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  • Writer's pictureN. Jacob Tercero

Baby Talk

From the moment they are born, babies are making noises. They cry they coo, they giggle, and make all sorts of sounds. It isn't until later though that babies begin expressing actual words, or try to communicate in ways that we would recognize as speech. At what point does this baby, who one day could just babble, but the next is trying to make words, do they begin to understand that we have the ability to use this thing called language to express ourselves? In this blog post, we are going to think about how we as humans acquire our language and the incredible ways that babies begin to acquire language even while they are in the womb!


Before we start looking at infant language development it will be helpful for us to take a second and talk about how we acquire our language in general. How do we acquire the ability to speak and articulate in complex ways that language allows? Do we acquire the ability to speak by imitating adults around us? Maybe we hear our parents or siblings or grandparents talking and try to mimic them. Maybe we hear the sounds they make, the ways they communicate and we try to imitate them and through trial and error, through positive reinforcement, we learn to talk the way adults do.

This is a behavior theory of language acquisition and was popularized by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Behaviorism was a very common theory among psychologists and linguists for many years. The idea that “baby hear baby do” simply seemed to make sense. We learn basically any other skill through observation and imitation, we must therefore learn language the same way. [1] [4]

In the 50’s though a linguist by the name of Noam Chomsky came out with a new theory of language acquisition. [2] Chomsky argued that rather than acquiring our language merely through imitation our brains are actually hard-wired to naturally learn language and that language development is an innate natural development just like any other part of us. Just like our motor skills, like our ability to walk, or like hand-eye coordination. Acquiring language is simply part of the way that our brains were designed to grow. [3]

Why did Chomsky argue this? Well, first of all, he argued that based on how rapidly and comprehensively children learned language in relation to the amount of language data they received, there simply wasn’t enough language exposure equivalent to their development. [3][4] We also see that babies learn language in practically identical manners and stages across the world, even though grammars and language structures can vary wildly from Siberia to West Africa, children who speak Ket and children who speak Twi still learn their respective languages in similar stages and ways. How can this be? Well, Chomsky reasoned, it must be that we are born ready to learn language and that our innate understandings of language must point to an innate predisposition to language acquisition. If this is so then it’s not that we learn language just because we are imitating the sounds of our elders, but because we are effectively designed to be able to use language.

As we take a look now at the stages of language development in infants, we see how elegant and incredible language acquisition is. The rate at which they acquire a strong understanding of language, the ease at which they learn to use their language and all its complex weird rules is incredible and speaks to the intricate and deep inner workings of the baby’s mind.

They are so little, so fresh, so unaware, but deep in their brain, the mind is fast at work, doing so much that we can barely even understand.


In Utero

The brains of infants are like information sponges, soaking up buckets of information and knowledge about the world around them at warp speed. By the time an infant in the womb is at 30 weeks, they have developed the ability to begin to hear. During those last ten weeks of development, they are actively listening to their mother’s voice and pick up radical amounts of information about her speech. [5]

They pick up so much information about language while in the womb that by the time they are born they are able to, not just distinguish between mom’s voice and dad’s voice, or between mom’s voice and brother’s or grandma’s voice, but also able to recognize the difference between mom’s language and other languages! They do this by learning to recognize the vowels unique to their mother’s language. A study from Pacific Lutheran University found that infants in Seattle and infants in Stockholm were able to recognize the difference between English and Swedish vowels only hours after birth. [5] [6]

By the time they are mere hours old, a baby has received and understood so much linguistic information they are able to recognize that not everyone speaks the same way, and can pick out the sounds that belong to a particular language!

During Infancy

For the first few months of their lives, babies can't do much in terms of producing language, but that doesn't mean their brain isn't fast at work learning oodles about it! During the first few months of their lives, babies can distinguish between non-language sounds (like traffic, dog barks, and vacuums) and human language, they can discriminate between the language(s) of their parents and other languages and can recognize nonsense language stimuli as language sounds (even though the sounds don’t mean anything). [4]

By the time they are about 4 months old, they begin babbling. The first consonants they begin uttering are those most common in their own language. There are even specific sounds universally that babies across the world, irrespective of their language begin producing like “b” or “p” or "m" because all you need to make these sounds are two lips.

When a baby is about nine months old is when they start to recognize that sounds are connected to meaning. [4] When they recognize that sounds can have particular unique meanings in the form of words, they then begin to speak their own words! At this point, babies typically begin uttering nouns and verbs and between 12 months and 18 months, babies will begin to start producing the fifty or so most common words around them. [4] Even though babies are producing around fifty words, the number of words they know is much more than that. Their ability to speak words is restricted by the development of what linguists call their articulators which are their lips, their tongues, their teeth, and other parts of speech anatomy. Certain sounds can only be created with teeth (like the sound "th" in "bath" or the sound "f" in "farmer") other sounds require motor skills that babies just haven't developed yet (like the sound "r" in "rabbit" which some young children may pronounce with a "w" like Elmer Fudd does).

The point is, even though young children begin speaking in increments, the amount of knowledge they have about their language far outpaces the language they use while speaking.

At this age, babies will use single words to express much larger ideas. For example, a child could say binky which is expressing "I want my binky", or birdy might mean "I see a bird". Or they can also extend the meaning of a word so that by their saying candy they refer to any sweet thing. At the same time, they can limit the meaning of a word so that when a child says kitty, they aren't using the word to refer generally to cats but rather as referring to one particular cat. [4]

All of this points to rich and complex linguistic work happening under the neurocognitive hood of their little brains.

As Toddlers

By about 18 months old they begin to start stringing words together to create more (relatively) complex ideas, like combining nouns and adjectives, nouns and verbs, and so on. These typically look like children saying things like "ball big", "no drink", or "want crackers". At about 24 months children begin to construct longer utterances and express more complex linguistic ideas like questions. They speak without function words [4] (like do, the, those, or from) but still communicate complex ideas to the adults around them. At 30 months children's linguistic development increases rapidly. It almost seems like at this point, all of that information they had collected just clicks and now they use complex ideas like contraction of verbs and negation and using auxiliary verbs so confidently and intuitively yet having never been formally told how.

They make adult-like expressions without even thinking about it, and all of this by the time they are only around three. They have never had a grammar lesson in school, they've never even really been to school, but they know how to use their language so well and so confidently and in such complicated ways that it can baffle our ability to understand the complexity of their mind.

At this point, the majority of their linguistic education has happened. From this point on, as they grow older, they will learn new words and they will learn other complicated grammatical structures, but the most essential features have laid an incredible foundation during these short few years.


Language is one of those things that surround us. We are all around it, constantly using it, practically swimming in it, but we don't tend to give it a significant amount of thought. The grammar that we use, and the ideas we communicate, are all fairly complex, but we do it all intuitively, without almost thinking. We see in the language development of infants an incredible process that speaks to the beauty and mystery of the human brain, and how it was designed in such a way that babies learn their language in complex incredible ways at apparent light speed.

The rapid rate at which children learn their language, the complexity of their linguistic ability, and the intuitiveness of their speaking, all without any real formal education is a reality that points to something amazing. Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (that the grammars of all languages are somehow an innate thing neurocognitively speaking) remains a controversial idea among linguists, but based on what we have seen in the development of language in babies we know that something incredible is at work. When we dig into the language of children, we see that it is complex and rich and at a capacity that an adult would need several years to be able to acquire the same capacity in learning their second language through much trial and error, but the child does it (almost quite literally) in their sleep.


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[4] Denham, Kristin; Lobeck, Anne (2013) "Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction" Cengage Learning

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