Language Development in Children

In children, language development takes place through a series of stages. These stages lead up to a baby's first words and can include crying, babble play, and single words. Although most babies follow these stages in order, sounds from the previous stages can reappear. For example, you can hear "la-la-la" after the single-word stage is reached, but probably not as often as you heard it earlier.

Child Language Development: An Overview

From the moment your baby was placed in your arms, you have probably been imagining what it will sound like to hear him say "mommy" or "daddy." However, before you hear these words, you will hear a host of sounds from your little one.
 
Many of these vocalizations may sound like those long-anticipated words; however, your infant will be at least 10 months old before there is any intention or meaning behind these sounds.
 

The Building Blocks of Baby Talk: Infant Language Development Stages

As with most things in life, language development takes place through a series of stages. The stages leading up to a baby's first words are:
 
  • Crying: When a baby cries, he is doing what he can to communicate his needs to you in the most basic form. The cries can vary slightly to convey a number of different messages.
(To learn what the different cries of a baby mean, read Understanding a Crying Baby.)
  • Babble play: When a baby experiments with her ability to make sounds beyond cries, her babbles consist primarily of non-verbal noises and vowel sounds. They include everything from the soft coos and raspberries to earsplitting squeals of delight.
     
  • Canonical or repetitive babbling: This is a fancy way of saying that in this stage of the language learning process, babies begin making repetitive sounds, such as "ma-ma-ma" and "gu-gu-gu." These classic "baby talk" sounds that are made up of one consonant and one vowel will begin popping up in a child's babbles between 7 and 11 months in infants with normal hearing.
     
  • Variegated babbling: This type of babbling sounds like your baby is actually saying a whole sentence in the form of a statement or question using the sounds he has mastered thus far plus new inflection, usually without any real words. An example of this stage in the language development process might sound like this:
    • "Baba beee-ummm gubba dum-goo-ee?" (ending with a high-pitched voice)
    • "Baba beee-ummm gubba dum-goo-ee." (ending with a lower-pitched voice)
 
More often than not however, these lengthy babbles usually lack real words or grammatical structure. This stage typically occurs between 11 and 13 months.
  • Single words: Babies learn from watching and listening to the words made by those around them. They eventually attach the meaning of words and objects to their own babbles if they sound alike and are repeated often enough. An example of this is "ba-ba-ba" and the word "bottle." This stage can occur as young as 9 months in babies with normal hearing, though it is more typical to have it occur after 12 months.
(Click Help Your Baby Talk to learn more.)
Written by/reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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