Long before they produce their first “baba,” babies’ minds are busy sorting out the sounds and shapes of words and sentences, communicating intentionally, repairing misunderstood messages, using others to accomplish goals and participating in a variety of turn taking routines that closely resemble language (Jusczyk, 1999). Not only are they learning what the words of their language sound like, they are sorting out what they mean, how to order them in a sentence, and how to make them agree grammatically. Most children have a vocabulary of fifty or more words, and many are producing short but intelligible sentences by age 2. By the time they enter preschool, they are understanding and using thousands of words and their tacit knowledge of grammar is already more sophisticated than the thickest style manual. They are already accomplished little conversationalists when they start kindergarten.

That children learn to talk even before they are out of diapers makes language learning seem easy. It isn’t. Even for normally developing children, language acquisition is enormously challenging. For children with biological and/or environmental risk conditions, language acquisition may be impossible without special intervention/ instruction.

The goal of this hook is to provide a basic introduction to concepts and practices of language and communication intervention/ instruction, with practical guidelines, strategies, and methods for inclusive settings. This first chapter presents key terms and concepts in linguistics, a discussion of the bases of normal language acquisition, and an overview of early language learning processes.



Study in a new area is challenging because you must learn many new terms and you must learn new meanings for familiar terms. Of the two, learning new terms is often easier because all you have to do is learn the meaning of the new term and you have a new vocabulary item. Familiar terms with new meanings are more difficult because you must form new associations, Many of the terms in this first section are of the latter type; familiar terms for which you must learn more refined and specialized or different meanings. For example, you know the terms language, speech, and communication, but you may not know how the three concepts differ and how they relate to one another.


Speech is the oral modality for language, the expression of language with sounds. Other language modalities include manual signing and writing. Humans are not the only species to produce sounds, but we are the only species with the unique structure of the human vocal tract necessary to produce the variety and complexity of sounds that are required for speech. Speech production depends on precise physiological and neuromuscular coordination of respiration, phonation, resonance, and articulation. Respiration is the act of breathing; phonation is the production of sound by the larynx and vocal fold; resonance is the vibratory response that controls the quality of the sound wave; and articulation is use of the lips, tongue, teeth, and hard and soft palates to form speech sounds. Exhaled air from the lungs is modified by the vocal folds in the larynx and/or the structure of the mouth to produce speech sounds.

Speech is willed, planned, and programmed by the central nervous system the brain, the spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes the cranial and spinal nerves. The different parts of the nervous system are bound together by neurons to form a complex information exchange network that transmits motor impulses to and from the muscles of the speech mechanism.


Languages are abstract systems with rules governing the sequencing of their basic units (sounds, morphemes, words, sentences) and rules governing meaning and use. Lahey (1988) defines language as “a code whereby ideas about the world are represented through a conventional system of arbitrary signals for communication” (p. 2). The term code is basic to defining language. Language is a code in the sense that it is not a direct representation of the world, but something with


which to represent ideas or concepts about the world. It is important to remember that these ideas and concepts (mental representations) are separate from the objects and events that they represent and from the words with which they are represented. Mental representations are inherent in people, not in words and not in what words represent.

When you know a language, you know its basic units (sounds, words) and the complex rules governing relationships among sounds, words, sentences, meaning, and use. The term know as used here, means ‘are able to apply.’ The unconscious knowledge that underlies our ability to produce and interpret utterances in a language is called linguistic competence (Chomsky, 1965). Linguistic competence is implicit knowledge that enables us to judge sentences as grammatical, ungrammatical, or ambiguous, and to generate sentences. The actual physical and psychological processes that we go through when we produce and interpret utterances the expression of that unconscious knowledge is linguistic performance.

Language has many subsystems or components. To know language you must know its phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics.

Phonology. Phonology is the study of the sound system of language but it is not the same thing as speech. Speech is what we are actually doing when we talk and listen. Phonology refers to the segments and rules (the mental or psychological processes) with which we organize our interpretation of speech. The phonological system of a language includes the sounds that are characteristic of that language, the rules governing their distribution and sequencing, and the stress and intonation patterns that accompany sounds. The task facing language learners is twofold: (1) how to recognize and produce the sounds of the language they are learning, and (2) how to combine the sounds into words and sentences with the proper intonation patterns.

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that signal a difference of meaning in a word. The concept of the phoneme arose out of the awareness that the precise phonetic realization of a particular sound is not so important as its function within the sound system of a particular language. To demonstrate what a phoneme is, say the words hat and pat to yourself. Note that the only difference between the two words is the initial sound. The sounds /h/ and /p/ function to produce two different words, each with a different meaning. This difference in meaning is the reason that /b/ and /p/ are categorized as separate phonemes in English.

Every language uses a different assortment of phonemes, which combine to make syllables. For example, in English the consonant sound b and the vowel sound a are both phonemes, which combine for the syllable ha, as in banana. Adults find it difficult (sometimes impossible) to simply perceive, much less pronounce, the phonemes of


a foreign language. However, infants can perceive the entire range of phonemes. By the time babies are 10 to 12 months of age, they have begun to focus on the distinction among phonemes of their native language and to ignore the differences among foreign sounds. As they get older they simply stop paying attention to foreign sounds and concentrate on learning the syllables and words of their native tongue.

Morphology. Morphology is the study of word formation. Words are made up of meaningful units called morphemes. A morpheme cannot be broken into smaller parts without violating the meaning or leaving meaningless remainders. Words consist of one or more morphemes. Examples of words that consist of a single morpheme are cat, danger, toy, and big. These are called free morphemes: they have meaning standing alone. Other morphemes, called bound morphemes, cannot function alone. They are always affixed to free morphemes as prefixes or suffixes. Examples include s, et , re and on . There are two types of bound morphemes: inflectional morphemes (sometimes called grammatical morphemes) and derivational morphemes. Inflectional morphemes modify words to indicate such things as tense, person, number, case, and gender. There are a limited number of inflectional morphemes in English, and they are all suffixes. They are used to form plurals (‘two boys”), possessives (‘the boy’s wagon”), third person present tense (“she combs her hair”), past tense (“she combed her hair”), and word combinations.

The morphology of a language includes the rules governing how words are formed. Some morphemes, called lexical morphemes, have meaning in and of themselves; others, called grammatical morphemes, specify the relationship between one lexical morpheme and another. The distinction between lexical and grammatical morphemes is not well defined in linguistics. However, most linguists agree that lexical morphemes have a sense or meaning in arid of themselves. Typical examples include nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Grammatical morphemes do not have a sense or meaning in and of themselves: they express some sort of relationship between lexical morphemes. Typical exam pies include prepositions, articles, and conjunctions.

Semantics. Semantics is the study of linguistic meaning. Semantic acquisition is the acquisition of vocabulary and meanings associated with words and word combinations. At the most basic level, semantics is the linguistic realization of what the speaker knows about the world what people talk about. Semantics is concerned with relationships: (1) between words and meanings, (2) between words, (3) between word meanings and sentence meanings, and (4) between linguistic meaning and nonlinguistic reality.


With one exception, the relationship between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. The exception is onomatopoeic words. (An onomatopoeic word is formed by imitating the sound made by, or associated with, its referent.) That the piece of furniture you are sitting on is called a chair rather than a cup is an accident of linguistic history. Other languages, of course, have different words to represent the piece of furniture that English speakers call a chair. When thinking about words and their meanings, remember

1. the meaning of a word is a concept or an idea in the head of the speaker – the thing the word represents is the referent; and

2. words have an arbitrary relationship to the things they represent they are elements of a code that have been arbitrarily as signed meanings.

The second type of relationship is the relationship between words. Words may have a synonymous, homonymous, or antonymous relationship with one another. Words that have the same meaning are synonymous (e.g., sofa and couch). Words that sound the same but have different meanings are homonymous with one another (e.g., flower and flour. Words that have opposite meanings are said to have an antonymous relationship (e.g., tall and short).

The third type of semantic relationship is between word meanings and sentence meanings. The meaning of a sentence is not the sum of the meanings of the words combined to form the sentence. If this were the case, then sentences that have the same words (i.e., ‘The girl loved the boy’ and ‘The boy loved the girl’) would have the same meaning. Rather, the meaning of a sentence is determined by both the meaning of the words and word order. Making a sentence is something like building with blocks. The number of blocks in a set is limited, but there are unlimited possibilities for combining units to form different structures.

Finally, the fourth type of relationship is that between linguistic meaning and nonlinguistic meaning (cognitive knowledge). Cognitive knowledge is the structure we give to our experiences as we organize them into categories for efficient storage and retrieval. When words become linked with cognitive knowledge, the cognitive knowledge becomes semantic knowledge. Thus, semantic knowledge is a subset of cognitive knowledge.

Syntax. Syntax is the study of the structure of phrases, clauses, and sentences. The syntax of language contains rules for how to string words together to form phrases and sentences, what sentences are acceptable, and how to transform sentences into other sentences. Knowledge of the syntax of a language allows a speaker to generate an infinite number of new sentences and to recognize


sentences that are not grammatically acceptable. For example, native speakers of English know immediately that one of these sentences is ungrammatical:

1. The waitress poured the coffee.
2. The poured coffee the waitress.

Now consider these sentences:

1. Visiting grandparents can be boring.
2. Jason gave his cousin a sock.

Both sentences are ambiguous. However, because you have linguistic competence in English, you are able to paraphrase them to eliminate the ambiguity. These examples illustrate the wealth of knowledge underlying the ability to form and understand sentences.

Pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of how language is used to communicate within its situational context. The major concern in pragmatics is the effectiveness of language in achieving desired functions in social situations. Attitudes, personal history, the setting, the topic of conversation, and the details of the preceding discourse are among the social and contextual factors that determine how speakers cast their sentences (and how listeners interpret them).

