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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

How do people develop the different skills necessary for language acquisition, and in which order and why?

Children usually start babbling at an age of two or three months – first they babble vowels, later consonants and finally, between an age of seven and eleven months, they produce word-like sounds. Babbling is basically used by children to explore how their speech apparatus works, how they can produce different sounds. Along with the production of word-like sounds comes the ability to extract words from a speech input. These are important steps towards the infant’s first words, which are usually produced at an age of around 12 months.

Simple one-word utterances are followed by two-word utterances during the second half of the children’s second year, in which one can already observe grammar. Children growing up learning a language like Dutch or German (subject-object-verb order in subordinate clauses, which are considered to have a stable order) or English (subject-verb-object order) produce their two-sentences in a subject-verb order, such as “I eat”, while learners of languages such as Arabic or Irish (languages with a verb–subject–object order) produce sentences like “eat I”.  From then on, there is a rapid acceleration in the infant’s vocabulary growth as sentences also contain more words and get more complex. Grammar is said to have developed by an age of four or five years and by then, children are basically considered linguistic adults. The age at which children acquire these skills may vary strongly from one infant to another and the order may also vary depending on the linguistic environment in which the children grow up. But by the age of four or five, all healthy children will have acquired language. The development of language correlates with different processes in the brain, such as the formation of connective pathways, the increase of metabolic activity in different areas of the brain and myelination (the production of myelin sheaths that form a layer around the axon of a neuron and are essential for proper functioning of the nervous system).

By Mariella Paul and Antje Meyer

Further reading:

Bates E, Thal D, Finlay BL, Clancy, B (1999) Early Language Development and its Neural Correlates, in I. Rapin & S. Segalowitz (Eds.), Handbook of Neuropsychology, Vol. 6, Child Neurology (2nd edition). Amsterdam: Elsevier. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

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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Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

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