How do children learn to speak?

Behaviourist, B.F Skinner described how children learn to speak throughout different stages in their lives. He stated that the one thing that a child learns to do for itself early on in its life is to learn the language surrounding it and referred to this as amazing. Previously, people used to agree with Skinners theory ‘Operant Conditioning Theory' on how children learn language and his theory was that children learn language by imitating and reinforcing.


He states that all behaviour is conditioned, for example, the child would be rewarded for pronouncing words right until it becomes natural and automatic however, this was disagreed upon with linguistic studies showing that children start to familiarise themselves with a language when they are in the womb. Children go through the same stages of learning a language but at different speeds.

Children tune themselves into the mother language, especially French, when they are in the womb as linguists believe that it must be the intonation and rhythm which attracts them whilst they are in the womb and they would pay special attention to that language. Children learn a language better than adults as they are more immersed. Cooing is the most common thing to all children when it comes to them learning their first language because they are adjusting their jaws and then it leads to babbling. French, Russian, English and Arabic mothers can identify a baby of their own region by listening to the cooing. Babbling is a way for children to experiment with their vocal cords and so they are likely to produce noises which are irrelevant to the surrounding language. Gradually the babbling becomes more and more attuned to that language however, children do not learn language at the same speed but they do go through the same stages.


Between the ages of 10-20 months children start to say their first recognisable words usually imperatives such as ‘eat’ and ‘up’ but they do not produce grammatical words, plurals or three word utterances. Then between the ages of 18 and 24 months children begin to produce two word utterances such as ‘gimme spoon’ and what is always apparent with children’s utterances at this stage is that the syntax is in order for example it is unlikely for a child to say ‘spoon gimme’. The child’s lexis begins to rapidly expand at this stage as an average 5 year old should know 10,000 words. Steven Pinker is a linguist and a lecturer at Harvard University and he came up with the Principles and Parameter Theory and he said “all hell broke loose” meaning that after the two word stage children’s utterances, grammatical words and endings got much longer and children start to; negotiate, include subordinate clauses and questions so basically, there’s an increase in accuracy and confidence.


Skinner gives two examples of children with rapid development; Adam and Eve. Adam was slow at learning and Eve was a quicker learner, some people suggest that girls are much quicker than boys at learning a language. Adam was still producing two word utterances like ‘big drum’ at the age of 27 months whereas Eve was producing things like “Fraser, the dolls not in your briefcase” before the age of two. By the age of five, children get things right pretty much all of the time and the author suggests that children already know more about the grammar of English, and all other languages, than you can find in any book.

Hope the above is helpful!


Please do comment bellow your questions, suggestions and any ideas you have for future blogs


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