There are three types of pragmatic knowledge and skills (Lahey, 1988). First is knowing how to use language forms and structures to accomplish certain personal and/or social goals and functions. An example of this type of pragmatic competence is persuading a person to act in a particular manner. Language can be used for an extraordinarily wide range of functions. A speaker’s utterance can serve as a request for an object, or for information, attention, action, or acknowledgment: an utterance can also convey facts, attitudes, and beliefs, as well as promises and threats. These functions are called speech acts. A speech act is a speaker’s goal or intent in using language. Speech acts have two facets: a locutionary act (the act of simply uttering a sentence from a language) and an illocutionary act (what the speaker 1oes by uttering the sentence). Examples of illocutionary acts are stating, requesting, questioning, and promising.

A second type of pragmatic competence is knowing how to use information from the social context to determine what to say in order to achieve personal and social goals. Speakers must decide the appropriate form of a message to use in different contexts to accomplish whatever personal or social goals they are seeking. Adapting their messages requires them to make inferences about what the listener already knows (and does not already know). These judgments about the capacities and needs of listeners in different social contexts (i.e., what is assumed to be true) are called presuppositions.


Rules for engaging in social exchanges or conversational abilities constitute the third type of pragmatic competence. Among the most critical abilities is the ability to initiate, maintain, and terminate conversations. To initiate a conversation, the speaker must first solicit the potential conversational partner’s attention. Then, to maintain a conversation, the speaker must know how to take turns, how to assert a position or opinion, and how to respond or react to what the listener has asserted. Finally, the speaker must know how to “sign off” the conversation in such a way that neither partner is left feeling abandoned. The rules for entering and initiating conversations, leaving or terminating conversations, taking turns, shifting topics, handling regressions, asking questions, and temporal spacing of pauses are called conversational postulates.


At the broadest level, communication is the exchange of ideas, information, thoughts, and feelings. Each person’s role in the exchange is clearly defined (e.g., as either speaker or receiver) as the participants take turns sending and receiving messages. The communication process begins when a person has an idea or intention and wants to share it. The idea or intention is formulated into a message and then expressed to another person or persons. The other person or persons receives the message and reacts to or acknowledges it. Thus, the behavior of one participant is directed toward and affects the behavior and/or thoughts of a receiver (or receivers). Then the subsequent behavior and/or thoughts of the message sender are influenced by the response to the message. In any communication there is always a high probability that the message will he distorted because of the many possible message modalities and the many possible connotations and perceptions of the communication partners.

Communication does not necessarily require speech or language. Examples of nonlinguistic communication behaviors are gestures, posture, eye contact, facial expression, and head and body movement. Nonlinguistic communication modes may be used as the only method of communication or they may be used in conjunction with linguistically encoded messages. When they are used in conjunction with speech, there is a complex interrelationship between verbal and non verbal behavior. Even the distance between participants provides information (Higginbotham and Yoder, 1982). Specifically, it sends a message about the level of interpersonal intimacy of the participants. In Western cultures, participants in a formal, public exchange typically maintain a distance of 12 feet or more. A distance of 4 to 12 feet is common for social consultive [sic] exchanges, and a distance of 18 inches to 4 feet is usual for personal exchanges. Participants in intimate ex changes typically maintain a distance of direct contact to 18 inches.


There are numerous perspectives on communicative competence. The sociolinguistic perspective, which is heavily influenced by the early work of Hymes, emphasizes the appropriateness of communication with respect to the conversational parameters discussed above. Communicative competence is defined as the language user’s “knowledge of sentences, not only as grammatical but also as appropriate” (Hymes, 1972, p. 277). It is “knowing when to speak and when not to speak, what to talk about with whom, when, where, and in what manner” (p. 277). Psychologists tend to emphasize the intelligibility of the communicative signal (the degree to which the message is conveyed or received), rather than appropriateness, as the most important aspect of communicative competence (Wang, Rose, and Maxwell, 1973). Psycholinguists are less concerned with appropriateness and more concerned with intention. They define communicative competence in terms of successful performance of speech acts (Searle, 1969). (Recall that a speech act is a speaker’s goal or intent in using language.)

This section has considered basic concepts in linguistic theory. The next section reviews contributors to language acquisition. These contributors are organized under the broad headings: (a) biological preparation, (b) nurturance, (c) sensormotor experiences, and (d) linguistic experiences.


The four sets of variables that have the most profound influence on language learning are (1) biological preparation, (2) successful nurturance (particularly social experiences), (3) sensorimotor experiences, and (4) linguistic experiences. The relative weight given to each of these factors depends on your theoretical biases regarding language acquisition. (Chapter 2 describes language acquisition theories.)

Biological Preparation

That all cultures have language and all humans learn to talk (unless limited by sensory, neuromuscular, or cognitive impairment) are the strongest evidence for the contention that language is a biologically determined capability. Infants arrive in this world with certain neuromotor capabilities, a supply of sensory and perceptual abilities, and a strong desire to interact with others. If provided with an appropriate variety of experiences, they will become competent communicators. The persistence and attentiveness with which they go about the momentous task of becoming communicators are testimony to what has been called the “motivational characteristic of infancy” (Hunt, 1965).


Neuromotor Potentialities. As noted above, speech is an enormously complex motor skill. It depends on coordination of the muscles of the vocal organs (tongue, lips, and vocal cords) and appropriate instructions from the brain. Impulses along the motor nerves set the vocal muscles into movement. This movement produces minute pressure changes in the surrounding air (sound waves). Over the past twenty years, neuroscientists have amassed a wealth of information about how the brain grows and how babies acquire language and other abilities. Babies are born with more than 100 billion brain cells, more than they will ever use. Some of these cells, called neurons, have already been hardwired to other cells. They control the baby’s heartbeat, command its breathing, produce reflexes, and regulate other functions essential to survival. The remaining cells are waiting to be “hooked up.” Which neurons connect and which connections will eventually wither and die from lack of use depends on the baby’s experiences. Babies’ early experiences depend on parents and other caregivers.

Lateralization is the specialization of the left or right hemisphere of the brain for different functions. Listening, understanding, talking, and reading each involve activities in specialized areas of the brain. Most adults (probably 70 to 95 percent of humans) have left hemisphere specialization for these abilities (regardless of what language they use). Infants and toddlers, however, deal with language in both hemispheres (Neville and Bavelier, 1999) until around the end of the third year. At that time, processing of words that serve special grammatical functions, such as prepositions, conjunctions, and articles, begins to shift into the left side. The two hemispheres assume different functions from then on. Both hemispheres know the meaning of litany words, but the left hemisphere takes over responsibility for grammar. The right hemisphere continues to perform spatial tasks, such as following the trajectory of a baseball and predicting where it will land. It also attends to the emotional information contained in the cadence and pitch of speech.

This right left division of labor maintains even when individuals use sign language. Corina, Bellugi, and Reilly (1999) studied deaf users of American Sign Language (ASL) who had suffered a stroke in specific areas of the brain. They found, predictably, that signers with damage to the right hemisphere had great difficulty with tasks involving spatial perception, such as copying a drawing of a geometric pattern. What was surprising, considering the fact that ASL relies on movements of the hands and body in space, was that right hemisphere damage did not hinder ASL. In contrast, ASL users who had suffered damage to the left hemisphere found they could no longer express themselves in ASL or understand it. Some had trouble producing the specific facial expressions that convey grammatical information in ASL. This suggests


that both speech (movements of the mouth to produce utterances) and sign language are processed in the left hemisphere.

The new brain research has shown us that the brain has a remarkable ability to change and adapt in response to experience. The neuroplasticity of the brain is most remarkable in the first ten years of life. During these years there appear to be times during which the brain is especially efficient at learning particular skills. These times are called critical windows of opportunity for learning or critical periods. The critical period hypothesis posits that humans are most proficient at language learning between age 2 and puberty (Lenneberg, 1967). After that time, a child is no longer prepared to learn language because lateralization is complete.

Sensory and Perceptual Capabilities. Sensation refers to the process by which information about the environment is detected by the sensory receptors and transmitted to the brain. The sensory equipment of infants functions rather well from birth. They are capable of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and responding to touch, temperature, and pain from the first clay of life. Positive, nurturing experiences and an environment stimulating to the senses strengthens the neural connections in the developing brain.

Newborns clearly “sense” movement, colors, changes in brightness, and a variety of visual patterns, as long as these patterned stimuli are not too finely detailed and have a sufficient amount of light/dark contrast. They can follow slow moving objects but lose the objects if they are more than eighteen inches away. By 2 1/2 months they are spending approximately 35 percent of their waking hours visually scanning the environment with a definite preference for objects that move, objects with sharp contours, and objects with light Clark contrasts (Kagan, 1985). By seven months the infant has developed binocular vision.

That infants hear is attested to by the fact that they startle and turn away from loud noises and they often turn in the direction of soft sounds as if searching for the source. Young infants are particularly responsive to the sounds of a human voice. They stop crying, open their eyes, and begin to look around or to vocalize when they are spoken to. Auditory capabilities show significant improvement over the first 4 to 6 months.

Sensitivity to touch has not been studied as much as the other senses. Newborns show reflexive responses if touched on the cheeks (rooting reflex), palms (grasping reflex), or the soles of their feet (Babinski reflex). They are also quite sensitive to warmth, cold, and changes in temperature. They will refuse to suck if the milk in their bottles is too hot, and they will try to maintain their body heat by becoming more active should the temperature of a room suddenly drop.


Perception is the brain’s categorization and interpretation of sensory input. Researchers have learned a great deal about the auditory perception of infants. Most importantly, they have learned that auditory perception, which can be thought of as the path leading to language, begins even before birth when the developing fetus is immersed in the muffled sound of its mother’s voice in the womb (Kuhl and Meltzoff, 1997). Newborn babies discriminate and prefer their mothers’ voices over those of their fathers or other women. Also, they discriminate and prefer the sound of their mothers’ native language compared to a recording of another tongue. At first, infants respond only to the prosody and the cadence, rhythm, and pitch of their mothers’ speech, not the words; but soon enough they home in on the actual sounds that are typical of their parents’ language. By 4 months babies can discriminate between vowels and imitate the main features of the vowels.

