Stages of Language Development: First Words, Multiple Word Utterances, Grammatical Morphemes

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

First Words

Around age one, children begin to produce their first words. These, of course, often do not sound much like adult words, but they bear some phonetic resemblance to them and, more important, they are sounds consistently produced in association with a particular meaning. First words often name things in the child’s immediate environment, such as caregivers, pets, articles of clothing, and toys, or are terms related to social interaction, such as hi and bye-bye. The meanings of first words may be overextended to other objects as well, often similar in shape: [ba] for ball, apple, sun, moon, for example. One child used [bu] for both balloons and lollipops (a round shape with a vertical line extending from its bottom). Children’s first words typically employ the same consonants children favor in the late stages of babbling: stops [p, t, k, b, d, g], nasals [m, n], and glides [y, w], and often use consonant-vowel syllable structure. The most preferred first vowel is a low back [a]. If you think about some of the child’s names for caregivers, you will see how these preferences get played out in child speech: mama, dada, papa, nana all fit children’s phonetic preferences. It has been observed, furthermore, that although children do not pronounce words the way adults do, they have certain predictable strategies for approaching adult pronunciation (Stoel-Gammon & Menn 1997, pp. 93–97). One child might make all her initial stops voiced and pronounce cat as [gæt], for example.

Children’s one-word utterances have been referred to as holophrastic, because they seem to have the same intents as longer utterances produced by adults. The one word [ba] uttered in this stage of development might mean “Give me my bottle, I see my bottle, I dropped my bottle,” and so forth, and it is left up to others to figure out the intended meaning in context. More will be said about conversational intent later in the chapter

Multiple Word Utterances: The Idea of Syntax

The next milestone in a child’s acquisition of language is the combination of more than one word per utterance. This stage marks the realization that words can combine in systematic ways to express meaning that they cannot express in isolation. Children typically begin this stage by juxtaposing two words with equal intonation on both and a pause between them, as if each were a word being pronounced in isolation. Mommy . . . Sit. Following that, children combine words into what appear to be rudimentary sentences, with no pauses between the words and falling intonation at the end. Some examples are given in Tager-Flusberg, (1997, p. 170): more car, more read, no pee, bye-bye Papa, there potty, Mommy stair. You will notice that these utterances tend to be dominated by content words, often nouns, adjectives, and verbs. For this reason, these forerunners of adult sentences have been labeled telegraphic, because they exhibit the same economy of expression that telegrams did when they served as a form of urgent and expensive communication. Most function words, such as prepositions and helping verbs, are missing from children’s initial two-word utterances, but some of the more salient ones do occur, such as more, no, and off.

Two-word utterances show consistent patterns and are not merely random combinations of words. Some of the consistency has been described according to the meanings children express in the two-word utterance stage. They talk about actions, agents (doers of actions), patients (receivers of actions), locations, and possession, and they point out and describe things. Furthermore, two-word utterances exhibit consistent word order, which has been described in terms of pivot and open words. Pivot words appear consistently at the beginnings or the ends of utterances, while other words plug into the vacant slot. More, for example, is a common pivot. Some examples given in Goodluck (1991, p. 76) are: more car, more cereal, more fish, more walk. Other, all, no, and all gone are other initial pivots. Off can be a final-position pivot, as in boot off, light off, pants off, water off. The words that occur with pivots are termed open words.

There is no recognizable stage that marks the transition from two-word to multiple-word utterances. Once children get the idea of syntax, they may combine more than two words at a time, as in Goodluck’s examples: clock on there, kitty down there, other cover down there, up on there some more (1991, p. 76). Children’s syntactic growth during this period is measured by the mean length of utterance (MLU), calculated according to the average number of morphemes per utterance. Although children may develop at very different rates, when their utterances approach a MLU of about 2.0, they begin to add the grammatical “glue” that holds together adult sentences, such as tense and number markers, possessive markers, helping verbs, and certain prepositions. This marks the transition to the next stage of development, what we might term the grammatical morpheme stage.

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