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Stages of Child Language Acquisition

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Childcare
Wordcount: 5410 words Published: 30th Oct 2017

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A child starts to communicate with those around him/her since birth, although in the first few months this communication occurs on a non-verbal level. However, as a child develops physically, he/she gradually acquires language skills. Overall, child language acquisition begins from phonological development and proceeds to syntactic and semantic development. The aim of the present essay is to analyse three major stages of the first language acquisition (phonological, syntactic and semantic). Although linguists and other scholars have agreed in opinion that language is a process of acquisition (rather than the process of learning), they provide contradictory theories of child language acquisition (Cole & Cole, 1996). Among the most famous theories are a reinforcement theory, an imitation theory, a critical-age theory and an analogy theory. Despite the fact that all these theories present a valid explanation of language acquisition, certain problems occur when they are applied to practice. The most likely interpretation of phonological, syntactic and semantic development of a child is provided by imitation and analogy theories; hence, these theoretical concepts are employed for the analysis. According to these theories, the process of child language acquisition is aimed at adjusting to adults’ speech that has its rules and structures.

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As acquisition of language is a rather intricate process, a child only listens to adults’ speech in the first few months. Actually, in this period a child is involved in the process of language perception rather than the process of language production (See Table 1). However, as a child reaches the age of 6 months, he/she starts to pronounce various sounds (Fee, 1995). At first a child pronounces vowel sounds and further he/she manages to unite vowels and consonants (e.g. sa, da, ma, ba, di, ti, gu, etc.). At approximately 8 months a child constantly repeats syllables (e.g. ba-ba-ba or di-di-di) and by 12 months he/she successfully combines these syllables into a simple word (e.g. “mama”, “papa” or “baba”). It is significant that child’s pronunciation of sounds also reflects intonation and stress; according to Echols and Newport (1992), through these patterns a child makes an attempt to impart certain meaning or reveal his/her emotions. This babbling is the initial step in child’s phonological development (Macken, 1995); the true phonological skills are exposed by a child at approximately 1.4 years (though even at the age of 0.4 – 0.9 months a child already has some phonological abilities, as he manages to recognise native and non-native speech). At this time a child demonstrates comprehension of the relation between sounds and meanings; moreover, he/she starts to identify phonemic differences in adult speech. In the process of sound production a child certainly makes pronunciation mistakes that linguists regard as phonological deviations. Generally, phonological deviations are divided into two basic categories: substitution errors and syllable errors (Bankson & Bernthal, 1998). Further, these categories are divided into several sub-categories, including weak syllable deletion, final consonant deletion, consonant cluster reduction, velar fronting, palatal fronting, stopping, gliding of liquids, word final devoicing, etc.

Due to an immature speech apparatus, some sounds are more complex for child’s pronunciation than others; for instance, such consonant sounds as “l” and “r” are learned by a child later than sounds “p” and “m”, because the former sounds are phonetically similar, while the latter sounds are different. As a result, a child substitutes voiceless sounds with voiced sounds (e.g. “gap’ instead of “cap” or “tad” instead of “dad”); it is context sensitive voicing. The second deviation is word final devoicing; it is a process when final voiced consonants are substituted with voiceless consonants (“dad’ is pronounced as “dat”). A child may also employ final consonant deletion, pronouncing “co” instead of “cow” or “pin” instead of “pink”. Velar fronting (e.g. “tiss” instead of “kiss”) and palatal fronting (e.g. “sake” instead of “shake”) are used by a child, because it is easier for him/her to pronounce consonants that are at the front of the mouth and teeth. Other phonological deviations include weak syllable deletion (“pape” instead of “paper”), consonant harmony (“goggy” instead of “doggy), cluster reduction (“tool” instead of “stool”), stopping (“pan” instead of “fan”) and gliding of liquids (“wat” instead of “rat). In reality, as Maye, Werker & Gerken (2002) demonstrate in their research, a child perceives accurate phonemic contrasts, but he/she is unable to produce correct sounds until a proper age. Moreover, unlike adults, an infant may even distinguish foreign phonemic contrasts from native contrasts; due to this ability a child who is adopted in a foreign country may easily acquire language of his/her parents. At the age of 3-4 years most children learn to rightfully pronounce all sounds, eliminating the majority of phonological deviations. However, some children may continue to employ these deviations in their speech; specialists regard these children as individuals with certain phonological disorders that may have a detrimental effect on their reading skills (Ingram, 1989).