Visual perception is rudimentary at birth but infants do seem to he able to distinguish between faces and other objects and they can focus on objects no farther than 13 inches away. (This is about the distance of a mother’s face when she is breast feeding or the face of a caregiver holding a bottle.) Between the ages of 2 and 12 months, infants visual system is maturing rapidly, making increasingly complex Visual discriminations possible. The ability to perceive faces and facial configurations seems to follow the same general course as the perception of other visual forms and patterns. Between 2 and 6 months, infants’ visual capabilities make it possible for them to scan in a more systematic fashion and they begin to perceive a variety of forms. Forms that move (such as faces) are probably detected first, but 6 to 9 month olds can even perceive the subjective contours of stationary objects.

Newborns’ gustatory and olfactory abilities are more impressive. By three clays after birth they can differentiate smells and tastes. Most prefer the sweetness of fruit (bananas and applesauce are first choices) over vegetables. (This comes as no surprise to parents who have been sprayed with rejected strained spinach or some other vegetable.) They are also capable of sensing and discriminating a variety of odors. They turn away with expressions of disgust in response to unpleasant smells such as vinegar, ammonia, or rotten eggs. Even more remarkably, breast fed infants soon come to recognize their mothers by smell. Infants as young as 2 weeks of age can discriminate their own mother’s body odors from those of other people, whereas babies who are bottle fed cannot, possibly because they have less contact with their mothers’ bare skin.

Interaction Propensities. Infants seem well prepared for social interactions, assuming certain kinds of environmental social supports. At birth, babies are responsive to all humans but they are especially and differentially responsive to their caregivers. Infants seem to know


that they can create change in their environment with certain behaviors, and they have clear expectations for caregiver behavior patterns.

Parents (especially mothers) spend a great deal of time in face to face social interaction with their infants. Most of this time they are talking to the infant. This speech directed to children will be described below in the section on Linguistic Experiences. It was previously known as “motherese” but is now more appropriately called parentese or child directed speech (CDS).

During the latter half of the first year, normally developing infants discover that their vocalizations and gestures affect their caregivers’ responses in predictable ways. They use such behaviors as gaze, smiling, touch, and vocalization to motivate their caregivers to attend to them and to respond to their needs, and, in so doing, they actually prompt provision of the type of experiences that will assist the continuing growth of their language skills. There is a high level of mutual coordination and responsiveness between the partners, with the infant influencing the communication process and contributing to the interactions. Infants learn to be message senders as well as message receivers and to coordinate gaze, vocal, and gestural behavior into a fairly complex, patterned exchange that parallels the structure of a conversation.


Sameroff and Fiese (1968) describe the nurturing environment as one in which there is a “mutual dynamic regulation of the child’s capacities to understand and [oil the experiences that are presented to be understood” (p. 10). Caregivers take advantage of social exchanges to help the infant learn (1) the titles of turn taking, (2) the meaning of particular gestures, (3) imitation of sounds and gestures, and (4) mutuality. Development of shared meanings, shared intentions, shared codes of conduct, sensorimotor concepts, and symbolic representation will eventually emerge from these attainments.

Caregivers treat babies as if they are intentional communicators long before they actually are. At the same time, they never seem to lose sight of the infant’s language and communication limitations. They temporarily support the infant’s emerging skills and abilities in much the same way that a temporary framework supports builders and materials when a building is being erected, regulating presentation of both linguistic and nonlinguistic stimuli. The term for this dynamic regulation that goes on between the infant and caregivers in a nurturing environment is scaffolding.

Vygotsky (1978) and others (Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff and Wertsch, 1984) offer a theory of learning based on the scaffolding and joint attentional focus (when adults describe aspects of the environment that capture the baby’s attention). Children develop and internalize new


capacities during these interactions; they make the leap from lower to higher cognitive processes. Vygotsky’s term for the dynamic zone of sensitivity in which learning and cognitive development occur is the zone of proximal development (or ZPD). The ZPD can be thought of as the difference between the developmental level of the child when independently engaged in problem solving and the child’s competence when guided by caregivers or in collaboration with more capable peers. Vygoisky argued that the primary concern of assessment should be the ZPD, not what children can do by themselves or already know but what they can do with the help of another person thus, what they have the potential to learn.

Nurturance is the context in which infants acquire the social knowledge essential for language (Dore, 1986; Rice, 1984; Snow, 1984). They learn two important truths from play and routine interactions with caregivers: (1) that communication exchanges have a predictable structure, and (2) that others are responsive to their signals. They begin to use vocal and gestural signals to intentionally influence the attention and actions of their partners. As they eventually take full advantage of their power to direct others, infants learn the directive function of language. Nurturance is mediating and regulating the pace at which new stimuli are imposed on the child. Nurturing caregiver child contexts in which there is dynamic regulation of stimuli include caregiving rituals such as feeding, dressing, and diapering, and play interactions such as pat a cake and peekaboo.

Play with caregivers is a learning context that serves a cognitive, social, and integrative function in development. The function of play is to exercise and develop manipulative and interactional strategies that can later he integrated into more sophisticated task oriented sequences. Caregiver child exchanges have a highly structured pattern, with rules that teach the infant about communication. Around the middle of the first year, turn taking games, such as pat a cake and peekaboo dominate. The caregiver starts the game and initially takes both roles with the infant as the amused audience. Over time, the infant’s behavior gradually changes from observer to initiator of actions. By 5 to 9 months of age, he has learned to be a partner in the exchange process. Shortly thereafter, object play increases, with infant and caregiver participating in ritualized give and take of objects. What is important about these games with respect to nurturance is the shared meaningful communication at a completely nonverbal level.

Piaget (1952) discussed play in the sensorimotor period as setting the stage for practice and mastery of emerging cognitive skills. Because play centers on the children’s interests, it permits them to reenact environmental experiences and to construct rich fantasy worlds for themselves. The earliest forms of pretend play begin around 11 to 13 months. Like language, pretend play is initially very dependent on the “here and now.” Infants pretend to engage in familiar activities such as


eating, sleeping, or drinking from a cup. Such play in a nurturing environment teaches young children to regulate emotional arousal and “read” the emotions of others in ways hat will later facilitate interactions with peers.

Sensorimotor Experiences

Piaget’s (1952) developmental theory continues to spawn a great deal of conjecture about the association between cognitive changes (specifically those in the sensorimoror period) and the emergence of intentional communication. Infants pass through a series of predictable stages in the construction of their knowledge of the world and some language achievements seem to be associated with the achievements of these stages. This association has been documented in children who are developing at a normal rate (Corrigan, 1978) and children with disabilities (Mundy, Seibert, and Hogan, 1984). However, there is a big difference between associations and causal relationships. There is a lack of hard evidence that language development is contingent on mastery of any specific subset of cogni:ive abilities as was once argued (Lenneberg, 1967). Rather, cognitive development and language development appear to proceed on parallel and closely related courses. The observation that mastery of certain cognitive and language abilities often seem to coincide may be explained by the simple assertion that children learn the words they need for whatever they are interested in at that point.

From birth to age 2, the infant’s sensory and motor behaviors undergo significant integration, refinement, and reorganization, permitting the development of increasingly more complex cognitive abilities. This is the beginning of “knowing.” “Knowing” in the sensorimotor sense of the term begins with reflexes that are present at birth and ultimately leads to the ability to use mental images for problem solving. Children construct their understanding of the world by acting on the world, both physically and mentally (Piaget, 1952). Like tireless little scientists, they explore, hypothesize, test and evaluate. Acquisition of sensorimotor abilities affords children the critical skills necessary for achieving higher level thought processes that, in turn, will enable them to share a subset of basic meanings with caregivers and to grasp the relationship of words to meaning.

Piaget uses the term schemata (the singular is schema) to describe the models, or mental structures, that humans create to represent, organize, and interpret their experiences. Schemata are patterns of thought or action similar in many respects to what we think of as a concept or strategy. Their knowledge of the world, their schemata, changes as children organize and reorganize their existing knowledge and adapt to new experiences. Among the most important things they learn are that the world is a permanent place with predictable effects


and that there are any number of means for controlling the events that occur around them.
According to Piaget (1952), the basic processes of cognitive development, or ways of learning, stay essentially the same from birth through adulthood. What differs across stages are the products he knowing. Both the content and the structure of cognitive functioning become progressively more complex (qualitatively different) as the child moves through the four broad stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Piaget believed that all cognitive structures are created through the operation of two inborn intellectual functions. He called these basic processes of cognitive development organization and adaptation.

Organization is the process by which existing schemata are combined into new and more complex intellectual structures. It is the tendency to reduce, systemize, and categorize the environment into cohesive, orderly, and ultimately more manageable proportions. Learning comes about through progressive, qualitative organization and reorganization of actions and perceptions. To get a feeling for organization, think about an infant whose primary means of exploring the environment is by looking and grasping. Initially, each functions independently; the infant can grasp an object or she can look at it, but she cannot manage both at the same time. As the weeks pass, she organizes these two actions into a pattern, evidenced by the fact that she is now able to look at what she grasps and grasp what she is looking at. The result of this organization of initially unrelated schemata into a complex structure is visually directed reaching.

The goal of organization is to further the adaptive function, the second key process. Adaptation, adjusting to the demands of the environment, has two complementary and mutually dependent aspects, assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process by which new information and new experiences are incorporated into the organism’s existing cognitive schemata. Because not all stimuli will fit into existing structures, the cognitive structures must be adapted. For example, the young child who sees a cow for the first time will try to assimilate it into one of his existing schemata for four legged animals. He may think of it as a “doggie.” He notices, however, that this creature is very big and the sound it makes is different from that of a dog. If the child recognizes that the creature is not a dog and is interested in understanding and naming it, he will have to modify his schema to include a new category of four legged animals. This is the accommodation process, modifying existing cognitive structures in accordance with new information. Assimilation and accommodation never occur in isolation. They are two sides of the same coin, complementary aspects of all intellectual acts.

