Mechanisms of Language Development in Toddlers

There are four main areas in which the child must attain competence, regardless of the language or dialect spoken. These are referred to as phonology or sounds, semantics or the encoded meanings, syntax or the way in which words are combined and pragmatics or knowledge of how language is used in different contexts.

Receptive language, the understanding of others' speech, appears to have a gradual course of development beginning at about 6 months.. However, expressive language, the production of words, moves rapidly after its beginning at about a year of age, with a vocabulary explosion of rapid word acquisition occurring in the middle of the second year. Grammatical rules and word combinations appear at about age two. Mastery of vocabulary and grammar continue gradually through the preschool and school years.

Babies from one month old can produce simple sounds which appear to grow out of pleasurable interactions with caregivers in a mutual dialogue. According to Stern, this process is communication of affect between adult and infant in a mutual, rhythmic interaction. The attunement and gaze-coupling in which infant and adult take different roles is thought to anticipate the give-and-take of later dialogue.

From about 6 to 9 months babies produce more vowels, some consonants and the frequent repetition of sounds like "mamma" which appear to have some phonetic characteristics of later speech. It is thought that a crucial part of the development of speech is the time caregivers spend guessing what their infants are trying to communicate thus integrating the child into their social world. The attribution of intentionality to the infant's utterances has been called shared memory and forms a complex series of actions, intentions and actions in response in an improvised way.

It has been argued that children's phonological systems develop in ways that are parallel to adult languages, even if they are using unrecognizable words. First words have the function of naming or labeling but also condense meaning as in toffee meaning "I want toffee". Vocabulary typically grows from about 20 words at 18 months to around 200 words at 21 months. From around 18 months the child starts to combine words into two word sentences.

Typically the adult expands it to clarify meaning. By 24-27 months the child is producing three or four word sentences using a logical, if not strictly correct, syntax. The theory is that children apply a basic set of rules such as adding s for plurals or inventing simpler words out of words too complicated to repeat. Following this there is a rapid appearance of grammatical rules and ordering of sentences. There is often an interest in rhyme, and imaginative play frequently includes conversations. Children's recorded monologues give insight into the development of the process of organizing information into meaningful units.

By three years the child is beginning to use complex sentences, including relative clauses, although still perfecting various linguistic systems. By five years of age the child's use of language is very similar to that of an adult. From the age of about three children can indicate fantasy or make-believe linguistically, produce coherent personal stories and fictional narrative with beginnings and endings. It is argued that children devise narrative as a way of understanding their own experience and as a medium for communicating their meaning to others.

The ability to engage in extended discourse emerges over time from regular conversation with adults and peers. For this the child needs to learn to combine his perspective with that of others and with outside events and learn to use linguistic indicators to show he is doing this. They also learn to adjust their language depending on to whom they are speaking. Typically by the age of about 9 a child can recount other narratives in addition to their own experiences, from the perspectives of the author, the characters in the story and their own views.

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