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At what age should children start using simple sentences?

Children differ in their learning strategies and developmental patterns. Therefore age “benchmarks (for example, "first words appear around 12 months") only represent a very general average. It is completely normal for children to develop a skill either a few months earlier or a few months later than the “benchmark” age. With that in mind, we can summarize the general pattern for how children learn to use simple sentences.

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Simple sentences start appearing in children's speech when they are 30 to 36 months old. To some, this might seem quite late, considering that children's first words appear around 12 months of age. But before they can string words into sentences, children need to acquire some basic knowledge about their language's grammar. For example, we think of nouns and verbs as the building blocks of sentences ("cat"+"want"+"milk" = "The cat wants some milk"), but even very simple sentences often require the speaker to add other words ("the"/"some") and inflections ("want"->"wants"). Learning function words and inflections is not trivial because, unlike content words like "cat" and "milk", children cannot experience the meaning of "the", "some", and "-s". To make things even more complicated, the words need to be put in the right order and said aloud with a melody and emphasis that matches the intended meaning (compare "The CAT wants some milk" vs. "The cat wants some MILK"). Managing all of this, even for simple sentences, can be difficult for young children.

But even though children under 30 months do not yet produce full sentences, they do learn how to combine words in other ways. For example, soon after their first birthdays, many children begin to combine words with gestures such as pointing, showing, and nodding. The combination of a word and a gesture (for example, the word "milk" + a nod) says more than just the word or the gesture alone. In fact, some studies suggest that these early word-gesture combinations are linked to children’s development of two-word combinations just a few months later.

From around 18 months, children begin to use two-word sequences like "Bear. Trolley." to express sentence-like meanings (in this case: "The bear is in the trolley”). At first, the words in these sequences sound unconnected, like individual mini-sentences of their own. But as children get more practice, the pauses between words get shorter and the melody of each word seems more connected to the next one.

At 24 months, when children are at the heart of this "two-word stage", they often produce sequences of 2–3 words that sound like normal sentences, only with most of the function words and inflections left out ("There kitty!") At this stage, some children even consistently place the words in a specific order, for example, with "pivot" words ("more", "no", "again", "it", "here") only being used in the first position for some children ("more apple", "here apple") and the second position for others ("apple more", "apple here"). As children begin to use shorter pauses, more consistency in word order, and speech melodies that join the individual words together, they show evidence that their word sequences were planned as a single act: a sentence.

Even when children finally begin producing simple sentences around 30–36 months, they still have a lot to learn. Their ideas about how to combine words into longer sequences are not yet adult-like, and rely quite a bit on what they hear most often around them. Marking words with the correct inflections can be complicated, and it is not uncommon for children to make errors as they learn which inflections are regular (walk, walks, walked...) and which are irregular (am, is, was...). In the 2 years following the onset of simple sentences, children continue to make huge advances in their vocabulary size and use of grammatical marking (among other things). Their sentences become more elaborate with age and, by the time they are 4–5 years old, they have learned a lot of what they need to know to communicate fluently with others.

 

If you would like to learn more about language development please have a look at the website of Nijmegen's Baby Research Centre.

Marisa Casillas & Elma Hilbrink

References:

Clark, E. V. (2009). “Part II: Constructions and meanings”. In First language acquisition (pp. 149–278). Cambridge University Press.

Iverson, J. M., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological science16(5), 367-371.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

 
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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos