Language is mostly acquired

How children acquire the language

Whether in Cape Town, Berlin or Shanghai: all babies and toddlers go through the same developmental stages of language acquisition, regardless of the language they will later speak.

Do babies learn the language in the womb?

Around the 22nd week of pregnancy, the fetus is able to hear in the womb. The amniotic fluid muffles the ambient noise, but the unborn child can perceive voices and melodies. This is how the baby recognizes the voices of its parents after birth - and also the language they speak.

Since the 1970s, linguists have found out in experiments that a baby reacts more strongly to words from its own language than to words in other languages. To do this, they measured the increased sucking rate of babies, the high sucking rate (HSR).

The researchers played different languages ​​to the babies. When the language changed, the infants responded by sucking harder on the pacifier. The findings from the experiments: a child has already learned the language-specific sounds, intonation and speech rhythm (prosody) before birth.

The child communicates with its environment

In the first few weeks of life, babies cry mainly to communicate with their environment. Usually with success: Parents can hardly stand it when their offspring roars. Hunger, pain, attention - babies can tell their parents about all of this by crying. They are the first basics of communication. In addition, the infant trains the vocal apparatus.

From about the sixth week the baby begins to make other sounds: it coos, cheers and gurgles. They are spontaneous sounds that the child cannot control at this age. They sound like first attempts at speaking, but they are only involuntary expressions of joy and well-being.

When the child is young, parents and other people help them learn the language without even realizing it. If they talk to the little one, they often use baby language, also known as baby talk. They emphasize individual words, speak more slowly and with more pauses.

The sentences are short and simple. This makes it easier for the child to recognize the structures of language. If the children's language becomes more complex, the adults adapt to the child.

The babbling phase

Between the sixth and tenth month the baby begins to combine individual sounds into syllables: "Ba" and "da" or "baba" and "dada" are typical for this stage of development.

Even if the babies come from different language areas, they make the same sounds. There is no comprehensive meta-study on this, but linguists came to the result independently of one another in their studies.

Over time, however, the adolescents adapt more and more to the language of their surroundings. Incidentally, at this stage the babies do not yet know what the sounds mean. Even if they produce "mama", it is still unclear to them what they are actually saying.

Even children who are deaf babble. However, it remains with universal babbling noises, since they cannot hear the typical sounds of their surrounding language. When these children learn sign language from birth, they babble too - albeit with their hands. They repeat the same gestures over and over, like other children repeat syllables.

Slurping to the first word

When a child says their first word varies. On average, it is between ten and twelve months old. The boundaries between the babbling phase and the first word are fluid. A child cannot use a word properly until he understands what it means. If not all persons are "mama" anymore, but only the mother, the child knows what it is saying.

Likewise, a child may initially use a new word such as dog for anything and not just a specific dog. Cows, cats or tables become "dogs".

In this phase the child begins to form concepts in order to better understand the environment: a dog moves - a cow does too! Dogs are usually small, have fur, they can be petted - and that goes for a cat too! And the dog has four legs - the table too! Only over time does the child learn to assign words to the correct objects.

Children do not always refer to a single object with one word. Sometimes a word stands for a whole sentence. A child who points to his mother's handbag and says "Mama" means: "This is his mother's handbag".

In this way, the child can share his thoughts, even if he does not yet know all of the words. Children often string together several words. So "Papa, juice" can mean "Papa, I want juice!" or "Papa, you should drink some juice too!"

Children are very creative at this stage. It is then often difficult for parents to guess what their children are about to say, especially when an expression has different meanings.

And now again in a full sentence

If the children previously used nouns, they start using verbs, adjectives and prepositions when they are around one and a half years old. In this phase you will learn up to 40 new words a week.

The utterances already resemble real sentences, but are mainly still formulated in the telegram style. Verbs are not yet adapted (conjugated) to the subject of the sentence. For example, children say "mom is sleeping" instead of "mom is sleeping".

But the children also master this hurdle. When they are around two and a half to three years old, they can usually utter short sentences without errors. Learning new words and producing them herself is hardly a problem for them.

But you still find it difficult to understand the structures of grammar and use them correctly. How they try to figure out the rules for themselves is often quite amusing for the adults.

The devil is in the details

Many children find it difficult to put a verb in its past tense at first. Many German verbs end in "-te", such as "heard", "said" or "laughed". Other verbs are irregular and have forms that need to be learned, for example "aß", "drank" and "sang".

Children try to recognize the structures of grammar and derive general rules. They say, for example, "went" instead of went, "slept" instead of slept and "called" instead of called - even if they have already used the correct form beforehand.

Here it is often of little use to improve the children. Once you've internalized the rules, you can form all past tenses - both regular and irregular.

By the time children have mastered all the subtleties of a language and have understood complicated rules such as the passive voice and can use them confidently, they are around eleven years old. You now have everything a native speaker needs. The vocabulary continues to develop over the course of their lives - and becomes more and more extensive.