Equilibrium is a state of balance between the existing cognitive structures and the environment, a more complex and sophisticated


repertoire. It comes about as the result of accommodation and assimilation. Four month old Jessica’s experiences with a small teddy bear, an object she had never seen before, provide an example of equilibrium. Initially she applies her limited “learning strategies” to this strange new “thing.” She grasps it by one ear, mouths it, hits it, and shakes it vigorously. Then she throws it on the floor. The new “thing” has two properties that are new to Jessica: softness and furriness. After a few experiences with the teddy bear, she begins to attend to these properties; she begins to cuddle and nib the bear. Apparently Jessica is learning something from this new object. The new experience and the new information have been incorporated into existing schemata for toys (assimilation) and her existing schemata have changed as a function of the new information (accommodation). What has been accomplished is equilibrium (also sometimes called equilibration). In other words, learning has occurred.

Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, infants progress from sensorimotor intelligence, which is reflexive, self centered, and disorganized, to concepts that are sophisticated, refined, well organized, and adapted to the demands of the environment. A substage is never skipped: the sequence is stable. However, some infants progress more rapidly than others. By the end of the sensorirnotor stage (18 to 24 months), the young child has constructed the following broad concepts: (1) object permanence, (2) schemes for relating to objects, (3) spatial relationships, (4) means end understanding, (5) causality, and (6) imitation.

Object permanence is understanding that objects continue to exist even when not immediately perceptible. It is knowing that people, places, and things exist independently of one’s own perceptions. Object permanence begins with the ability to visually fixate on an object (animate or inanimate) and then track its disappearances and appearances. In early infancy, before infants have the notion of object permanence, the disappearance of an object causes no more than a fleeting glance in the direction where’ it disappeared. Infants act as though the object does not exist unless they can see it. By the end of the first year, however, infants begin to show searching behaviors that are appropriate to the recovery of a desired object (if they observed the object’s disappearance). More prolonged search will indicate that children have some mental representation of the object. Mental representation is considered to be the crowning achievement of the sensorimotor period, possibly related to a spurt in vocabulary growth at the end of the second year. Representational thought continues to develop as children become increasingly able 😮 deal with complex relationships that are not directly perceptible in the environment. Table 1.1 summarizes development of object permanence and the object concept (schemes for relating to objects).


TABLE 1 .1 Representative sensorimotor behaviors: Object permanence and schemes for relating to objects

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Stage (Ages)
Stage 1: (0-1 month) Reflexive

Object Permanence
Continuously practices reflexes
No active search for objects that drop out of view
Demonstrates some visual pursuit when lying on back

Schemes for Relating to Objects
No discernable separation of self from objects

Stage (Ages)
Stage 2: (1-4 months) Primary Circular Reactions

Object Permanence
Gradually coordinates sensory schemes – vision and hearing, sucking and grasping, and vision and grasping
Able to visually follow a slowly moving object through a 180 degree arc in a smooth tracking response
Very little, if any, visual or manual search for a vanished object – “out of sight is out of mind”
Lingers with a brief glance at the point where a slowly moving object disappears

Schemes for Relating to Objects
Shows incidental object use in the process of practicing different behaviors such as grasping and looking
Mouths some objects
Holds and briefly inspects various objects

Stage (Ages)
Stage 3. (4-8 months) Secondary Circular Reactions

Object Permanence
Visually anticipates the future position of a moving object
Continues manual search for an object if grasping movements are interrupted while in process
Recognizes and obtains an object that is partially hidden
Behaves as if an object no longer exists when it is completely covered or drops out of sight

Schemes for Relating to Objects
Shows systematic object use in practicing different behaviors
Bangs objects together
Shakes a rattle, bell, and other objects
Visually inspects an object while tactually exploring it
Displays other differentiated actions with objects, including crumpling (of paper), sliding (of toys on surface), tearing, stretching, rubbing, mouthing

Stage (Ages)
Stage 4: (8-12 months) Coordination of Secondary Reactions

Object Permanence
Looks for an object after it has vanished behind a screen and reliably retrieves it
Reacts with only mild surprise or puzzlement when object retrieved differs from the one hidden
Continues searching for an object at point A (where it is usually found) even after watching it being hidden at location B

Schemes for Relating to Objects
Demonstrates new actions on objects resulting from (related to) object properties
Intentionally drops and throws objects
Uses objects in a socially relevant manner
Combines functional relationships, such as placing cup in saucer, to some extent


TABLE 1.1 Representative sensorimotor behaviors: Object permanence and schemes for relating to objects (continued)

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Stage (Ages)
Stage 5. (12-18 months) Tertiary Circular Reactions

Object Permanence
When the hiding is visible, infant will search in the place where it was last seen (even with 3 screens)
Not successful at retrieving objects if hiding is not visible because infant cannot yet “think” where an object might be

Schemes for Relating to Objects
Varies action on objects to “experiment” with different effects (such as dropping objects to study their trajectory)
Links more objects in functional relationships: Puts cup in saucer, pretends to drink from cup, slides brush or comb over his hair

Stage (Ages)
Stage 6. (18-24 months) Invention of New Means through Mental combinations

Object Permanence
Systematically searches for an object that has undergone as many as 3 invisible displacements – searches each hiding place (sometimes in reverse order)

Schemes for Relating to Objects
Demonstrates understanding of the functions and social meanings of a large number of objects: Holds telephone to ear and vocalizes, tries to put shoes and socks on, names familiar objects

The phrase schemes for relating to objects refers to the infant’s ability to perform specific actions or action sequences consistently and habitually on a variety of objects. The scheme itself is the mental organization o the overt actions. These object specific action patterns are possible because of cognitive capacity. Initially, schemes for relating to objects are more like reflexes than voluntary behavior. They represent a kind of action based scientific method that the infant uses to learn about objects. At first, all objects elicit the same action schemes (sucking, grasping, shaking), which are part of the infant’s reflexive repertoire, For example, the young infant who sucks everything that finds its way into her mouth would be said to have a sucking scheme. Initially she is indiscriminate, but in time she will develop the ability to discriminate “suckables” and apply this action scheme only to these particular objects. Gradually, all schemes become differentiated and are applied according to object properties.

The phrase spatial relationships refers to understanding of two related concepts: (1) an object’s position in space, and (2) how objects relate to one another. Development of the awareness of spatial relationships begins with visual tracking of moving objects. Soon after, the infant begins to act on objects as though they have a given location and to rotate them in relation to perceived spatial orientation. For example, if presented with a bottle with the nipple turned away, the infant will turn the nipple toward her and begin to suck it. Finally the infant gives evidence of mental representation of the spatial relation


ship between two objects (without testing the relationship with her own body). When a child unhesitatingly goes around a hedge to retrieve a ball, rather than first trying to go through the hedge, he is demonstrating understanding of spatial relationships.

Means end understanding is the ability to separate problem solving processes from problem solving goals. It begins early (1 to 4 months) with simple reflexive responses to external stimuli. In the next few months these behaviors become less reflexive. Through repeated experiences with positive consequences the infant discovers predictable behavior sequences. He discovers, for example, that if he hits the top of the jack in the box toy the clown pops out. By the first half of the second year, the infant has begun to vary the components of behavior sequences in a systematic fashion in order to observe changes in the outcomes. By the middle of the second year the infant understands that problems can be solved mentally so that a goal can be attained by methods other than trial and error.

Causality is closely related to the means end concept. It is the ability to anticipate what consequences will follow from a certain cause or, conversely, what cause is likely to produce a particular consequence. Infants learn about causality when they accidentally create pleasurable effects through such behaviors as hand waving and kicking. Once they learn that they can cause effects and thus control their environment effectively through systematic application of certain motor behaviors, they begin to use more complex control behaviors. As experiences with pleasurable effects increase, infants begin to anticipate results and events and they begin to search for activating or causal mechanisms to produce the anticipated pleasurable outcomes.

The one year old is aware only of causal relations that have some personal consequence for her (e.g., crying causes mother to pay attention). Somewhere around 18 months she becomes aware of causal relations involving other people and objects and she realizes that her behavior can be affected by, as well as affect, other people and things in the environment. By age two, children are able to classify many of their own behaviors and the behaviors of others in terms of the consequences they produce. Table 1.2 presents some parallels between development of means end and causality concepts and the emergence of communicative functions.

Imitation is performance of a response that matches, or approximates, the behavior of a model. Piaget recognized the adaptive significance of imitation. At the very least, imitation requires the ability to pay careful attention to, and precisely copy the topographical features of, a behavior produced by another, immediately alter the model. Table 1.3 summarizes the development of imitation in the sensorimotor period. Infants use imitation to add new behaviors to their repertoire.


