Individual children's different paths in first word learning

Image from: Vowel Acoustic Space Development in Children: A Synthesis of Acoustic and Anatomic Data, Volume: 50, Issue: 6, Pages: 1510-1545, DOI: 10.1044/1092-4388(2007/104)

The study in a sentence

This study helps to illustrate that no two children acquire sounds and words in the same way.

The paper argues that there are three main factors affecting different language development paths:

  • individual differences between children
  • the linguistic input (which words each child hears, and how many)
  • the physiology of the infant vocal tract (which is different from adults)

Here are the first words of two children, Joan and Leslie, produced when they were around 11-12 months old.

The question

It’s not hard to see that most of these words aren’t being produced in the way we would expect an adult to produce them. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone apart from Leslie and Joan’s caregivers would understand what they meant. Knowing one of the babies (or any other baby, in fact) would not help you to understand the other one: each child pronounces their first words in their own way.

Despite this, there are some patterns that can be seen in early words, even for just these two children. For instance, the words only contain a small range of consonants and very few vowels; all the forms use alternating consonants and vowels, and all the words are quite short.

In this study the authors explored how babies produce words in their early developmental stages, why they aren’t able to pronounce words in an adult-like way, and what accounts for the similarities and the differences we find among children’s early words.

Key concept: templates

Although a baby’s first words are often relatively accurate, in the period that follows we typically find a ‘regression’ in accuracy, with the baby’s words tending to become more similar due to the emergence of one or more production routines or ‘word templates’.

Our research investigates the ways in which these phonological templates first appear and later fade and how they differ according to the language that the baby hears around them, and how individual children may produce different templates even when hearing the same language.

The evidences suggests that each child is an active learner in a unique environment.

    • Every child learns some words which are different from those that other children learn.
      • For example, their own name and the name of brothers, sisters, pets and favourite toys.
    • These words - which they will hear and want to use the most - will affect the specific sounds and sequences of sounds that they practice and are therefore able to produce early on.

What factors affect the shape of the templates a child uses to build their first words?

The answer

The language the child is learning has significant influence on their first words.

    • Languages differ in stress pattern, syllable structure, and the sounds they use, and children are very sensitive to what they hear around them.
      • For example, English words are usually stressed on the first syllable, so this is the syllable a child is mostly likely to hear and try to produce.
      • French words, on the other hand, are usually stressed on the second syllable, and French babies, therefore, tend to pay more attention to the final syllable of words.

Classroom activities

Lead in task

In what ways is the sound shape of children's first words similar to or different from adult words?

Extension task

What factors affect the sound shapes of children's early words?

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

IMD individual paths

Meet the author

Read the paper

Vihman, M. (2016). Prosodic structures and templates in bilingual phonological development. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 19(1), 69-88. Download author copy.