Stages of Child Language Development

Stages of Language Development

First language acquisition is not something that occurs overnight.  Language is complicated and occurs bit-by-bit. It is not certain how exactly children learn language, but one of the most accepted theories was outlined by psychologist Roger Brown.  Interestingly, Brown’s stages of language development apply across languages and show roughly where a child should be in language development at a certain age.  It is important to remember, however, that these stages are only guidelines.  Children that reach these stages earlier or later than dictated may be of normal intelligence and do not necessarily have speech or learning disabilities.  

The first stages, outside of Rogerian theory, are the pre-linguistic stages.  These stages, lasting from birth to about five months, are named the Crying Stage, the Cooing Stage and the Babbling Stage.  The Crying Stage, lasting from birth to two months, consists of otherwise non-linguistic sounds such as crying, burping, sighing, coughing and sneezing. However, infants may have distinguishable cries such as a “hungry cry,” or “tired cry.”  The Cooing Stage, lasting from two months to five months, is characterized by vowel-like sounds that are often traded between the infant and the caregiver.  Laughter also begins in this stage. The third pre-linguistic stage, the Babbling Stage, is characterized by syllable-like sounds and lasts from five months to fifteen months when the true linguistic stages begin.  Babbling is really a form of “vocal play,” so will also have gurgling and other sound-making as the baby learns about all the sounds that they can make with their vocal tract.  The line between the Babbling Stage and the first linguistic stage is fuzzy, as towards the end of the Babbling Stage, babies will begin to use “protowords.”  Protowords do not correspond to the adult form of the word, but are always consistent when the child wants something specific.  For example, a child may call milk “da-pa,” regardless of the fact that “milk” bears no resemblance to “da-pa.”  This would be a protoword, so long as this “name” for milk is consistent.  Also towards the end of this stage, babies will have spoken some of their first true, adult words, such as “night night,” “bye bye” or “mommy.”  These utterances, though words, are not considered to be true speech as the child usually does not understand the construction of the words, just memorized them.

Roger Brown’s stages are characterized by syntactic structure, the morphemes present and the mean length of utterance (MLU) in morphemes.  A morpheme is a unit of language—smaller than a word—that is the smallest unit which still contains meaning.  A morpheme can be chopped off of a word and either still have meaning, or be able to be put on another word and retain the meaning it had before.  For example, in the word “unladylike,” there are three morphemes.  “Un-” is a morpheme, because it can be put onto other words and still have a meaning of negation.  “Lady” is also a morpheme because it retains its same meaning on its own, or in other words.  “-Like” is also a morpheme as it can be moved to the end of other words and have a meaning of becoming an adjective.

The first true linguistic stage, as outlined by Roger Brown, is Stage I.  Stage I, lasting from 15-30 months, is characterized by simple, sentences that consist of usually only one or two words.  These sentences do not have conjugated verbs or state of being verbs and often feature semantic relations.  Semantic relations are sentences where nothing but the words containing meaning that can be pictured are featured. For example, instead of saying, “The doggie is biting,” a child may reduce this utterance to “doggie bite.”  In Stage I, utterances have a mean length of utterance (MLU) of 1.75 morphemes.  Children in this stage can usually also construct two-word, simple questions.

Roger Brown’s Stage II, lasting from 28-36 months, is characterized by gaining four new morphemes: “-ing” endings, the word “in,” the word “on,” and “-s” plurals.  The MLU has also lengthened somewhat to 2.25.  In this stage, the child’s vocabulary is exploding and new words will be being assimilated every day.

Stage III, lasting from 36-42 months is characterized by gaining three new morphemes: irregular past tense verbs, “-‘s” possessives, and the “uncontractible copula.”  The uncontractible copula refers to a child’s ability to correctly use the verb “to be” and its conjugates as a state of being and the only verb in the sentence, but not being able to use it in a contraction.  MLU also increases in this stage to a length of 2.75. If your child has a stutter, this is the first stage where it will be apparent.  Stuttering is not a normal part of language development, and should stuttering occur, speak with a speech language pathologist.  Working with speech therapy early significantly increases the effectiveness of speech therapy.  This is also the stage where others who are not familiar with your child’s “lingo” will be able to understand everything that the child says.

From 40-46 months, children are in Stage IV.  Stage IV is characterized by gaining three new morphemes: articles (such as “a” and “the”), regular past tense verbs, and third person present tense regular verbs (such as “swims,” or “brings”).  MLU increases once again, to a length of 3.5.

The last stage, Stage V, lasting from 46-52 months and on is characterized by gaining the last of Brown’s morphemes: third person irregular verbs, uncontractible auxiliary “to be” (where “be” is not the only verb in the sentence but a helping verb), contractible copula “to be,” and contractive auxiliary “to be.” Once again, the MLU increases to an average of 4.00.  This is the least accurate MLU as Stage V technically continues into adulthood, and adult utterances are virtually infinite in length.  Children in this stage can speak long, complicated, detailed sentences that sound “adult-like” in grammar and in length.  There may be some difficulty with speech sounds. For a four or five year old, lisping and difficulty with “th,” “r,” or “v,” is not considered to be a serious speech impediment that requires attention from a speech pathologist.  If these traits persist into later years, speak with a speech language pathologist.

In general, your child will amaze you at how well they master such a difficult and complicated thing as human language.  Along the journey, play with your child, tell those stories, get involved in trading coos and just follow your instincts.  They say that language is evolutionary!  So, just follow your evolution. The more language they hear, the more language they learn.