Children & Language

Just like most of the readers who left comments on my blog Wednesday, I am very interested in the way children change from cute, little babblers to people you can actually have a conversation with – and in next to no time, it seems. I suppose most parents are, but my interest was enhanced in 1991 when I studied second language acquisition at the University of Reading for a trimester. My youngest was 18-19 months old then and bang in the middle of learning her first language, mixed with the odd English word or phrase.

So please bear with me and read what I had to say about small language learners then, based on examples of my daughter´s utterances (translated into English of course, so no, she could not pronounce ´sweater´ in any language, but I think you´ll get the point).

The Child as an L1/L2 Learner.

1) Today children are no longer seen as little parrots that simply repeat their parents´ utterances automatically. Even very young children seem to be aware that language functions according to rules, and after a long period of silence they suddenly  ´take off´ and make their first efforts at communicating. It is hard to prove that one-word utterances are grammatical in any way, but as children are able to answer questions at this stage (e.g. “What is this” – “cat”) and remember words they heard several days ago it is certainly more than repetition. Between the age of 18-24 months the child usually moves to the two-word stage, at which point it is possible to recognize some of the functions of the utterances (e.g. “want food”, “sweater there”, “more milk”). At the next stage the language almost explodes, and with utterances of 3-4 words or more it is possible to talk about a kind of developmental grammar, a grammar in its own right, governed by rules of syntax, inflections, intonation etc. The word order is often close to adult language, whereas word endings and pronouns are left out (“Mummy eat food”, “Andrew go walking”). The child´s grammar develops rapidly during the next few years, and more and more rules are changed until the child´s language structure is identical with an adult´s grammar. At the age of 5-6 years the child masters not only the rules of his/her language, but also most of the exceptions.


I´ll spare you the next three pages but  just add my favourite example of a bilingual child´s expertise at juggling two languages. The clever little girl of c 30 months corrected her English-speaking father when he picked up one of her Danish books: “No, Daddy, you can´t read that one”.


I know that my daughter spoke fluently very early, but the interesting thing is that all the Danish articles on children´s language acquisition I have checked confirm my claim: at the age of 18-24 months most children move on to the two-word stage. For British children it seems to be 18-30 months, however. (I doubt that there is this difference, the surveys may just be older).

So even though S.J. Bolton says so, it is impossible for me to see Millie as a two-year-old girl. My view is exactly the same as Laura´s (see Wednesday´s comments), especially as Millie also staggers around like someone who has learnt to walk recently. No, children don´t do that for a whole year – after 2-3 months they walk around as if they had never done anything else 🙂




About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
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6 Responses to Children & Language

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Dorte – Thanks for these insights. I’ve studied second language acquisition myself, and some child first and second language development. Some of the research I’ve read suggests that even as early as a few months old (I know my daughter could do this before she was nine months old), children can recognise that two languages are different. That is, they know when people shift from, say, French to, say, Italian. And that’s even before they use complete words themselves.
    And you make some solid points about how early children use one word and then move to two. Knowing something about linguistics can really make crime fiction more realistic, can’t it? :-).

  2. Kelly says:

    Very interesting post. I do think environment can sometimes play a role in both language development and motor skills. For example…I am the youngest of four, the oldest being 14 years my senior. Therefore, I was toted around on siblings’ hips quite frequently. I could literally swim (we had a pool right outside our back door) before I could walk. But yes, once I learned I’m sure I took off with it. I was told my sister (the oldest, born while my father was serving in WWII, therefore doted on by my mother) spoke in full sentences by one year. My second brother invented a language of his own that he used during his earliest years. I think twins often do this, too.

    I would ask more questions about Millie (such as were there traumatic events that might be delaying speech or motor skills), but don’t want to ruin the book for myself since I plan to read it before too long.

    Of course this post makes me wish, as I have many times before, that I’d exposed my children to a second language at an early age.

  3. Margot: I am sure many readers will just think we are nerdy, but I *do* care because it fascinates me. My youngest is the same way; she loves reading about children´s development.

    Kelly: I am sure environment is very important. Back in time, many children spoke much later – because no one thought of speaking directly TO them. I just loved talking and reading to my children, and thank you for sharing your own family´s experiences.
    I don´t think it spoils anything at all to tell you that Millie seems very normal; it seems that Bolton just assumed a two-year-old spoke as little as that. Well, a few do, but it is NOT common 🙂

  4. Ellen says:

    Very interesting! Oh, I could speak for hours about children’s language development. I’ve learned that there’s only one ‘room’ in the brain for the mother (main) language, and any second language is placed elsewhere in the brain – which explains why we never can be completely bilingual – the brain chooses the main language subconsciously. My grandchildren live in UK – their mother is Danish; their father British. Because every one bar their mother speak and understand English, their brains quickly chose that as the main language, but from the very beginning they’ve been understanding Danish, because their mother and the Danish family spoke Danish to them – and they replied in English. Now (5 and 4 years old) they’ve gained interest for speaking Danish as well, so I’m sure they’ll end up as bilingual, even though it may take years.

  5. Sadly I’m only on one word utterance.

    Currently I’m teaching an English class here in Mexico and I’m stressing the importance of listening to English. Whether it’s by listening to mp3s, radio, TV, or conversation. Very interesting study.

  6. Ellen: following A & A´s development must be fascinating. And I was so pleased with my post today when I met my nephew´s fifteen-month-old son. His vocabulary was nearly as large as Millie´s.

    Clarissa: yes, language acquisition is fascinating, and I keep telling my students that reading Twilight & Harry Potter is an excellent way of enhancing one´s vocabulary.

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