TABLE 1.2 Parallels between means end and causality development and emergence of communicative functions

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 1: (0-1 month) Reflexive Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Repeats/practices reflexes
No understanding of causal relationships

Interaction Communication Strategies
Perlocutionary acts
Quiets and responds to human voice

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 2: (1-4 months) Primary Circular Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
No differentiation of self and moving objects
Immediately repeats behaviors that have accidentally produced interesting results (e.g., attempting to keep a mobile in motion)

Interaction Communication Strategies
Perlocutionary (unintentional) acts
Smiles and coos in response to adult smiling and/or vocalization
Shows anticipation when about to be picked up
Emits distinguishable cries for anger, hunger, pain

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 3: (4-8 months) Secondary Circular Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Uses such behavior as consistent vocalization, kicking, waving as if attempting to “cause” continuation of an interesting sight

Interaction Communication Strategies
Perlocutionary acts
Shows enjoyment when played with
Vocalizes states such as pleasure, satisfaction, anger
Follows adult gaze (if adult breaks eye contact to look elsewhere)
‘Recognizes” caregiver
Performs joint action “rituals” with caregiver (turn taking routines)

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 4: (8-12 months) Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Intentional, goal directed behavior apparent in releasing or pushing aside one object to grasp another, pulling a support to obtain desired toy
Appreciation of causality outside the self demonstrated by pushing the adult’s hand to continue an interesting sensory effect, anticipating the occurrence of events from signs (e.g., crying when mother gets her coat out)

Interaction Communication Strategies
Perlocationary acts
Extends arms to be picked up
Withdraws from approach of a stranger
Reacts negatively when a toy is taken away
Waves “bye bye”
Shows affection to parents and other adults
Looks at caregiver’s face when receiving an object as if to acknowledge receipt
Plays peekaboo, hiding face for another to watch

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 5. (12-18 months) Tertiary Circular Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Experiments with means and ends as if to see what will happen
Demonstrates considerable interest in novelty for its own sake

Interaction Communication Strategies
Illocutionary acts
Tries to turn doorknobs as a request to “go outside”
Uses gestures such as pointing to direct adult attention


TABLE 1.2 Parallels between means end and causality development and emergence of communicative functions (continued)

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 5: (12-18 months) Tertiary Circular Reactions

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Uses an attached string or stick to obtain a desired toy without demonstration (even if toy is not in direct view)
Hands a mechanical toy to an adult to he reactivated
Shows object to others to instigate social interaction

Interaction Communication Strategies
Hands book to adult to request reading of a story
Pulls adult to view certain situations or a new location
Shows/displays/points out objects to others to elicit attention and social interaction

Sensorimotor Stage (Ages)
Stage 6:
(18-24 months) Invention of New Means through Mental Combinations

Means End Behavior and Causality Development
Ability to use mental problem solving (mental foresight of effects)
Immediately looks for causes of own actions
Able to infer a cause, given only its effect, or foresee an effect, given a cause

Locutionary acts
Asks for desired object (with conventional symbol)
Uses words to make wants/desires known
Names objects in the presence of others
Says “What’s that?” for adult attention

In the early months, they can imitate only actions that are already in their repertoire but by their second year they can accommodate their behavior to imitate novel actions (called coordinating secondary schemes). Imitation continues to become even more efficient until the latter part of their second year, when infants demonstrate delayed or deferred imitation, a clear indication of mental representation.

While imitation cannot account fully for language acquisition, it undoubtedly plays some role in the process. Vocal and gestural imitation have been positively correlated with language level (Snow, 1989).

In summary, we have seen how infants progress, in two short years, from being totally reflexive and largely immobile to becoming planful thinkers who can move about on their own and communicate many of their intentions a truly remarkable achievement. During, the preconceptual period (2 to 4 years of age) children become increasingly proficient at constructing and using mental symbols to think about objects, situations, and events (called symbolic thought or mental representation) and using words to make reference to objects, persons, and events.

Linguistic Experiences

Teaching language seems to be as natural for adults as learning and using language is for babies. Adults in all cultures spend a great deal of time talking to infants in face to face social interaction.


TABLE 1.3 Development of sensorimotor imitation

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Stage (Ages)
Stage 1: (0-1 month)

Type of Imitation: Vocal contagion

Infant is incapable of “true” imitation, but acts that appear to be imitative do occur. One crying newborn is likely to stimulate the other infants to cry. Piaget describes this phenomenon as the triggering of existing response patterns through external stimulation.

Stage (Ages)
Stage 2: (1-4 months)

Type of Imitation: Mutual imitation

The infant will often repeat a habitual response (gesture or vocal) if someone has immediately mimicked the production. Reproductions are limited and are only gross approximations of the model.

Stage (Ages)
Stage 3: (4-8 months)

Type of Imitation: Systematic imitation

Since the child is now able to coordinate vision and prehension, she can imitate many more acts. She can now imitate movements, such as opening and closing the fist, but cannot imitate acts, such as opening and closing the eyes, that she cannot see herself performing. The child apparently needs a visual impression that matches that which she has seen the model create in order to duplicate the model. Also, the child will imitate only those Sounds and movements that are already in her repertoire. Thus, imitation at this stage is less a learning strategy than a strategy to prolong or continue those events the child finds meaningful.

Stage (Ages)
Stage 4: (8-12 months)

Type of Imitation: Imitation of new behaviors

The ability to imitate movements that she cannot see herself, and to produce and imitate some acts that are not already known, emerge simultaneously. Imitation undergoes a transition from being a means for continuing interesting events to being a means for learning new ones. However, only actions and vocalizations similar to those in the child’s repertoire are imitated.

Stage (Ages)
Stage 5: (12-18 months)

Type of Imitation: Expanded imitation of new behaviors

Reproductions of new models are immediate, deliberate, and usually quite accurate. Imitation is used in a trial and error fashion to discover the properties of objects. Novel vocalizations will he imitated repeatedly as if to perfect the reproduction.

Stage (Ages)
Stage 6: (18-24 months)

Type of Imitation: Deferred (or representative) imitation

Imitation no longer requires that the model be immediately present. The child is now capable of mental representation and long term memory for what was modeled. She is also capable of imitating complex new acts and objects as well as persons.


Most interesting is that they unconsciously and automatically modify their speech when they speak to babies, continuously adjusting its phonologic, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic characteristics. This singsong type of exaggerated speech was previously called “motherese,” but is now called parentese or child directed speech (CDS).

Parentese is like a tutorial that teaches infants the phonetic elements of their parents’ language. It has a melody that gets the baby’s attention and exaggerated prosodic patterns to help the infant become aware of a message’s communicative intent. There are fewer different words and they are used less often. As the child gets more competent adults tend to use more modifiers and more questions. They repeat what the young child does not seem to understand and they talk only about the “here and now” (those aspects of the world that are present in the immediate environment). Another especially valuable feature of parentese is the running commentaries on what children are doing when they are engaged with objects and events that interest them. When children are attending to an object or activity, particularly during picture hook reading activities, caregivers play a “naming game.” In the case of pictures, caregivers name the object or action that is depicted. Their language directed to the child is marked by brevity, concreteness, and few pronouns and contractions.

Analysis of the less complex linguistic style that parents use with children suggests that they are guided by three assumptions: (1) that some words are easier for children to understand and pronounce than others, (2) that some words are more useful for children than others, and (3) that some words and word endings should be omitted and others should be avoided (because they are difficult to understand Caregivers seem to he aware of the role that modeling and imitation play in language learning. They model words and sentences for the child to reproduce and then specifically direct the child to imitate (“Say [blank]”). However, not all young children use imitation as a learning strategy and those who do imitate do so selectively (Bloom, Hood, and Lightbown, 1974). They tend to imitate only those words and phrases that they are in the process of learning: they do not imitate words arid syntactic structures that are either very familiar or very unfamiliar. Children are most likely to imitate an adult utterance that is a repetition or expansion of their own language efforts. With increasing language competence, children’s imitation of adult utterances decreases.

Adults use both expansion and extension with young children. Expansion is responding to the child’s utterance with a more sophisticated version of the utterance while preserving the word order of the child’s utterance. For example, if the child says “Daddy bye bye,” the adult expansion might he “Yes, Daddy is going bye bye.” A substantial percentage of the speech directed to children is expansions. Expansions let children know that they have been understood. Very often, when adults imitate and expand children’s utterances, children imitate


the expansions. Extension is responding with a comment that adds information to the topic established by tae child. For example, an extension of the “Daddy bye bye” utterance could be “Yes, Daddy is going to the store to get some milk.”

Adults begin asking questions of infants when they are as young as 3 months of age. They also, of course, supply the answers. The questions that caregivers ask infants demonstrate that they have precise understanding of the infant’s knowledge and his language abilities. Caregivers rephrase and “break down” the structure of a question if the child does not respond to the original form.

Adults also use many fill ins in their speech directed to children, For example, they may say “This is a [blank],” and pause for the child to supply the final element. If the child does not respond or responds incorrectly, the adult will usually provide a prompt or cue (“This is a b [blank]”) or a model (“You can say ‘baby,’ This is a ‘baby’”). What seems uppermost in the mind of adults is maintaining the interaction at a level that allows the child to participate and keep the conversation going.

Linguists have a long way to go before they can say exactly how a child goes from babbling to banter or how the brain transforms vague thoughts into concrete words that sometimes fly out of our mouths before we can stop them. We do know that speech addressed to children plays an important role in this process. There is evidence that how much their mothers talk to them may, in fact, determine the size of toddlers’ vocabularies (Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, and Lysons, 1991). At 20 months, children of talkative mothers had 131 more words in their vocabularies than children whose mothers were more taciturn (disinclined to talk). By age 2, the gap had widened to 295 words.

Parking a toddler in front of the television will not contribute to vocabulary growth. Children need real human interaction and they need it early. It is the only way they can learn words and then to attach meaning to words. Hearing more than one language in infancy is even better. This makes it easier for a child to hear the distinctions between phonemes of more than one language later on.


The routines of play and daily caregiving provide the contexts for early language learning. Through participation in these routines infants learn about the persons, objects, and events in their environment. They also learn about their language. While they do not always guess correctly when organizing their mental representations of the world, and the “tags” they attach to their mental representations are not always correct, by the latter half of their second year young children are on their way to becoming competent in their native language.


The following propositions are basic to the language learning process. We know that

humans have at least some innate structure for acquiring language;
language learning requires substantially more than simple imitation;
language is acquired in stages;
the child infers systems of rules;
humans have mental abilities intended solely for the purpose of learning and using language.

Otherwise, it would not be possible for young children to acquire the phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of their native language in such a short time. Even before they start kindergarten, young children have learned (1) sounds and sound patterns, (2) words and word combinations, (3) sentence variations, (4) conversational abilities, and (5) social functions. The remainder of this chapter will provide an overview of these major achievements in the language acquisition process. We deal solely with the acquisition of English but the principles typically apply, when they are relevant, to the acquisition of other first languages as well.

Sounds and Sound Patterns
Infants seem to be born with the capacity to discriminate the phonetic contrasts of any of the world’s languages. Over time, with exposure to their own language, they focus on the contrasts that are relevant for their language and they lose the ability to perceive certain contrasts rot found in their language. Infants must also learn to recognize sequences of sounds if they are to eventually learn words. The first sound sequence infants learn to recognize is probably their name. Infants as young as four and a half months give evidence that they prefer the sound of their names over other words with similar stress patterns (Mandel, Jusczyk, and Pisoni, 1994).

