Stages of Language Development: Before First Words
If you have had any extended experience with an infant, you are aware that communication occurs before anything like formal language emerges. In the pre-language stage of development, infants vary their cries for different purposes, they smile, they reach, they make eye contact, they make language-like sounds. But researchers have discovered that babies also exhibit more specific language behaviors. It has been observed, for example, that infants as young as three days can identify and show a preference for their own mother’s voices over other female voices (Stoel-Gammon & Menn 1997, p. 84). It has also been observed that infants demonstrate the ability to distinguish between very similar phonetic sounds, such as [p] and [b]. What is even more interesting is that they appear to distinguish between sounds that may not be separate phonemes in their own language but could be in another language. Experiments suggest that by the age of six months, babies begin to align their discrimination of sounds with the phonemes of their own language. That is, they begin to perceive sounds as “different” or “the same” in the same way that adult speakers of the language would.
We also know that infants in the first months of life produce a wide variety of sounds. These do not sound like a language to us because they do not appear to be associated with meaning; rather, babies seem to be practicing how to make sounds. By about age six months, these sounds begin to take shape into what is known as babbling. Babbling has recognizable consonant-vowel syllables, such as [da], often in repeated strings: [dadada]. Not all possible sounds are produced during this stage,with children showing a preference for stops, nasals, and glides. Late in the babbling stage, children begin to produce only the sounds of their own language, and the babbling of a child learning one language is different from the babbling of a child learning another. Also, late in this pre-language stage, many children engage in conversational babbling, which uses the intonation patterns and gestures of the adult language without the words. If you have had the pleasure of watching a baby pretend to read or pretend to talk on the telephone, you know what conversational babbling is.
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