Stages of Oral Language Development
From birth on, children begin to learn about their environments and to communicate with family members.
What they are learning is reflected in the ways in which they vocalize.
As early as six weeks, infants will begin to spontaneously make cooing sounds (Reich, 1986; Wolff, 1969). These extended sounds resemble vowel sounds, such as /aaa/, /ooo/, /ahhh/. (Note that the slash marks surrounding the letters refer to the sound associated with the letters.) At this stage children are learning to make sounds by manipulating their tongues, mouths, and breathing. This cooing behavior may occur when the child is alone and clearly indicates the child is experimenting with making sounds.
These vowel-like sounds occur earlier than do the consonant-like sounds because the vowel-like sounds are produced with less articulation than are the consonant sounds. For example, when you produce an /aaa/ sound your mouth and throat are more open; when you produce a /p/ sound, you need to coordinate your lips and breath to produce the sound.
Infants’ sound production becomes more varied and complex around 4–6 months of age. At this time they begin to babble, making repeated consonant–vowel sounds, such as ba-ba-ba (Clark & Clark, 1977; Stoel-Gammon, 1998). A more complex type of babbling develops around 8–10 months. This type of babbling varies in intonation and rhythm and sounds like the child is talking. It is called echolalic babbling because it reflects the intonation and rhythm of the speech of the adults in the child’s environment (Sachs, 1989).
Around one year of age, children begin to produce word-like units. These word-like units may be invented words, also known as idiomorphs (Reich, 1986). For example, a child may have a special invented word that refers to a toy or to his personal blanket. This idiomorph is a “word” in the sense that it is stable and used to refer to a particular object on a consistent basis. In addition to these invented words, children also produce more conventional words that resemble adult pronunciation and meaning.
The one-word stage is a significant development because the child is now using a stable language unit to communicate meaning. Often parents and family members will adopt the child’s invented words or pronunciations as a way of encouraging the child to talk.
As toddlers develop their speaking vocabulary, they begin to string several words together. Like Eric in the chapter’s opening vignette, children typically enter their preschool years speaking in several word utterances or short sentence-like segments. This is referred to as telegraphic speech because utterance includes only content words with no conjunctions, articles, prepositions, or word endings (for example, plural endings) (Tager-Flusberg, 1997), such as “daddy shoe,” “go bye-bye,” or “cookie all gone.” This stage is significant because now the child is arranging the words in ways that communicate more complex messages.
Beginning Oral Fluency
By ages 3–4, most children will be moderately fluent in the language used at home. They use this oral language for a variety of purposes, such as asking questions, responding to others’ questions, and expressing their thoughts. Throughout the remaining preschool years, as well as in elementary school, children’s oral language continues to become more complex in grammar and vocabulary, and more varied in the ways that they use language to communicate with others, both in their family and in their community.