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Author: Clare Wood

Learning to talk

Updated Thursday, 2nd December 2004
Dr. Clare Wood takes a look at the development of communication in babies and children

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Children’s development from new-born infant to verbally competent child is so rapid that it never fails to impress us as adults. Once we begin to appreciate just how complex language is, it seems to us that a child with no prior experience of any language has an almost impossible task ahead. Communication is both verbal and non-verbal, and the intended meaning of both forms is affected by the context they occur in. With respect to verbal communication, infants have to realise that the sounds we make with our mouths carry meaning, that it is constructed from discrete units (words), that words can only be combined in certain ways, and that there are many, many words to learn - some of which have abstract meanings; while others have more than one possible meaning.

How do babies make sense of communication?
The inborn abilities and environmental context of the developing child are both of critical importance if children are to be successful in this journey to linguistic competence. It is important to recognise that children are not passive recipients of information: from the outset they are seeking to make sense of their linguistic environment, exploiting whatever mental and physical abilities they have at that point in their development.

When children are born, they appear to have an innate preference for looking at human faces and attending to human voices over and above other types of stimuli. Such preferences serve to orientate the new-born to their immediate interpersonal and communicative environment. New-born children also show a tendency to imitate the facial expressions they see, a behaviour that the adults around them often interpret as intentional communicative acts on the part of the baby. It seems likely that the positive attention that children receive when they copy a smile or gesture eventually lead them to make these gestures deliberately to the adults around them. However, it is difficult for psychologists to know when this shift from imitation to intentional gesture actually occurs: conservative estimates suggest this is most likely to occur by the time the child is three months old, although other researchers believe that children only a few weeks old show signs of wanting to communicate with others through gesture.

With respect to children’s vocalisations, babies produce a wide variety of noises, ranging from the all-too-familiar crying through to gurgles that are made during periods of contentment. In the first two months of life these noises include a variety of sounds, some of which sound language-like to the adult ear, and others which sound more foreign, like clicks and trills. These gurgles are eventually replaced by ‘cooing’ sounds, which commonly persist until the children are 20 weeks old. These gurgles and coos are not believed to be attempts to communicate verbally, although cooing is seen as a form of vocal playing. This eventually gives way to ‘babbling’, which is when babies begin to make sounds that are syllabic and consist of familiar consonant and vowel sounds. This stage of language development is the subject of intense debate, with some researchers noting the similarity between babbling sounds and children’s imperfect pronunciations of first words, while others see it as essentially random action and unrelated to early speech.

How do we help children learn to communicate?
Whichever is the case, the fact remains that adults treat infants as if they are attempting to communicate with us long before they actually are. It seems likely that these responses lead children into making intentional communicative acts, either verbally or non-verbally. One of the earliest communication ‘lessons’ that we teach children is the significance of taking turns. Almost from birth our interactions with children teach them that communicating is about listening when someone else is speaking and that after a period of activity (verbal or non-verbal) there should be a period of non-activity. We also demonstrate the need to follow the gaze of the person who is talking. This forms the basis for conversation later on.

Another thing that we do to help children to acquire language relates to the way that we speak to very young children. When we talk to young children we change both the manner and the content of our speech. We simplify the way that we construct sentences, dropping ‘redundant’ words, using a special but limited vocabulary of ‘baby words’, and using names instead of pronouns, as in the example ‘Baby go bye-byes?’ (instead of ‘Are you going to sleep now?’). We also exaggerate the intonation of such sentences, speak more slowly and use more repetition in our speech to young children than we do when we are talking to adults. All these features are suggested to help children understand language and make their own attempts at constructing their first verbal communication.

Making meanings
When children are around nine to twelve months old, their early attempts at communicating with adults fall into four clear ‘types’:

  • the child wants something
  • wants someone else to do something
  • wants to interact with another person
  • is reflecting on their environment in some way

Between 12-17 months we also see children communicating a desire to pretend.

Around about the age of 18-21 months, there is a dramatic increase in the number of words that children know, such that it has been termed ‘the vocabulary explosion’. In tandem with this rapid growth in word knowledge we begin to see children’s first attempts at using adult-like speech. Single words are used in a way to convey meaning: (‘Look!’) and simple combinations of words are used, as in ‘Look! Doggy’. This is followed by an awareness that some words have special endings that change their meaning. For example ‘s’ added to the end of some words indicates that there is more than one of that thing. Children initially use word endings without too much of a problem, but this seems to be because they have simply memorised the words and phrases that they have heard other people use without too much real appreciation of how language is constructed. Once they have begun to understand that there are rules to do with language they go through a phase of occasionally over-applying them, such that 'sheep’ becomes ‘sheeps’ and ‘took’ becomes ‘taked’. Over time this tendency disappears, although we all make mistakes of this kind occasionally!

Alongside the rapid development of vocabulary and grammatical awareness, we see children begin to use language for conversational purposes. Prior to this point, their utterances are rather one sided, showing a desire to communicate their own desires and thoughts, but not to converse and not to respond to requests for information from other people. This is now the point at which we see children begin the so-called ‘why?’ phase of language development that many parents will recognise.

Ultimately the accumulation of all these different competencies enable children to use language to engage in part of an ongoing social process with other people; to make sense of and to communicate as part of an ongoing social situation and set of relationships that exist between speakers. This is seen as the hallmark of adult language use: to express ideas and sustain interpersonal communication in a way that is relevant to the ongoing situation.


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