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3.1: Components of language

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    Language can be broken into four domains: phonology, grammar, semantics, and pragmatics. These four areas refer to the sounds of language (phonology), how the sounds are put together (phonology and grammar), the meaning/content (semantics), and the use of the language (pragmatics) (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). Each of these domains includes the expectation that the language users will produce, receive, and comprehend the language.


    Phonology is the ability to distinguish and create the sounds of language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978). Phonemes are the smallest units of language, representing individual sounds. For example, the word “chip” has three phonemes: /ch/ /i/ /p/. Each of these three sounds is a phoneme. A phoneme focuses on the sound only, without regard for the letter or letter combinations. It is simply the components of sound that we hear in language. Children display phonemic awareness by attending to these sounds, demonstrating the ability to hear and isolate them. Phonics is the area of phonology that emerges last, as children match sounds to letters and groups of letters.


    Grammar is the combination of how individual words and sounds are combined to express meaning (Bates et al, 1992). Grammar rules guide how words are combined to communicate information. Grammar includes morphology and syntax. Morphology focuses on the structure within the word, and allows for the creation of complex words and phrases. For example, many words can be made plural by adding “s” to the end of a word (e.g., bird and birds). Morphemes are the smallest units of language that contain meaning. Some prefixes and suffixes of words contain their own meaning, such as “un” or “ing” in the words, “undo,” “untie,” or “doing,” “tying.” Young children frequently make mistakes in this area by applying a morphological rule in all instances (Bates et al., 1992). For example, a child might say, “I saw the deers” (plural /s/) or “I wented there” (past-tense /ed/). These rules are complex and numerous and children apply these rules as best as they can given the constraints of what they have already learned. Syntax governs our grammatical structures such as word order and phrasing. The meaning of “Mommy feeds Brother” is different than “Brother feeds Mommy.” Infants show recognition of word order changes (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001), and eventually learn to express word order differently to vary their message. A child may say, “Mommy phone” to simply indicate that the phone belongs to mom, or may say, “Phone Mommy” to indicate the phone is lighting up or ringing. A father volunteering in a room of four-year-olds will find that he is universally addressed by his child’s classmates as “Isaiah’s dad.” The use of the /s/ to indicate possession on the end of Isaiah is a morpheme. “The child’s understanding that the order of the two words is ‘Isaiah’s dad’ as opposed to “dad Isaiah’s” is a usage of syntax.


    Semantics is the study of meaning, including vocabulary (Bates et al., 1992). Semantics may focus on the significance of an individual word or the meaning of particular words in the context of an entire sentence. As an illustration, the word “friend” may be a noun, as in “I have a friend.” Friend may also be a verb when speaking about social media, “I will friend you.” The meanings have some similarities, representing a connection to another person, but the usage creates a difference in whether we are speaking about the actual person or speaking about the connection to the person. Semantics also include nonverbal aspects of words such as intonation and gestures. For example, “whatever” can be an innocuous answer denoting many possibilities, “What can I eat from the snack table?” “Whatever.” In this case, it indicates that the child is welcome to eat anything from the table. With a change of pitch and emphasis and tone of voice, “whatever” can signal strong disapproval. “I didn’t know I was not allowed to have that.” “Whatever!” Vocabulary building is a crucial part of learning and understanding semantics. Infants will not comprehend everything that they hear in the early months and weeks, but they will notice the way that words are delivered and the corresponding content. Exposure to rich opportunities normalizes the use of the words introduced, which are of course, entirely contextual. For example, three-year-old Alyssa was given the choice between naptime with her bear and her blanket, or her book and her blanket. In response, she told her mother, “I want another ‘ternative.” Alyssa has learned that the vocabulary word, “alternative” is used to indicate a choice, and she can use the word “alternative” even when she cannot pronounce it. The variety of words that children are exposed to, and how they are drawn into conversations, influences individual differences in the rates at which children learn words (Karmiloff & Karmiloff-Smith, 2001). The quantity and quality of opportunities matter deeply. All children are exposed to the language the adults around them choose for them, which is why it is important that early learning settings provide rich and varied opportunities for children to be exposed to word meanings and word usage.


    Pragmatics is the social or transactional use of language, including context of the conversation. It encompasses not just what we say, but how we say it and to whom (Bates et al, 1992). Pragmatics includes rules of courtesy, turn taking, and the practical aspect of communication. Knowing that you should answer a question when a question is asked, is an example of pragmatics. Another instance would be knowing that one should stay silent in particular situations or stay on topic during a conversation. Using different communicative styles that suit different language partners is a key component of pragmatics. One may greet a friend by saying, “Hey!” But, one greets a boss by saying, “Good morning.” Pragmatics can also be non-verbal, such as in the use of eye contact. Children may learn at an early age that an appropriate greeting would be to kiss someone once on each cheek or to nod politely. These expectations include an understanding of culture and of conversational role. For example, a child may recognize over time that family members or others with a shared heritage should be greeted with the cheek-kiss greeting, but that someone outside of this would be greeted differently. Essentially, pragmatics includes the ability to predict and notice cues from the other person, including words, gestures, and non-verbal cues, and to react accordingly.

    Pause and Consider: I no like it: go-fish.

    Two and a half year old Imani wandered over to the table, where snack was being prepared. She noticed orange goldfish-shaped crackers being poured out onto a paper napkin. She wrinkled her nose, shook her head and emphatically said, “I no like it: go-fish.” She walked over to the teacher, put her hand on the teacher’s arm, and protested, “I no like it: go-fish!” The teacher acknowledged Imani and said, “You do not like goldfish. We have pretzels too.” Imani shouted, “Petzas! Petzas!” The teacher then replied, “I will give you pretzels.”

    Imani’s manner of expression is dictated by her relationship with the teacher and the pragmatic conversational patterns that they have already established. When Imani placed her hand on the teacher’s arm, she was signaling the importance of her message. The meaning of “Petzas” denotes a semantic understanding about what Imani wants. As you consider Imani’s language exchange, how is phonology reflected in Imani’s pronunciation? How is her understanding of grammar evident in her word choice and order?

    Developmental Patterns of Language

    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.

    Receptive Language

    Receptive language can be defined as “how we receive information and understand words and their meaning” (Virginia Department of Education, 2021). 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).

    A child sits in a chair listening.
    Children develop receptive language prior to expressive language.

    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 as seen in the tables below.

    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.

    7.4b1 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.

    Stark’s Five-Stage Framework

    Table 7.2 “Stark’s Five-Stage Framework”. Content is based on Stark R. E. (1986). Prespeech segmental feature development. In Studies in Language Acquisition, Fletcher P, Garman M (eds). Cambridge University Press:149–173.


    Stage Name

    Age of Onset


    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


    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, nonreduplicative 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.

    Twoword 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.

    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.

    This page titled 3.1: Components of language is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christine Pegorraro Schull, Leslie La Croix, Sara E. Miller, Kimberly Sanders Austin, and Julie K. Kidd via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.