Regardless of the linguistic community into which they are born, all infants seem to pass through the same stages of sound production. From the moment of their first cry, infants begin learning precise Control of their lips, tongue, and hard and soft palates, and how to coordinate their respiration, phonation, and resonance for speech. This earliest state of sound production is characterized by a majority of reflexive vocalizations, such as fussing and crying, and sounds hide coughing, burping, and sneezing. Around the third and fourth months, cooing and babbling monologues become more frequent, and sound use more varied (laughter and chuckling). Very loud and very soft sounds (yells and whispers) and some rudimentary syllables are produced between 4 and 6 months. Babbling sounds begin to resemble the consonants and vowels of adult speech in the child’s culture. Deafness does not have detrimental effects on speech production until after


babbling has begun. However, as babbling increases there begins to be a noticeable difference in the sounds made by hearing and deaf children.

Between 6 to 10 months, infants sound like they are actually trying to produce words. Babbling changes to experimentation with consonant vowel syllable sequences (e.g., “da da da”) with adult like timing. The repetitive syllable production that characterizes the infant’s speech during this period is called reduplicative babbling. This sound pattern makes up about half of babies’ noncrying sounds from about 6 to 12 months of age (Mitchell and Kent, 1990).

At around 9 to 12 months, infants begin to produce strings of sounds and syllables with a rich variety of stress and intonational patterns. They begin to use imitation to expand and modify their repertoire of speech sounds but initially imitate only those sounds they have already produced spontaneously on their own. This stage is characterized by strings of sounds and syllables called conversational babbling, or jargon, which are produced with adult like stress and intonation patterns. Early words tend to use the sounds that the child preferred in babbling (the sounds that the baby has under voluntary control). Infants producing conversational babbling give the impression of trying to carry on a conversation. They use gestures, context, and intonation as if conveying meaning but, in fact, the sounds they are using are not yet attached to meanings.

Pronunciations of first words vary. Some words may be perfect according to adult standards while others are difficult to understand. Some of the sound sequences produced at this stage are not based on adult words. These are called vocables or phonetically consistent forms (PCFs) (Dore, Franklin, Miller, and Ramer, 1976). Infants may develop as many as a dozen vocables (and use them consistently) before producing their first words. An example of a PCF would be the use of b for ball.

Children learning languages (e.g., Spanish, Finnish, and Japanese) that have very few one syllable words may have different strategies and patterns from children learning English, which has many monosyllables. The frequency of different sounds in their native language may also affect acquisition: Infants learning languages that have more /l/s tend to learn them earlier than do children learning English (Pye, Ingram, and List, 1987).

Children learning English must learn to correctly articulate twenty five consonants and twenty one vowels and diphthongs, and they must learn to produce these sounds individually and then combine a variety of sounds in a word. There is enormous variability among children with the age of acquisition for some sounds varying as much as three years. By age 3, most children can produce all of the vowel sounds and nearly all consonant sounds (though not with total accuracy in all words). As the normative data previously presented indicate,


even at 4 and 5 there will be some consonants that are in error. The acquisition process continues well into early elementary school as children continue to work on mastery of a complete repertoire of speech sounds and two sets of rules: the rules that govern the position of sounds in words, distributional rules, and the rules for sequencing these sounds, sequential rules.

Words and Word Combinations

By 13 to 15 months, most infants have acquired ten words. First words, produced around the end of the first year, are typically a combination of lexical, vocal, and gestural forms. The majority of these words are names for favorite toys or foods, family members, or pets. Action words such as up and bye bye, modifiers such as pretty, and grammatical function words such as what are also represented in this first vocabulary, but much less frequently. These single words are typically used for different functions: requesting, commenting, and inquiring (as well as naming). Early vocabulary growth is slow, with short periods of time when the child does not acid any new words and may even stop producing some of the words in his initial vocabulary. This is usually due to changing interests and improved production capabilities. Although there is wide individual variation, it is not uncommon for a child’s receptive vocabulary to be as much as four times the size of the expressive vocabulary in the first half of the second year. Some meanings will be similar to adult meanings, but most will be very restricted compared to adult definitions.

Vocabulary growth accelerates as the child nears a fifty word vocabulary. For many children, the composition of the second set of forty words, typically acquired by 18 to 20 months, is two thirds nouns. Action words account for less than 20 percent of the total (Benedict, 1979; Nelson, 1973). In Nelson’s listing of the nominals used by the eighteen children in her study, there was no noun that was used by all of the children. Children learn names for different objects and events because they encounter different objects and events. The fact that very few words were shared by even half the children is impressive evidence for the influence of environmental differences.

One commonality among all children is that they learn names for things that move or can be acted on. Early vocabulary lists rarely include such words as stove, lamp, tub, sofa and the like because these objects are not acted on by the young child in any significant way. Instead, we find many words for food and drink, animal names, clothing, and toys, objects children directly experience or objects that move. Another variable is pronunciation: Children learn words that contain sounds they can produce.

As discussed earlier in this chapter, children are capable of representational thought by age 2, in preparation for the more advanced


cognitive period that Piaget calls p re operational thought. They know that object existence is absolute that objects exist and continue to exist even when not immediately visible and that different objects have different perceptual and functional properties. Similarly, they know (1) that “things” can cease to exist and then recur, (2) that people (including themselves) can relate to objects in certain prescribed ways (e.g., owning them, locating and relocating them), and (3) that objects also relate to themselves and each other in a relatively consistent manner. Their single word utterances reflect this growing knowledge of the world. Most early single word utterances can be classified as either substantive or relational. Substantive words refer to specific entities or classes of entities that have certain shared perceptual or functional features. The words cup, bottle, mama, doggie, and ball are substantive words. When children begin combining words into two word combinations, they classify substantive words on the basis of action. Words are classified as agents (the source of action) or objects (the recipient of action).

Relational words make reference across entities. They refer to dynamic relations that an entity shares with itself or with other entities. In relation to itself, an entity can exist or not exist, disappear and reappear. An example is “all gone,” which can apply to an empty bowl or a vacant doghouse. Other entities may share static states such as possession and attribution, dynamic states (actions), or locations. Relational meanings transcend the individual objects involved. Use of relational words is evidence that the child is able to conceptualize and encode the dynamic state of the entity separately from the entity itself.

The years from 2 to 6 are marked by changes in the kinds of words children use. As noted above, a substantial proportion of a child’s first fifty words are nouns and verbs, with labels for objects that move or can be acted on and action verbs appealing most frequently. Around 18 to 20 months, modifiers (hot, big) and function words (no, more) begin to appear. Expressions for temporal relations (then, after, before), causality (if, because), and quantity (many, few, three) appear much later. At around age 2, children begin to recognize that a pronoun can refer to an already established referent and to use some pronouns correctly. Their first pronouns signal notice, such as this and that (e.g., That a birdie). The pronoun it also appears early, usually in the subject position (e.g., It a swing). When children begin to combine words, the pronouns one, some, and other begin to occur. Person pronouns appear after age 2 1/2. Subjective case pronouns (I, you, they, he/she, we are acquired first; objective case pronouns are acquired somewhat later. Other pronouns emerge much later, with order of acquisition varying across children.

Around the age of 2, the child begins to form two word utterances and after that the” gradually increase until age 3 when the majority of utterances are three word. The most notable change during this multi


word stage is the appearance of grammatical morphemes. (Recall that grammatical morphemes are morphemes that specify the relationship between lexical morphemes [morphemes that have meaning in and of themselves]) The acquisition of grammatical morphemes is gradual and lengthy, beginning at around 27 months or when the mean length of the child’s utterances is about 2.0, (The concept of mean length of utterance is explained in the next section.) Although they do not carry independent meaning, grammatical morphemes (also called morphological inflections) subtly affect the meaning of sentences. Brown’s (1973) study of the mastery of grammatical morphemes found that the rate of development varies but the order of acquisition (as listed below) is fairly predictable.

1. ing marking the present progressive tense (children first use this without an auxiliary verb). Example: I running.
2. in and on used in locative state utterances. Example: Cookie in there. Ball on bed.
3. s marking the regular noun plural (and some irregular forms). Example: My dolls.
4. some past tense irregular verbs such as neat and came. Example: She went.
5. s marking the noun possessive. Example: Daddy’s shoe.
6. uncontractible copula forms of to be: am, is, are, was, and were. (The contractible forms are acquired much later.) Example: He was good.
7. use of a and the to distinguish between definite and indefinite referents. Example: That a doggie.
8. ed marking the regular past tense. Example: She cooked.
9. s ending on third person regular verbs. Example: He moves.
10. third person irregular verb forms. Examples: is, bus, clues.
11. uncontractible auxiliary forms of be verbs preceding another verb: am, is, are, were, and was.
12. contractible cupola verbs. Example: It my book.
13. contractible auxiliary verbs. Example: He’s reading a book.

While there are not definitive data on the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in all languages, what data there are suggest that grammatical morphemes are acquired in similar ways and at about the same stage of development in different languages (Pizzuto and Caselli, 1991). This evidence lends strong support to the notion that the cognitive relationship between the semantic and syntactic complexity of the earliest morphemes is the key to developmental order. Forms that are semantically and syntactically easier tend to he learned and produced earlier.

The multiword utterances that are evident as early as 16 months are more properly termed successive single word utterances than short sentences in that children use two words together (separate


one word utterances) to comment on two aspects of an ongoing event. These utterances are evidence that they are beginning to perceive relations among persons and objects though they do not yet have sufficient language skills to express these relationships. The next step after successive single word utterances is encoding of semantic relations in multiword utterances, a major contributor to increased length of utterances. These multiword utterances, in which the meaning depends on relationships between or among the words rather than the meanings of the individual words, are called semantic relations (sometimes, semantic syntactic relations). Think of them as “meaning relations.” For example, when Brendyn holds up his shoe after searching for and finding it under the bed and says “Brendyn shoe,” he is expressing a possessor possession relationship. (Semantic relations are discussed below and semantic relations analysis is described in Chapter 6.)

