Have you ever noticed that some children can speak articulately by the age of three while others only begin talking at that same age? For parents and guardians of the latter group, this might be concerning but it’s important to understand that the language acquisition process is complex and occurs gradually over time. There are also a number of factors that affect language-learning.
First, let’s break down the foundational skills that are needed to learn language, which are listening, understanding and speaking. While listening and understanding are both the process of acquiring information, speaking is the process of producing the information.
From the moment they enter this world, babies begin to hear and respond to the speech rhythms of the things and people around them. You’ll probably have noticed that they can respond in the form of smiles, laughter or tears. They can even begin to recognize the voice of individuals who regularly interact with them.
By the age of six months, their listening skills start to improve whereby they’re able to distinguish speech sounds from the sounds of their environment. The listening process further develops by the age of one year, when they begin to really understand the information obtained.
One-year-olds can begin to associate words to objects, recognise objects that they are regularly exposed to, and understand simple instructions – this continues to grow as they reach the age of 2-3 when they will start using their memory and learn to understand 2-step instructions.
By 3-4 years old, they’ll be able to understand nearly 1,500 words! They can now understand longer instructions (up to 3 steps) as well as simple questions like ‘what’ and ‘where’ in addition to concepts such as prepositions, colours and gender.
Long and difficult passages become easier for children to understand by the time they reach 7-years-old. They’ll even begin to understand abstract information such as sarcasm and jokes.
Speaking is more than just the production of sound. It involves the use of appropriate rhythm and intonation as well.
Infants will usually start to vocalize using vowel sounds as early as 2-3 months. We know this as babbling and cooing and it serves a purpose! This is when babies learn phonation and get used to the movement of opening and closing their jaw.
The structure of babies’ babbles will continue to increase in complexity as they add in consonant sounds and ultimately start to mimic adult speech structure at 9-10 months old. This is that cute stage where they use recognizable speech intonation, but produce sounds that actually have no meaning.
One year old is when children begin to produce their first words, on average. This is when they learn that each word has its own meaning and they will repeat a word when it is said by an adult, thus improving their vocabulary. By about 5-6 years old is when they’ll be able to use adult sentence structures and hold conversations.
Common factors that affect language-learning
Health: Health plays an important role in language-learning. If the child has health problems which affect cognitive development such as Down Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy and others, the acquisition of language will be slower than normal children who are in the same age group.
Cognitive: The cognitive ability refers to the capability of children to think. If children have low cognitive capabilities, their reception and learning will be delayed in comparison to their peers.
Physical: There are many organs involved in producing speech sounds. Organs such as the ear, vocal cord, tongue, mouth, teeth and palate all help to produce normal speech sounds. If children have abnormalities in their speech organs, the production of speech sounds will be affected. And example would be how a cleft palate can lead to nasal speech sounds and difficulty for listeners to comprehend it.
Environment: Environmental factors refer to individuals who are around the children, including family members, guardians, teachers and friends. They all play an important role for providing language stimulation to the child at this early stage. However, there are also other factors that influence children’s language-learning such as level of education, socie-economic status and family cultures.
Neurological development: Neurological development occurs rapidly until the child reaches the age of 7. Changes in the size, weight and growth of the brain enhance the child’s ability to think. Thus, language stimulation at this point is vital. Children are able to easily understand and absorb stimulation received from the surroundings in this critical period.
Knowledge is power, and understanding how our little ones acquire language gives us the power to positively impact their learning to the best of our abilities.