One can easily think of a few words that are likely to be found in a child’s first lexicon. Such words as “mama,” “dada,” “hi,” “bye,” and “no” are widespread early utterances. The important issue is why those words may become someone’s first. Analyzing early utterances can help gain insight into how humans learn to speak, i.e. how they master the skill that constitutes our most striking distinction as a species—language.
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First of all, it is important to understand that, to learn words, children need to make them out. Adults do not think about it, but a person is constantly surrounded by various sounds and noises, and it is a challenge for a baby’s brain to separate repetitive meaningful sounds (words) from other, non-language sounds. Second, when just beginning to use words, children may disregard their meaning and use them as signals. Owens (2015) claims that “[a] continuity exists between prelinguistic and linguistic skills” (p. 173), which means that the function of the first words of a baby is similar to that of gestures, and there is a certain progressive transition to verbal skills. Finally, the way children pronounce words is highly affected by their hearing and vocal organs, both of which may be underdeveloped at a certain age for the adequate discerning of speech and “playing back” the words a baby hears. All of these factors affect the way children obtain and use their first words.
Another important aspect of early utterances is why certain words become children’s first. Several factors may contribute to this. One of them is the frequency of use. Naturally, children tend to reproduce words that they often hear, especially if people around them encourage them to say those words, e.g. many parents teach their children to say “mom” and “dad.” The simplicity of words and sounds plays its role, too. The sound “ah” is the most natural and least difficult to produce, which is why many alphabets start with letters designating this sound. And that is the reason children say “dah-dah” and “mah-mah.” Concerning the grammatical characteristics of first words, they are mostly nouns because one of their primary functions is to be the names for things that surround a child (Tomasello & Merriman, 2014). Finally, the intent of using words should be taken into consideration, too. Children can see that saying words bring them various reactions from other people, i.e. certain consequences occur. It works as encouragement for using words further. Children may soon discover that saying words is a way to request something or enter an interaction.
My classmates’ assumptions and arguments about first words, their origin, and functions are generally similar to mine. No significant disagreement was detected
Simultaneous Language Acquisition
Language acquisition is the process of developing language skills in a child. It should be recognized that this process is far more complicated than learning new words. Getting to understand grammar and syntax is a very complex neuropsychological and cognitive process. It can be compared to the creation of a comprehensive textbook. From merely hearing human speaking, children’s brain has to compose a sort of grammatical guidebook to master communication. This process is still not studied fully, but explaining certain observed phenomena has been addressed in various studies. For example, examining simultaneous language acquisition, i.e. the development of more than one language in a child, can provide a valuable perspective on how people learn to speak.
Under the circumstances of a heterogeneous linguistic environment, language development in children can display various unusual features in terms of such phenomena as transfer, acceleration, and deceleration (Hambly, Wren, McLeod, & Roulstone, 2013). Understanding these phenomena is important for education purposes. For example, it can help develop guidelines for teachers who deal with preschool students going through simultaneous language development.
In the classroom, if a child has to speak a language that is different from the one he or she speaks at home, it can create confusion and barriers for interactions. However, simultaneous language acquisition observations show that, sometimes, children get to set up clear boundaries between different areas of their linguistic environments, i.e. they know which language goes where. Based on this framework of setting boundaries, a theory has been popular that, in bilingual families, each parent should talk to their children in one of the two languages exclusively. Recent studies have confirmed the fallacy of this theory (MacLeod, Fabiano-Smith, Boegner-Pagé, & Fontolliet, 2013); however, the practice persists.
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When dealing with bilingual preschool students, educators should pursue the goal of facilitating the children’s oral language. The main recommendation for educators is to talk a lot: studies have shown that the number of words heard by children affects language development. Higher amounts of contacted oral language help children start speaking this language sooner (Reading Rockets, 2014). Another recommendation is that preschool children should not be forced to speak in the classroom. Instead, they might be occasionally offered an assignment involving oral language, such as repeating. Overall, a non-threatening environment should be created where a child can feel more willing to speak despite possibly making “mistakes” due to simultaneous language acquisition.
Hambly, H., Wren, Y., McLeod, S., & Roulstone, S. (2013). The influence of bilingualism on speech production: A systematic review. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 48(1), 1-24.
MacLeod, A. A., Fabiano-Smith, L., Boegner-Pagé, S., & Fontolliet, S. (2013). Simultaneous bilingual language acquisition: The role of parental input on receptive vocabulary development. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 29(1), 131-142.
Owens, R. E. (2015). Language development: An introduction. New York, NY: Pearson.
Reading Rockets (2014, April 25). Meaningful differences: The word gap. Web.
Tomasello, M., & Merriman, W. E. (2014). Beyond names for things: Young children’s acquisition of verbs. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.