Language Acquisition in Children

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Grandfather reading books with children
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The term language acquisition refers to the development of language in children.

By age 6, children have usually mastered most of the basic vocabulary and grammar of their first language.

Second language acquisition (also known as second language learning or sequential language acquisition) refers to the process by which a person learns a "foreign" language—that is, a language other than their mother tongue.

Examples and Observations

"For children, acquiring a language is an effortless achievement that occurs:

  • Without explicit teaching,
  • On the basis of positive evidence (i.e., what they hear),
  • Under varying circumstances, and in a limited amount of time,
  • In identical ways across different languages.

... Children achieve linguistic milestones in parallel fashion, regardless of the specific language they are exposed to. For example, at about 6-8 months, all children start to babble ... that is, to produce repetitive syllables like bababa. At about 10-12 months they speak their first words, and between 20 and 24 months they begin to put words together. It has been shown that children between 2 and 3 years speaking a wide variety of languages use infinitive verbs in main clauses ... or omit sentential subjects ... although the language they are exposed to may not have this option. Across languages young children also over-regularize the past tense or other tenses of irregular verbs. Interestingly, similarities in language acquisition are observed not only across spoken languages, but also between spoken and signed languages." (María Teresa Guasti, Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar. MIT Press, 2002)

Typical Speech Timetable for English-Speaking Child

  • Week 0 - Crying
  • Week 6 - Cooing (goo-goo)
  • Week 6 - Babbling (ma-ma)
  • Week 8 - Intonation patterns
  • Week 12: Single words
  • Week 18 - Two-word utterances
  • Year 2: Word endings
  • Year 2½: Negatives
  • Year 2¼: Questions
  • Year 5: Complex constructions
  • Year 10: Mature speech patterns (Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, 1997)

The Rhythms of Language

  • "At around nine months of age, then, babies start to give their utterances a bit of a beat, reflecting the rhythm of the language they're learning. The utterances of English babies start to sound like 'te-tum-te-tum.' The utterances of French babies start to sound like 'rat-a-tat-a-tat.' And the utterances of Chinese babies start to sound like sing-song. ... We get the feeling that language is just around the corner.
    "This feeling is reinforced by [an]other feature of language..: intonation. Intonation is the melody or music of language. It refers to the way the voice rises and falls as we speak." (David Crystal, A Little Book of Language. Yale University Press, 2010)


  • "Vocabulary and grammar grow hand in hand; as toddlers learn more words, they use them in combination to express more complex ideas. The kinds of objects and relationships that are central to daily life influence the content and complexity of a child's early language." (Barbara M. Newman and Philip R. Newman, Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2009)
  • "Humans mop up words like sponges. By the age of five, most English-speaking children can actively use around 3,000 words, and more are added fast, often quite long and complex ones. This total rises to 20,000 around the age of thirteen, and to 50,000 or more by the age of about twenty." (Jean Aitchison, The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge University Press, 1997)

The Lighter Side of Language Acquisition

  • Child: Want other one spoon, Daddy.
  • Father: You mean, you want the other spoon.
  • Child: Yes, I want other one spoon, please, Daddy.
  • Father: Can you say "the other spoon"?
  • Child: Other ... one ... spoon.
  • Father: Say "other."
  • Child: Other.
  • Father: "Spoon."
  • Child: Spoon.
  • Father: "Other spoon."
  • Child: Other ... spoon. Now give me other one spoon. (Martin Braine, 1971; quoted by George Yule in The Study of Language, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Language Acquisition in Children." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Language Acquisition in Children. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Language Acquisition in Children." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).