A second factor accounting for increased length of utterances is concatenation. Concatenation is chaining together several two term semantic relations. It is evident shortly after children begin producing single two term semantic relations. For example, the agent action relation baby eat and the action object relation eat cookie might he combined and the redundant term omitted, to yield Baby eat cookie.

A third factor accounting for increased sentence length is expansion. Once children are understanding and expressing semantic relations, they begin to expand simple terms in these relations by adding modifiers and auxiliaries. These expanded constructions give the listener more accurate and precise information. The 3 year olds who produce these expanded constructions are generally expressing the same intentions they expressed earlier with two or three words, but the addition of modifiers and auxiliaries makes it easier for listeners to interpret what they are saying without having to depend on contextual information. The child who said “more juice” at 18 months and “want more juice” at 24 months, now at 30 months may say “want more apple juice.”

A fourth factor in increasing the length of utterances is the emergence of grammatical morphemes at around age 2 or 2 1/2. (Acquisition of grammatical morphemes was described previously.)

Expressing Meanings

Children have a range and variety of experiences with objects, action, and events in their physical and social worlds. These experiences are the source and the content for their concepts about objects, actions, and events (their nonlinguistic knowledge). Because the vast majority of these experiences also involve language, children have myriad opportunities to experience co occurrences of words and phrases and their particular referents. Once concepts and ideas about the world


become linked to, arid expressed (and understood) through language, they are classified as linguistic knowledge more specifically, semantic knowledge.

Children progress steadily and gradually toward adult like meanings. Based on analysis of data from his cross cultural study of language acquisition, Slobin (1971) put it this way: “New forms first express old functions, and new functions are first expressed by old forms” (p. 184). In other words, children first use new words and phrases to express well established (familiar) meanings and they use familiar words to express newly constructed meanings. They try out either a new form or a new meaning, but not both. An example illustrates this premise. Slobin quotes his 3 year old daughter as saying “Anything is not to break just glasses and plates” (1971, p. 186). She has arrived at a new and complex (for a 3 year old) idea: That only glasses and plates are breakable, However, she lacked the words to express this idea properly so she did the best she could with the words in her repertoire (with amusing results).

When you think about meaning in language you probably think about word meaning. A second type of meaning that has been noted several times throughout this chapter is relational meaning. Relational meaning maps the relationships among objects, actions, and events. Relational meaning can be encoded with a single word, but it is often difficult for the listener to interpret the intended meaning when only a single word is used. Consider the word more, for example. If a child with an empty cup and an empty plate simply says, “more” and does not point to or otherwise indicate the cup, or dish, or a food item, there will be some question as to the intent of the utterance. However, if the word is combined with a gesture or a second word, then the intent is clear. When a child uses a single word like more to communicate a meaning that an adult would say with a sentence (e.g., ‘I’d like more juice”), the one word utterance is said to be holophrastic.

Recall from the earlier discussion that earliest relational meanings, called semantic relations, are combinations of two or more words to convey more and different meaning than any one of the words used alone could convey. Semantic relations incorporate two types of meaning: the meaning of the individual words plus the meaning implicit in the way the words are ordered. Encoding of semantic relations begins around 18 months. It is evidence of two things: (1) that the child’s awareness and understanding of different types of nonlinguistic relationships has expanded, and (2) that the child now has some understanding of how to express nonlinguistic knowledge through language. The problem is that the former exceeds the latter: The range and variety of ideas and relational concepts children have acquired by this age generally exceed their expressive abilities. Thus, they are frequently in the position of having to use the same word or words to express more than one meaning. Those who are trying to understand the


child’s intention are dependent to a great extent on contextual information (where the child is, what she and others are doing and saying) in order to interpret the utterance.

The key role of semantic relations in language development was first highlighted by Bloom’s (1970, 1973) research in the early seventies. A famous example from her research is the utterance “Mommy sock,” which appeared several times in transcripts of the speech of a child just beginning to produce two word utterances. What is the significance of an utterance such as this? This utterance tells us that the child understands that things have names (“Mommy” and “sock”), but, more importantly, when we consider the context of the utterance, it tells us that the child understands that expressing the two words together means something more and different than the individual words. For example, one child in Bloom’s research said “Mommy sock” when her mother was helping her put her socks on, conveying understanding of the relationship between an agent (in this case Mommy) and an object (sock). On another occasion she said “Mommy sock” while holding up her mother’s stocking. This time she is conveying her understanding of the relationship between a possessor and a possession. She is telling us that she understands that mommies can affect (act on) socks in ways that socks cannot affect mommies (agent action relationships) and that mommies can own socks but that socks cannot own mommies (possession) and that she knows the proper word order (in English) to express these relationships. This “Mommy sock” example, which has become a classic, makes two points: (1) that utterances with the same surface structure can have different intended meanings, and (2) that we can learn much about children’s nonlinguistic knowledge and their linguistic knowledge if we pay close attention to the context of utterances (as well as the words themselves).

At about the same time that Bloom posited the notion that semantic (meaning) relations are the basis for children’s first word combinations, two other prominent psycholinguists, Brown (1973) and Schlesinger (1971), made a similar discovery. Working independently, each compiled a. list of the most prevalent semantic relations expressed by children at age 2 (MLU around 2.). Amazingly, the three lists agreed on most categories. Considering the many things that young children could talk about, it is significant that the meanings they express in their earliest word combinations are as easily defined as they are. Even more remarkable is the finding that these categories are universal: There are striking parallels among children learning language in such widely different cultures as Germany, Russia, Finland, and Samoa (Brown, 1973). Children all over the world apparently attend to and talk about basically the same things with their first word combinations. Table 1.4. provides a synthesis of the three semantic relations lists.

The meanings shown in Table 1.4 provide criteria against which to judge the language development of a child in the two word combination stage.


TABLE 1.4 Stage 1 – Semantic relations: Prevalent meanings expressed in early two word combinations

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Semantic Relation: Existence
relational word + object name (introducer + entity)
Possible Context
child calls attention to an object picture of an object by pointing
“this car”
“it ball”

Semantic Relation: Negation (3 meanings: nonexistence, rejection, denial)
relational word + object name (negation + entity)
Possible Context
if indicating nonexistence, child may be searching for lost cookie; if rejection, child may be refusing an offer of a cookie; if denial, child may be responding to the question, “Is this your cookie?”
“no cookie”

Semantic Relation: Recurrence
relational word + object name (more + entity)
Possible Context
child indicates awareness of the reappearance of an object or the desire for an additional amount (a new instance) of something
“More juice”
“more swing”

Semantic Relation: Attribution
adjective + noun (attribute + entity)
Possible Context
child calls attention to some characteristic of an object
“big ball”
“pretty baby”

Semantic Relation: Possession
noun + noun, or pronoun + noun (possessor + possession)
Possible Context
child indicates (pointing to or holding up) someone’s property
“mommy sock”
“my coat”

Semantic Relation: Locative (2 types: action, entity)
verb + noun/pronoun, noun/pronoun + verb (action + locative), or noun + noun (entity + locative)
Possible Context
child indicates a movement occurring in a specific place, or child indicates an object as existing in a particular place
“sit beach”
“sweater chair”

Semantic Relation: Agent action
noun/pronoun + verb
Possible Context
child indicates the initiator of an action and the movement
“mommy go”
“doggie run”

Semantic Relation: Action object
verb + noun/pronoun
Possible Context
child indicates a movement or process with someone or something receiving it
‘hit hail”
“drink juice”

Semantic Relation: Agent object
noun/pronoun + noun/pronoun
Possible Context
child indicates someone or something in direct interaction with another person or thing
“daddy ball”
“mommy baby”

Keep in mind, however, that you cannot determine whether the child is expressing a particular semantic relation and/or which one, without knowing the context of the utterance. Form alone does not provide sufficient information to determine the child’s intended meaning.


Sentence Variations

In the early stages of language learning, as mean length of utterance (MLU) increases the complexity of children’s utterances also increases. This relationship between length and linguistic complexity seems to maintain until the child attains an MLU of approximately 4.0. MLU is computed by counting the morphemes in 50 (or 100) utterances from a spontaneous speech sample and then dividing by 50 (or 100). (Detailed guidelines for MLU computation are provided in Chapter 6.) By the time that children attain an MLU of 2.5 (at around 21/2 years of age) and have begun to master grammatical morphemes, the next major accomplishment is learning about and producing different types of sentences, such as negatives, questions, and imperatives.

NEGATIVE SENTENCES. There are three periods in learning to produce negative sentences (Bellugi, 1967). In the first stage, at about age 2, children form negative sentences by attaching no or not in the initial position to a simple declarative sentence. They form sentences like “Not more juice” (said while holding up an empty cup) and’ “No can make it” (said while trying to force a wooden puzzle piece into the puzzle). The negative function used mast often is nonexistence (e.g., no cookie indicating the cookie is not in his pocket), but rejection (e.g., not meat, said while pushing the spoon away), and denial (e.g., not my bear, said when offered someone else’s bear) also appear. While children may initially express all three negative functions in the same way by tacking on no or not the different meanings are generally quite clear.

In the second period, children place the negative word next to the main verb within the sentence (e.g., “I no sleep,” or “Mommy no go car”). Finally, in the third period, when children are around 42 to 48 months, their negative sentences approximate the adult form. By this age they have an extensive repertoire of negative possibilities. They use can, does, do, did, will, and be with not in uncontracted form. (Initially they use them in the present tense.) The negative element is consistently incorporated into the sentence. This progression in the acquisition of negatives is logical. The child’s early positive utterances form a nucleus to which the child appends a negative, sometimes at the beginning and other times at the end. Then, as would be expected once a child begins to analyze utterances into subject and predicate, the negative item appears between them (as in adult grammar).

QUESTIONS. Children do not learn to ask some types of questions until they have learned to answer questions of the same kind, For example, they typically do not ask why questions until they are able to answer why questions. Ervin Tripp (1970) studied the sequence in which five children responded to different questions after the age of


21 months. First they respond to these wh questions, in this order: (1) where, (2) what (3) whose, and (4) who. Why, how and when were responded to somewhat later.