When a child learns how to pronounce simple words, he/she proceeds to combine known words into small utterances. In this respect, a child acquires syntactic skills that are usually developed in two stages: the holophrastic stage and the two-word stage. During the holophrastic stage (between 0.9 and 1.0 years) a child forms one-word utterances with a certain intonation. In general, these utterances are composed of either verbs or nouns, while adjectives and other parts of speech are acquired by a child afterwards. In fact, it is rather difficult for adults to interpret child’s one-word sentences, as, for instance, “book” may mean that he/she wants his/her parents to read a book or that he/she sees a book or that he/she does not like this book. The situation is even more complicated when a child pronounces a phrase without intervals. According to O’Grady (1997), “many children initially treat what’s that? look at that, come here, and similar expressions as single units that are linked holistically to a particular situational context” (p.13). In other words, if a child hears phrases that are somehow stressed, he/she may extract them from the rest of speech and use them as a single entity, making no pauses among words.

In the two-word stage (1.5-2.0 years) a child creates two-word sentences that are pronounced with single intonation and start to reflect the first semantic relations, for instance, “baby read” or “sit table” (Pinker, 1994). In general, these utterances are categorised as follows:

1) Noun Utterances: My apple, His Daddy.

2) Verb Utterances: Me play, Girl sing.

3) Questions: Mom read? Baba go?

4) Negatives: Not eat, No shirt.

As the examples show, though these sentences are not grammatically right yet, they are constructed in a right order (Ingram, 1989). By the age of 2-3 years a child easily produces several thousand syntactic utterances, and the major stress in these utterances is placed on the word that provides more information (e.g. “Mummy COME” or “MUMMY come”). Initially, these sentences lack such function units as “on”, “the” or “of” and such inflections as “-s”, “-ing” or “-ed” (hence, child’s speech at this stage is usually regarded as “telegraphic speech”), but gradually a child includes negations, passives, comparatives, relative clauses and conjunctions in his/her sentences. In some cases a child may use right patterns and wrong patterns in one sentence, for instance, I reading and Mama is cooking. Such a combination reveals that a child knows certain grammar patterns, but he/she has not mastered them yet. However, if an adult uses these patterns incorrectly, he/she will obviously point at the mistake. As a child acquires knowledge of such a pattern as “-ed”, he/she usually turns to overregularisation, that is, a process when all verbs become regular in child’s speech (e.g. “goed” or “spended”). This overregularisation can be explained by the fact that a child acquires a language in certain patterns and, as he/she learns the pattern (e.g. “mama helped” or “baba claimed”), he/she applies this pattern to other verbs, including irregular verbs. It is certainly easier for a child to apply “-ed” to all verbs than to memorise all irregular verbs and differentiate regular verbs from irregular verbs. As the time passes, a child learns to change the wrong verb form for a right form. In addition, he/she gradually acquires knowledge of definite and indefinite articles, plural nouns, linking verbs and possessive cases. However, even when a child acquires knowledge of all these rules and patterns, he/she may still be unable to form complex utterances; consequently, a child may turn to the repetition of certain phrases to fill gaps in his/her speech.

Finally, as a child manages to create simple sentences, he/she acquires semantic skills (approximately 3.0 years). As word acquisition intensifies, a child collides with a necessity to form semantic patterns; above all, a child uses those content categories that refer to objects, events and humans, although usage of these categories greatly depends on social, cultural and linguistic aspects. However, in all cultures a meaning that a child puts into a certain object or an utterance differs from a usual adult speech.

