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Language Development - How Children Learn To Speak
By Carol Fries / August, September, October 2012

Language is a socially agreed upon code of arbitrary symbols that we use to communicate with one another. These symbols represent things, ideas, concepts, thoughts, emotions and other things. We generally communicate our language through speech, which develops throughout infancy and early childhood. Social interaction, enriched environments, exposure to literacy and family support all play important roles in supporting the language development of a child, which begins before birth with the first perceptions and discrimination of the human voice.

Many theorists have attempted to explain how language develops. Based on their work, we can safely say that babies have a special interest in faces and speech from the beginning, and this intense interest serves to help the child learn language.

From the moment of birth, babies are very attracted to the human voice and pay close attention to facial expressions and sounds of speech. In the first couple of months, an infant can already vocalize and imitate facial expressions and simple sounds. As early as four to six months, babies may begin to produce sounds through babbling and non-speech sounds such as "raspberries" for pleasure and interaction.

It is important to remember that babies do not all develop at the same rate. When developmental charts indicate that skills are present at particular ages, there is, in actuality, a range of weeks before and after those ages during which skills develop. For example, one baby may produce a "d" sound at six months exactly, while another baby will produce it at four and a half months. Another still won't produce it until seven months. All of these ages are considered within normal limits.

During the second half of the first year, babies begin to produce what is called babbling, which is the vocal production of strings of consonants and vowels. Duplicated babbling -- "ba ba ba ba" -- appears first, followed by the most complex non-reduplicated babbling -- "ba, da, ga ga, me." From babbling and vocal play, the baby begins to produce jargoning toward the end of the first year. Jargoning refers to strings of syllables that sound like speech with all of the inflections heard in conversations, yet have no discernible meaning.

One can surmise the meaning by considering the context, but there are no recognizable words. During this time, the baby is also developing what are called proto-words or word-forms. These are considered words because they consistently represent the same thing, such as "ba ba" for bottle or "ti ti" for aunt. By around one year old, a baby may be using some true words. As vocabulary grows, a baby may even begin putting a couple of words together with the approach of the second birthday.

Words generally reflect what is in the child's environment. Young children are focused on the here and now. They watch, learn and practice what they see all around them. Their ability to understand receptive language is more advanced than their ability to express themselves.

Receptive language includes skills such as identifying pictures and objects, following directions, typical play skills and imitation skills, to name a few. Daily activities are reflected in play and vocabulary growth. Play skills are a good indicator of stages of language development. Children who engage in frequent pretend play generally have good symbolic representation and good language skills overall.

Language develops rapidly during the first five years of life, by which time the basic language structures are all present. As children and adolescents mature, their language becomes more complex. But the framework has developed by around kindergarten.

Dr. Carol Fries has been employed by the department of communication disorders at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton since 2000. She is a doctor of exceptional student education with an emphasis on mental retardation




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