on, shoe on. It may actually work—shoe on works, all gone milk works—but sometimes it might take a mental leap. For example, fix on may not seem like it will work, except what the child is probably saying is, ‘can you fix this’, ‘can you fix this’. Pivot words are crucial, and can range from a few to hundreds. They are frequently saying more than two words, however, the main structure is usually 2-3 words at most.

    There was a reason studying about three four years ago, out of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, where Elizabeth Johnson (the main researcher for this project) was looking at 30- to 36-year-olds. They were recognizing adult speech, even when none of their family members were there. This means that they were picking up this concept of by the age of two; they're picking up language from all over. What is really important is that, when they were around other toddlers, if the toddler did not use the same pivot structure, they didn't understand. Let's create an example with ‘Jackie’ and ‘Tracy’. They are with each other in a room. If Jackie uses allgone as a pivot, but the Tracy does not, those two children may not always communicate with one another.

    Once we get to the two- to three-year range is when we start getting phrases. They are not usually super complex but somewhere in the two- to five-word range. You start to get more syntax and more morphology This is where the creation of different derivations comes into play, where we have correct versions and sometimes incorrect versions. The version I love his foot versus foots versus feet versus feets. Every child has some version of that—by the way, not just in English, but this occurs in all languages. The toddlers are going to have more telegraphic speech, which is when there is very basic nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They won't have very much else; maybe prepositions sometimes, certain basic prepositions like on or off. However, they don’t produce embedded clauses or complex derivation. They do produce inflection at a basic level, and it gets better with time.

    Speaking of inflection, while English is not a very good example of this, in other Indo-European languages, Niger-Congo languages, and languages around the world, at this telegraphic speech point, the main content words are there. You do get inflection for number—singular versus plural definitely, and if there's a dual sometimes that comes in—and grammatical gender marking, that definitely starts coming into use. Case marking comes later, but it does come. It comes in stages, not all at once. If you have a child, trying to learn Japanese as its first language, that child will produce case marketing eventually, but they will accurately produce plural marking much sooner.

    Again, answers may vary. When we talk about these stages, answers may vary; what one child does may not hold true for the other child. These are tendencies, especially the more we understand about autism spectrum disorder and other abilities and issues, we can start diagnosing even in young children. Language production is a part of that diagnosis; we'll come back to that in the next chapter when we talk about the neural processing of language. One of the areas that new parents in particular start freaking out on is whether their child has hit a given benchmark, and language is a really big one, for a number of reasons, and many of them are valid reasons and concerns. I always tell parents who asked about these stages and whether their child is hitting the benchmark, or when they’re worried that their child is behind the benchmark or below the benchmark, I keep reminding parents: Answers may vary. Every child is different, and the more you are around young children, and you see their development, you understand that this is at an individual pace. Every child is going to be different. Even within one family, every child is going to be different; just because at two years of age, your child is still only doing one or two words, at a time does not mean that the child has something wrong. Just give it a little more time; have the child be around more people, both of their own age as well as in general. They will catch on.

    Answers may vary.

    This page titled 9.3: Language milestones in the first two years is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.