As Harris (1990) states, young children “are able to express complex meanings, although these meanings are concerned with the current interests and needs, rather than abstract concepts or events that are distant in terms of time or space” (p.4). If a child mainly interacts with his/her peers, then he/she adjusts language to this childish realm. As a rule, a child employs either overgeneralisation or underextension when he/she creates semantic patterns. As for the first process, a child provides a word with more meanings than the word has; for example, he/she may apply the word “fox” to different animals. In the case of underextension, a child uses fewer meanings than a word has in a usual vocabulary; for example, he/she may associate a word “arm” only with a mother who touches him/her. In other instances a child fails to recognise a word. Besides, if a child can not find an appropriate word during speech, he/she may devise completely new words with new meanings. However, as a child grows and interacts with people in different situations, he/she learns more meanings of words and utterances (Beals & Tabors, 1995). This especially regards interactions with adults; as adult speech is more sophisticated, a child memorises unknown patterns and then employs them in his/her speech. Hence, as a child acquires words and phrases with a profound semantic content, he/she gradually eliminates less semantically valid patterns. According to Frawley (1992), a child’s early semantic patterns reflect the following semantic categories:

Agent and Action Cat run

Agent and Object Girl doll

Entity and Locative Baba far

Attribute and Entity Wet hair

Agent and Location Mother bath

Action and Recipient Give birdie

Possessor and Possession Papa pen

But as a child shapes linguistic skills (3.5–4.0 years), he/she starts to employ more semantic categories, such as number, time, colour, substance, shape, position, etc., for instance, “Mummy and I went to a playground”, “My doll cries and I calm her” or “I give it to you”. Mastering the major concepts of grammar/meaning relations, a child manages to gradually employ complex grammar patterns:

- negatives: shouldn’t, needn’t, couldn’t;

- when-questions (as well as what and why): When do you go?

- tag-questions: You will go with me, will you?

- be + verb + -ing: Is Mummy Cooking?

- compound utterances: Papa is working and I am playing.

- if sentences: I will do if I wish.

Thus, analysing child language acquisition, the essay suggests that from 6 months to 4-5 years a child gradually acquires phonological, syntactic and semantic skills. Although every child develops individually, language acquisition reflects common stages of speech perception and production. Some researchers (e.g. Pinker, 1994; O’Grady, 1997) claim that syntactic and semantic development of a child occurs simultaneously. The fact is that meanings of some verbs can not be understood by a child merely from a context; it is the knowledge of syntactic patterns that provides a child with an opportunity to rightfully uncover the meaning of these verbs. Whether this viewpoint is valid or not, it is absolutely clear that while a child has inborn abilities for language, he/she needs specific social environment to acquire it. This became especially obvious with a discovery of Amala and Kamala, the feral children who were brought up with wolves and could not speak at all. Such findings certainly refute an innate hypothesis and reveal that linguistic skills of a child are formed by and within society.

Table 1. Stages of Child Language Acquisition*


From birth to 0.5 years – perception of adult speech;

0.6 years – pronunciation of the first sounds (vowels → consonants → vowels + consonants);

0.8 years – repetition of syllables and recognition of phonemic differences;

1.0 year – understanding of the relation between sounds and meaning;

Use of phonological deviations:

1.4 years - cluster reduction

2 years – weak syllable deletion

initial consonant deletion

final consonant deletion

2.0-3.0 years – palatal fronting

velar fronting


gliding of liquids


0.9–1.0 years – “the holophrastic stage” – formation of one-word utterances;

1.5-2.0 years – “telegraphic speech”, formation of two-word utterances;

2.0–3.0 years – overregularisation of grammar


3.0 years – application of meaning to language patterns and grammar structures;