Klima and Bellugi (1966) described three stages in the development of question asking skills:

Stage 1:
At about 24 to 28 months (MLU around 2.0), young children begin to use a few wh words (wbat and where. Most questions at this age are like statements with a rising intonation. The reason these particular wh words appear early is that they relate to the immediate environment. Their use helps the child to (1) gain labels, and (2) locate lost objects. Another possible explanation for the early appearance of what and where could be that they are words that caregivers use frequently. Finally, a third possible explanation would be that what and where are learned first because they are related to two of the earliest semantic categories nomination and location.

Stage 2.
At about 26 to 32 months (MLU around 2.5), young children begin to use the wh forms, why, where, and what, to introduce statements. They might say “Why you go?” and “Where my coat?” These sentences have a subject and a predicate but auxiliaries are notably absent. At this stage, questions of the yes no type are still statements with a rising intonation. Mistaking one form of wh question for another is common and continues until around age 3. Younger children (between about 20 and 28 months) will typically treat most wh questions as where questions. Older 2 year olds often answer why questions as if they were what questions.

Stage 3.
At about 33 to 36 months (MLU around 3.0), young children produce inverted yes/no type questions. Shortly thereafter they use inverted wh forms. A variation at this stage is use of the carrier phrase do you know to introduce many questions.

Thus, the order of use of wh forms is what, where, who, when, why, how. By about age 4, children have learned most of the necessary auxiliary verbs and pronouns and how to use the adult question form.

IMPERATIVE SENTENCES. Imperative sentences request, demand, ask, or command the listener to perform an action. Most imperative sentences have no overt grammatical subject and the verb is uninflected (e.g., “Give me the paper”). Children between the ages of 19 to 26 months (MLU around 1.75) produce forms (often accompanied by gestures) that serve an imperative or directive function. However, imperative sentences do not appear until around 31 months. By 35 months (MLU of 3.0), children have begun to use modal auxiliaries (e.g., can, could, will) in embedded imperatives (e.g., “Could you give me a cookie”). Production of the latter imperatives suggests that


the child is beginning to understand the importance of modifying directives according to the status of the listener.

Conversational Abilities

The basic ingredients of conversation – turn taking and reciprocity – are observable in early caregiver infant caregiving and play routines (e.g., feeding, diaper changing, “peekaboo” games). Both the infant and the adult are active participants in these exchanges: There are clearly rules for each turn and expectations for particular words and actions within the action sequences. However, adult child exchanges continue to be heavily dependent on adult scaffolding until well into the child’s preschool years. The adult provides the exchange frames in which the child is to produce appropriate responses, and selects and phrases questions carefully so that the child’s response options are very clear (e.g., “the big one or the little one?”).

While children as young as 2 years old are quite good at introducing new topics, they typically do not sustain a topic beyond one or two turns. Moreover, because they have not yet learned about linguistic contingency or contextual contingency, their responses may be unrelated to their partner’s comment. Linguistic and contextual contingency develop slowly. Even at age 3 1/2, only about 50 percent of children’s utterances demonstrate contingency (Bloom, Rocissano, and Hood, 1976; Garvey, 1977).

Children as young as age 2 make distinctions in their speech on the basis of whom they are addressing. Their use of significantly more imperatives when addressing their mothers than when talking to their fathers is evidence that they are aware of social relationship variables such as power and familiarity. They already know to use polite request forms when addressing visitors, rather than the type of direct orders addressed to siblings. Other instrumental language strategies, such as gaining a listener’s attention and providing explanations or justifications when making requests, are evident at about age 4.

Children learn discourse and conversational skills in the context of social relationships first with caregivers and later, when they start school, in interactions with a broader social community. Conversational and discourse skills that are fairly well developed by school age include:

ability to sustain simple three term contingent queries in which there is a comment, a request for clarification, and a clarifying response;

ability to participate in conversations by introducing a topic, sustaining it through several turns, and then closing or switching topics;

speech adjustments (e.g., elaboration) for listeners with different and/or less sophisticated language abilities;


elimination of redundant information in recognition of the listener’s knowledge about the topic (based on understanding that information shared with a partner does not need to be repeated);

ability to take the perspective of the listener as evidenced by proper use of deictic terms (here, there, this, that, and personal pronouns);

effective use of instrumental language (to get a listener to cooperate with or carry out a goal), suggesting understanding of social relationship variables,

Social Functions

By 12 months of age, most infants have learned to use their vocal and gestural abilities to intentionally engage their social environments. Their predisposition for social interaction is a powerful mutivator for imitation of, interactions with, and eventually sharing their feelings, experiences, and thoughts with other human beings. So much so that much of the infant’s early language is directed toward maintaining contact with, and regulating the behavior of, others. These early social intentions have been described by a number of researchers (e.g., Bates, 1976; Halliday, 1975). Children gradually progress from reflexive, nonintentional communication to expression of intentions in a conventional manner. Development proceeds through three stages that Bates (1976) labeled the perlocutionary stage, the illocutionary stage, and the locutionary stage. Initially, in the perlocutionary stage, the infant’s behaviors are undifferentiated and not intentionally communicative. Adults infer the meaning. Then, in the illocutionary stage, the child begins to use conventional gestures and vocalizations to intentionally affect the behavior of others. Finally, in the locutionary stage, the child uses words to convey intentions. Table 1.5 summarizes the development of language use skills from birth to age 3.

There are numerous taxonomies listing the range of communicative intentions that develop prior to age 2 (e.g., Roth and Spekman, 1984). Most include at least the following early communicative intentions:

Seeking attention. Infants use gestures and speech “look”) to solicit and maintain attention,
Requesting. Infants use gestures and vocalizations to get desired objects, to command the action of others, and to solicit information.
Protesting. Infants use gestures and speech to command cessation of, and to resist, undesired actions and to reject offered objects or events.


Commenting. Infants use gestures and speech to call attention to, describe, and label objects and events.
Greeting. Infants use gestures (typically waving) and speech to participate in such rituals as greeting and taking leave.
Answering. Infants respond to requests for information.

TABLE 1.5 Emergence of language use

[Table reformatted by transcriber for clarity]

Age Range 0-1 month

Regards faces momentarily
Quiets in response to voice
Eyes follow a moving person
Cries in reaction to physiological distress

Age Range 1-4 months

Smiles/coos in response to voice and smile
Becomes “excited” when caregiver approaches
Quiets upon seeing or hearing caregiver
Shows anticipatory response upon seeing bottle
Shows anticipation when about to be picked up
Shows awareness of strange situations or strange person

Age Range 4-8 months

Increases activity at the sight of a desired toy or caregiver
Initiates mutual interactional dialogues with caregivers
Cries and shows other indications of distress when caregiver leaves the room
Smiles, head movements, and gestures in inter2ctional dialogues with caregivers
Turn taking in play and other interactional dialogues
Deliberate imitation of movements and vocalizations
Vocalizes to accompany different attitudes (pleasure/displeasure, satisfaction/anger, eagerness)
Responds differentially to interactional partners

Age Range 8-12 months

Vocalizes deliberately to initiate interpersonal interactions
Shouts to attract attention, listens, then shouts again
Shakes head for “no”
Gives affection to caregivers and other familiar adults
Waves “bye bye”
Repeats a behavior if people laugh at it
Expresses anger and distress if a toy is taken away
Looks at caregiver’s face when receiving an object (as if to acknowledge receipt)

Age Range 12-18 months

Indicates wants by gesturing and vocalizing
Hands mechanical toy to an adult to “request’ reactivation
Shows and offers objects to “request” social interactions
Tries to turn the doorknob and looks at adult to “request” outside play
Uses gestures, such as pointing, to direct adult attention
Hands book to adult to “request” a story
Pulls adult to certain locations to “request” attention to an object or event
Gestures and vocalizes loudly to “request” des red objects and events

Age Range 18-24 months

Gestures and vocalizes loudly to “request” proximity of caregiver or familiar adult
Uses words to request desired objects and events
Names objects spontaneously in the presence of others
Vocalizes immediately following the utterances of another


TABLE 1.5 Emergence of language use (continued)

Age Range 2-3 years

Talks about objects and events that are not immediately present
Initiates spontaneous vocal interactions
Adds information to the prior utterances of communication partner
Uses an increasing number of utterances that serve interpersonal functions
(i.e., calling attention to self or objects and events, regulating the behavior of others, obtaining desired objects and services, participating in social interaction rituals, commenting about objects and events)

Throughout the infancy and early childhood period, caregivers arid other adults treat children as effective communicators, and eventually they do become very skilled conversationalists. By kindergarten (and often before), they are ready for the rhymes, songs, and word games so important to engagement in social and instructional activities. Also, by school age they are ready for what Owens (1988), with tongue in cheek, calls “those special oaths and incantations passed along on the ‘underground from child to child’ (p. 321).


Although socialization alone does not fully account for language acquisition, there seems little question that children’s early socialization experiences drive the language learning process. Children learn language by using it to communicate within a social context. Ultimately, our understanding of children’s difficulties with language and communication and the impact these difficulties have on children’s lives hinge on our understanding of the nature of language and communication and the early socialization process.

This chapter has reviewed the terms and concepts most relevant for understanding the research on the normal development of linguistic skills. This research helps us understand how, why, and when children learn language. The variables that have the most profound influence on language learning and use were also discussed. Finally, the chapter has provided an overview of children’s major accomplishments in the areas of language and communication prior to beginning kindergarten.



1. What if you were told that you could only develop speech, language, or communication (not all three), which one would you choose? Why? What do you think life is like for a person who cannot use speech? What is life like without language? What would life be like without communication?

2. Discuss how the basic requirements for speech, language, and communication differ.

3. Discuss what “knowing” a language means. What do you know when you “know” a language?

4. Imagine yourself talking to a group of expectant parents about language development. What would you want to tell them about the four sets of variables that influence language learning and their role in optimizing these?


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by: Linda McCormick