From Babbling To Full Sentence: How Children Acquire A Language - Stage By Stage

by Kate Thora

In the majority of cases, children's language development follows a predictable sequence. Naturally, there's much variation in ages when children reach specific language milestones. Every child's linguistic development is based on a gradual acquisition of particular abilities.

When it comes to linguistic production, we can differentiate between the following stages in a child's linguistic development:

All these stages represent the gradual unfolding of lexical and syntactic knowledge in children. Here's a detailed description of every stage in a child's linguistic development.

Before babbling

Linguists note that at birth the infant's vocal tract doesn't resemble those of adult humans. As the baby grows, the tract gradually reshapes itself into adult patterns.

During the first months of their life, infants produce sounds which express their discomfort or are related to reflexive/nonreflexive actions.

By 2-4 months, infants start to produce comfort sounds such as sighs, grunts, or coos. Laughter appears when they're around 4 months old. By then infants can engage in vocal play, producing squeals and friction noises.


At around seven months of age, infants enter the “canonical babbling” stage. They start to make sounds which are divided rhythmically into syllable-like sequences of oral articulations. They start producing stop- and glide-like sounds as well. Fricatives, affricates or liquids are rare.

At this stage, infants often produce repeated sequences. This is also the time of vocal play which happens during interactions with caregivers.

It's been suggested that babbling is characteristic only for human species and serves as a method for practicing speech-like gestures to help infants gain control over the motor systems involved in articulation.

One word (holophrastic) stage

Infants around ten months of age begin to produce recognizable words. These words appear in contexts that involve naming – “car” might appear when the child looks out of the window into the street.

Another characteristic is that children use these words in ways which are either too narrow or broad. For instance, “bottle” might refer to only plastic bottles, and “dog” might be used for not only dogs, but cows and lambs as well.

Linguistic interaction with caregivers plays a key role in consolidating these early linguistic abilities. Research suggests that vocabulary acquisition tends to proceed faster among female babies. Over time, the difference between baby girls and boys disappears.

Combining words: the emergence of syntax

During the second year of their lives, children begin to combine words. By 25 months of age, almost all children tend to produce word combinations.

The earliest multi-unit utterances are usually two morphemes long, hence the name two-word stage. However, children soon begin to produce more complex utterances. The multi-word stage is characterized by lack of most grammatical/functional morphemes – that's where “telegraphic” comes from.

Children begin to use grammatical elements around the age of two. The process is usually gradual, where telegraphic patterns appear together with adult or adult-like forms. Over this time, sentences become longer, and more grammatical elements appear in these structures. Gradually, multiple-clause sentences become more common.

What often happens in the case of morphological inflections is a phenomenon called progress backwards.

Some inflections include a regular case and some an irregular one (walk/walked vs. go/went). In the beginning, children use these words in their root form. As they begin to add inflections, patterns emerge. That's why children often over-generalise the regular case, and produce forms such as “goed” instead of “went”. Over-regularisation is part of children's developing grammar and might be resistant to correction.

The stages delineated above clearly show the astonishing patterns which children follow when acquiring language within the first two years of their lives.

About the writer

Kate Thora is a Senior Content Specialist for Uphours, an online resource with information about businesses worldwide. Her artistic soul manifests itself also in her love for singing and dancing, especially to traditional Indian music.


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