Use of either overgeneralisation or


Use of the following semantic categories:

1) Agent and Action

2) Agent and Object

3) Entity and Locative

4) Attribute and Entity

5) Agent and Location

6) Action and Recipient

7) Possessor and Possession

3.5-4.0 years – knowledge of complex grammar patterns:

- negatives;

- when-questions;

- tag-questions;

- be + verb + -ing;

- compound utterances;

- if sentences

* The ages of child’s language development are approximate; the data in this table are generalised, while every child acquires phonological, syntactic and semantic skills on an individual basis. However, such a generalisation is important, as it allows specialists to reveal any deviations from the normal development of children.


Bankson, N. & Bernthal, J. (1998) Analysis of assessment data. In: J. Bernthal and N. Bankson (eds.) Articulation and Phonological Disorders. Boston, Butterworth-Heinemann. pp.270-298.

Beals, D. E. & Tabors, P. O. (1995) Arboretum, bureaucratic and carbohydrate: Preschoolers’ exposure to rare vocabulary at home. First Language, 15, 57-76.

Cole, M. & Cole, S. (1996) The Development of Children. New York, W. H. Freeman & Company.

Echols, C. & Newport, E. (1992) The role of stress and position in determining first words. Language Acquisition, 2, 189-220.

Fee, J. (1995) Segments and syllables in early language acquisition. In: J. Archibald (ed.) Phonological Acquisition and Phonological Theory. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum. pp.43-61.

Frawley, W. (1992) Linguistic Semantics. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Harris, J. (1990) Early Language Development: Implications for Clinical and Educational Practice. London, Routledge.

Ingram, D. (1989) First Language Acquisition: Method, Description, and Explanation. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Macken, M. (1995) Phonological acquisition. In: J. A. Goldsmith (ed.) The Handbook of Phonological Theory. Cambridge, Blackwell. pp.671-696.

Maye, J., Werker, J. F. & Gerken, L. (2002) Infant sensitivity to distributional information can affect phonetic discrimination. Cognition, 82 (3), 101-111.

O’Grady, W. (1997) Syntactic Development. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, S. (1994) How could a child use verb syntax to learn verb semantics? Lingua, 92, 377-410.



Until the 70s years of the 20th century semantics was completely excluded from any studies of grammar (Lyons, 1995; Bach, 2002). But recently, linguists and researchers have recognised a great variety of semantic roles (or theta roles) that provide valid information as to grammar/meaning relations (Cutrer, 1993). According to Payne (1997), a semantic role is a specific role that is classified in accordance with its meaning and is performed by a participant with regard to the principal verb of an utterance. In other words, semantic roles provide an opportunity to identify either similarities or dissimilarities of verb’s meanings in sentences. Actually, some semantic roles are regarded as principal, while others are thought to be less crucial for a linguistic analysis. But, as Langacker (1991) points out, “there is no unique or exclusive set of role conceptions. Those cited as archetypal are analogous to the highest peak in a mountain range: they coexist with others that may be significant despite their lesser salience” (p.237). The major semantic roles include Agent, Patient, Instrument, Theme, Cause, Experience, Goal, Benefective (or Beneficiary), Source, Location, Temporal and Path (Jackendoff, 1990; Dowty, 1991). According to Van Valin (1999), semantic relations may be also divided into two groups: the first group includes the usual semantic roles, such as Agent, Patient, Theme, etc., while the second group includes merely two semantic roles – Actor and Undergoer. The roles of the second group are usually referred to as semantic macroroles. Although this categorisation is not universally accepted, nevertheless, it is employed by researchers for a profound investigation of grammar/meaning relations. In the present analysis the classification of Jackendoff (1990) and Dowty (1991) is used.

Let’s start from the following examples:

Teddy killed the deer with a hunting rifle.

A hunting riffle killed a deer.

A deer was killed.

