Written by Dr. Ellenmorris Tiegerman Friday, 04 June 2010 00:00
Babies Learning Speech
Infants are uniquely attuned to perceive the various sounds they hear in their environment. Some researchers suggest that babies are pre-programmed to learn speech since the acquisition process occurs so rapidly. The first sounds that infants acquire are the sounds which are universal to all languages. Although infants can perceive a vast range of speech sounds (i.e., phonemes) within a language, they cannot, however, produce the same range. The reason is that the structure of an infant’s mouth, throat and tongue is not sufficiently developed to allow him the range of movement to produce specific sounds. The earliest sounds are usually vowels or vowel-like productions. At six months, the baby produces and may even repeat syllable sequences initiating a babbling period used by the infant to express communicative intentions. Phonemes that are unique to the native language are acquired later along with the more difficult sound productions. Sound combinations such as /Ma-Ma and Da-Da/ are acquired early on while the more difficult sound productions including /L, R, S/ are acquired by children much later (i.e., 7 to 9 years of age).
Phonological acquisition is accomplished over several years; therefore, substitutions which adults often find to be cute occur in many children (i.e., thumb for some). During the first year, children learn to combine vocal and gestural forms to communicate a message. During the second year, children begin to produce words which are recognizable by adults since they are consistent and sound similar to conventional words. Sounds combined with gestures become words in what is often described as “the one-word stage.” During this period, there is a vocabulary explosion in which the child acquires hundreds of words in a relatively short period of time. Children’s word growth increases steadily during the preschool years so that by the age of 8, children’s receptive vocabulary may be between 6,000 and 8,000 words.
Children have the unique ability to learn any language. Infants can acquire speech sounds within any language system. The fact that children learn English is because they are exposed to the English language and sound system. Over time, the universal sounds disappear within the child’s repertoire and the phonemes which are left are specific to English. Speech sound development is progressive but takes place over many years. And since it is developmentally determined, there is a specific order for sound development in every language. All children learning English will acquire English phonemes in a pre-determined sequence. All children learning Chinese will learn phonemes specific to Chinese in a specific sequence. Since the sounds in English and Chinese are different, the patterns of development will also be different. The time to learn a second or third language is during the formative period when there is a facility for language learning. Once a language has been acquired, the development of a second language becomes much more difficult. As a result, it is understandable that the older a person gets, the harder it is to learn a second language.