The stages of linguistic development

How to help children in language acquisition
Reading time: 3 minutes


In the Sixties, the renowned Austrian psychologist Paul Watzlawick studied the various aspects of human communication and one of the fundamental notions he put forward was that "one cannot not communicate". When we are with someone we have a relationship with, whether we are related, married, friends or mere acquaintances, we can communicate with them not only through what we say, but through countless other elements that permeate the relationship, including silence and behaviour. This is true for everyone and it starts from the moment we are born: even newborn babies communicate with us as soon as they come into the world (in truth, they start communicating with their mother even earlier, when they are still in the womb, with an exclusive and very specific form of communication).

We have an innate, biological predisposition to form relationships with others, as they are essential for individual survival, just like the necessity for immediate "dialogue" with those who look after us. Within this need for relational communication, language plays a fundamental role. Language acquisition is a vital stage in individual development, arising from continuous "collaboration" between a specific neurobiological predisposition and the environmental stimuli experienced by the child from birth. This means that your child will learn to talk not just because, genetically speaking, they possess the brain structures responsible for language, but thanks to you, as they are stimulated by your way of communicating, they will pick up your words, your songs your intonation and way of expressing ideas. Through imitation your child will repeat the words they hear, and it goes without saying that a highly stimulating environment (with lots of reading, songs, words, conversations) will undoubtedly favour the acquisition of a richer and more sophisticated expressive vocabulary compared to an environment devoid of such stimulation.

Naturally, children are all unique, going at their own pace and reaching milestones at different times, which must never be forgotten, so the language acquisition timeline can vary, but broadly speaking we can identify the following stages.

Stages of linguistic development in children.

0-2/3 months: your child communicates with you through crying, screaming, cooing and other behaviour. Indeed, after a few days you learn to understand when crying indicates hunger

or discomfort, you can tell when they are tired and when they simply need the comfort of your touch. This mode of communication, which is anything but trivial, allows children to "converse" with you, precisely thanks to the concept we outlined at the start (namely, within a relationship everything is communication).

3/4-6 months: this is the babbling stage where children spontaneously emit a variety of sounds, at this age there is still no imitation of adult language and the utterances of babbling babies include phonemes from all languages. Indeed, if we listen to a child of this age we will be unable to tell if they are Russian, French, American or another nationality, which we will be able to do, however, at the next stage of language acquisition. You can also listen to and observe your child's amusing "experiments" to "train" their mouth to express their feelings, with vocal play that includes puffing and blowing "raspberries".

6/7-10 months: at this age, your child starts to combine consonants and vowels, uttering the same syllables repeatedly like a sort of nursery rhyme (la-la-la; ma-ma-ma, pa-pa-pa), a stage which is called repetitive lallation. Here, imitation plays a fundamental role: think of it as a series of vocal games that children play, which form the basis for starting to articulate what will become their first words. During this stage, you may notice that lallation is sometimes associated with music and it can be fun to play along: for example, if your child starts uttering "la-la-la", then you continue repeating the same sounds immediately after them, with emphasis and enthusiasm, and then wait for them to start again. This game helps favour the taking of turns in future conversation.

10/12-18 months: varied lallation namely the repetition of syllables that include multiple consonants and that start to form bisyllabic words (da-da; ta-ta; pi-pi; ti-ti, ma-ma), the so-called protowords (precursors to more complex speech). The important aspect of this stage is that each new word corresponds to a specific object, so that children quickly build up a vocabulary of around 50 words, making communication increasingly rich. At this stage children will also start using holophrases, whereby a single word utterance is used to convey a more complex and complete sentence (e.g. "din-din! " which means: "mummy, I’m hungry, I want my dinner") and lexical and grammatical development continues.

18-24 months: explosion of language, your child’s vocabulary will expand considerably, as they experiment and learn more and more words, until they have a vocabulary of around 190 words.

At 30 months children are familiar not just with the name of objects, but they can also pronounce and understand the meaning of verbs and adjectives, easily combining two

or more words together (e.g. come baby, here mummy). Their vocabulary by now contains around 600 words and they know how to apply some simple grammar rules.

As parents, how can you help your child in language acquisition?

  • Talk to them even while they are still in the womb, as they will get used to the sound of your voice.
  • Provide a stimulating and suitable sound environment: reading, songs, music, nursery rhymes, from as soon as they are born.
  • Modulate your voice when talking to them, speaking more quietly, for example, when they need to go to sleep, and using your tone of voice to express affection, surprise, happiness when they are awake: they will become more attuned to linguistic nuances.
  • With the start of lallation, you can play at taking turns making sounds, as described above.
  • Have fun singing (and dancing!) with them, the combination of movement-sound-vocal expression is extremely powerful for your child’s development, but also for their amusement and yours too!
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