In the first sentence Teddy performs a semantic role of an Agent, while in grammatical relations Teddy is a Subject. For all that, Teddy is associated with a hunting rifle by means of a grammar/meaning relation of a “kill” event. In the second sentence a semantic role of a Hunting Riffle is an Instrument, but in grammatical relations it is a Subject. Finally, in the third sentence a Deer appears in a semantic role of a Patient, while in grammatical relations it is again a Subject. Actually, if two participants are involved in an action of a sentence, a grammar/meaning relation is considered to be asymmetric. For instance, in the sentence Jimmy touched Marry two participants are involved in the action, but they perform various roles. Jimmy is a person who starts the action, thus, he is an Agent, while Marry is a person who is influenced by Jimmy’s action and she is a Patient. In this context, an Agent performs a conscious segment of a particular action and a Patient unconsciously responds to this action.

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As the above example demonstrates, an Agent should necessarily be alive, as it starts an action; however, this attribute is not ascribed to a Patient that is influenced by an action either in a direct or indirect way. There are some English sentences, where only an Agent is presented, such as Steven took a two-week holiday. Although this sentence differs from the previous utterance, both examples belong to a “do” category. But there are other categories of events, and sometimes it is really difficult to identify the right category (Frawley, 1992). The fact is that English sentences may reflect many similar features, but, despite these similarities, they may reveal various events and different semantic roles. For instance, in the sentence Peter heard a noise, Peter is a participant, but unlike prior examples, Peter does not appear as an Agent, because he is not an initiator of the action, he is an Experiencer. Therefore, such sentences may be attributed to an “experience” category. However, sentences that belong to this category may pose certain problems, as they may demonstrate different peculiarities of events, changing semantic roles in utterances. For example, in the sentence Ann looked at Ted, Ann is an Agent of the action, though she is also an Experiencer (similar to Peter from the previous example). Ann consciously pays heed to something, while Peter is unconscious of his action. Both sentences look similar, but peculiarities of events and semantic roles are different in these utterances. The second complexity that may occur in the process of analysis refers to the second participant of the discussed sentence. While in sentences with a “do” category the second participant is a Patient, because it is influenced by the Agent’s act, in sentences with an “experience” category the second participant (e.g. Ted) is not a Patient, as it is not influenced by the Agent’s act. As the above sentence shows, Ted is necessary for better understanding of the event; hence, he may be considered as a Theme of an action. But some utterances in this category have neither an Agent nor a Patient, though at the first sight it is easy to make a mistake. For example, in the sentence Danny loves Mag there are no agents or patients, as Danny does not perform any action and Mag is not explicitly or implicitly influenced by this action (probably she does not even know of Danny’s feelings). In this utterance Danny is an Experiencer, while Mag is a Theme. Unlike semantic roles, grammar roles can be identified more easily; in the discussed sentence Danny is a subject and Mag is an object. In fact, one grammar constituent may have a number of semantic roles; for example, a subject may involve an Experiencer, an Agent, a Patient, while an object may include a Theme, a Patient, an Instrument, etc.

Thus, semantic roles provide more accurate and profound information as to the meaning of an utterance than grammar roles; however, both grammar roles and semantic roles are crucial for linguistics. In addition to the mentioned categories, there is also a “happen” category that is rather facile. For instance, the sentence My car is broken has one participant that is explicitly influenced by an action; that is why this participant (My car) is a Patient (there is no Agent in this utterance).

Unlike a “happen” category, a so called “information transfer” category may pose certain difficulties for those who analyse semantic roles. In the sentence Jerome informed Timmy of a conference there are two participants – Jerome and Timmy. But while Jerome is an Agent of the occurred event, Timmy is not a Patient, as one may consider, taking into account the previous examples. In this utterance Timmy is a Recipient, and a Patient is absent in this sentence – neither Timmy nor information can be regarded as a Patient, because information is not directly or indirectly influenced by Timmy or by the transfer. In this regard, information in the discussed utterance is a Theme of the event. Overall, in all mentioned examples nouns and adjectives refer or point at a particular event; however, there are also sentences, where these parts of speech pay heed to a specific state instead of an event. Such utterances relate to a “be” category. For instance, in the sentence Viola is healthy again, Viola is a Participant that also appears as a Theme. In this utterance the state of Viola is determined by the adjective “healthy”, but not by a verb (as in the prior examples). Therefore, “healthy” fulfils a predicative role, unlike verbs in preceding sentences that fulfil an attributive role. Sentences in this category may also reflect temporal relations, like in the following utterance: Garry is in front of Nick. In this sentence there are two participants that certainly appear in temporal relations; undoubtedly, if the sentence is changed for Nick is behind Garry, the relations between Nick and Garry will not be altered. In this respect, both participants perform the role of a Theme in the sentence.

In view of all observed examples, it is obvious that participants may fulfil either a central role or a marginal role in the action; that is, a division is made between the principal and secondary participants. For instance, in the sentence Nelly embraced Steve before the guests, Nelly is the principal participant, an Agent, while Steve is the secondary participant, an Instrument with the help of which Nelly fulfils the action. Even if an Agent is absent, as in the sentence A stone broke the fence, there is a supposed Agent and an Instrument. Moreover, if two participants are mentioned in a sentence, the secondary participant may perform a role of a Beneficiary, as in the following example: Mommy did homework for Sally. In this utterance Sally is a Beneficiary, as another person (his Mommy) does homework for him. Therefore, the analysed sentences demonstrate that each semantic role may reflect different properties, and identification of these properties may be rather problematic in the process of analysis, resulting in frequent confusions. Table 2 below epitomises the observed semantic roles, their major functions and possible problems.

Table 2. Major semantic roles

Semantic role


Possible confusions / problems


The principal participant (always animate) that starts an action

An Experiencer may be wrongly regarded as an Agent


An Agent consciously fulfils an action, while An Experiencer is not consciously involved in the action’s fulfilment


The principal participant (either inanimate or animate) that is influenced by an event

In certain cases a Patient may perform a role of an Agent

This occurs in instances that signify moves; that is, when a participant simultaneously performs an action and is influenced by it


The secondary participant with the help of which an Agent fulfils an action

If there are both an Agent and a Causer in a sentence, it may be difficult to rightfully identify instruments of an Agent and a Causer

The instrument for a Causer is an Agent

An Agent possesses other instruments


The principal participant that does not induce an event and is not influenced by it

In the case of temporal relations there are usually two themes, instead of one


The principal participant (always animate) that does not explicitly fulfil an action; instead, it undergoes a certain state (or an event)

As an Experiencer is influenced by a state (or an event), it may be confused with a Patient or even with an Agent (when an action coincides with experience)


The secondary participant (always animate) that make gains from a certain event

A Beneficiary should not be confused with a Patient that is the principal participant


The objective (always animate) of an event that is connected with a transfer

A recipient may perform a role of an Agent in such a sentence as “Father took a strange envelop from Jack

As is shown in Table 2, there are no definite borders among semantic roles; actually, every role may perform different functions in a sentence (Parsons, 1990), and the lack of an integrated structure complicates the analysis. The occurred intricacies can be explained by the fact that any semantic category is based on concepts of subjectivity rather than concepts of objectivity (Knott & Sanders, 1998). For example, the word bookcase consists of certain letters and sounds, so it can not be attributed merely to an object. As words and meanings are acquired from a particular social, cultural and linguistic realm (Peregrin, 2003), the relations among all parts of speech are casual, but not natural. Therefore, semantic categories differ not only among members of various societies, but also among people of the same society. For instance, in two utterances Julia prepared bath for Jill and Julia prepared Jill a bath there are certain semantic roles that may be interpreted either as similar or as different. In the first utterance Julia is an Agent and Jill is a Recipient, while in the second utterance  

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