3.3 Stages of Language Development: Pre-Linguistic and Symbolic Language

Jan 12, 2020 | ch3 How Language Impacts the Brain, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

How does language expression emerge in children? Learn about the development of syntax in children through the pre-linguistic and linguistic stages of language development in this lesson.

Syntax: Definition and Developmental Stages

What image do you have in your mind when I say the following words: Venetian blind? You picture a common window covering, right? Now, what happens to that image when I switch up the order of the words: blind Venetian? It creates a completely different idea, doesn’t it? As this example shows, the order in which we use words can be very important! The term that refers to the order or sequencing of words in a language is syntax.

Studies show that syntax is learned as young children are exposed to speech with proper, complex sentence structure. So, how does this process take place? Before babies say their first word, they have made a lot of progress towards understanding language and speech. A young child listens and attempts to imitate the sounds it hears. In turn, we respond to and reinforce these attempts at speech. A young child does not develop this ability all at one time. Instead, the process consists of a series of developmental stages. These stages are typically divided into two categories: pre-linguistic and linguistic.

Pre-Linguistic Language Development

Pre-linguistic language development is when a child is learning to control the sounds he can produce and to string these sounds together in vocal play. In this stage, the child is not yet able to manipulate these sounds into proper words.

There are four categories of pre-linguistic development that can be distinguished. Vegetative sounds occur at 0-2 months of age and include the natural sounds that babies make, such as burping or crying. Cooing and laughter occur at 2-5 months of age. These are vocalizations that the baby makes when it’s happy or content and can be made up of vowel or consonant sounds. Vocal play begins around the ages of 4-8 months. During vocal play, the baby begins to string together longer vowel or consonant sounds. Finally, babbling occurs around the ages of 6-13 months. At this time, the child begins to produce a series of consonant-vowel syllables and may develop utterances, such as ma-ma and da-da.

Linguistic Language Development

Linguistic language development is the stage of language development signaled by the emergence of words and symbolic communication. Prior to this stage, most of the sounds a child produces are no more than the practice of sound manipulation and sound sequencing in order to gain the motor skills necessary to create words. There are six periods of linguistic language development.

Before a child masters the ability to form words, they will first begin to use specific sound combinations consistently with specific meaning. This is the early one-word period that begins around 12-19 months of age. An example of this would be a child saying ‘baba’ every time he wants a bottle of milk. Even though this is not the exact same as the word ‘bottle,’ the child is using ‘baba’ in the same manner as you would use the word ‘bottle.’

The later one-word period begins around 14-24 months of age. In this stage, the words used by the child are readily identifiable, and he begins to name and label people and objects in his environment. A child’s typical vocabulary during this period will consist of words like ‘dog,’ ‘go,’ ‘daddy’ and ‘bye-bye.’

Next comes the two-word period of language development. As the name implies, this is when he will begin to combine two words together to make simple phrases, such as ‘mommy go’ or ‘shoe on.’ The two word period typically begins from 20-30 months of age.

The three-word period begins around the ages of 28-42 months of age. During this period, a child adds at least one more word to their phrases and begins to use pronouns. They may also begin to use articles and simple prepositions. Examples would be: ‘me go daddy,’ ‘you on chair’ or ‘he kick a ball.’

At around 34-48 months of age, the four-word period begins. At this time, the child will begin to use combinations of four to six words. They will use more prepositions, and adjectives begin to appear in speech. Examples would be: ‘Suzy has a little dog’ or ‘I sleep on the top bunk.’

The last period of linguistic language development is the complex utterance period. It begins around the ages of 48-60 months. At this time, a child regularly produces phrases longer than six words in length, and they begin to express concepts of past and future time. Examples are: ‘Daddy comes home from the trip tomorrow’ and ‘I saw a dog at the park yesterday.’ They may also begin to use contractions, such as ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t.’ Researchers do not agree on when this period is completed and adult sentence structure is achieved. Opinions range from 5 years of age to 12 years of age.

Expressive vs. Receptive Language

This lesson on language development has focused on the progression of syntax and the increased ability to communicate through speech. This is considered expressive language. There’s also the development of receptive language to consider.

Receptive language refers to speech comprehension or the ability to understand what is being said. Receptive and expressive language develops separately of one another, but there is some parallel development of note between them. A child must be able to understand at least at the same level that they can express themselves. Typically, a child will actually always understand more than they can express, although the degree to which this occurs varies greatly from one child to the next.

Lesson Summary

The order or sequencing of words in a language is called syntax. Language development focuses on the progression of syntax, and the increased ability to communicate through speech is considered expressive language. Speech comprehension, or the ability to understand what is being said, develops separately and is called receptive language. A child must be able to understand at least as much as they can communicate their needs. This varies from child to child, but they will typically always understand more than they can express.

Pre-linguistic language development is when a child is learning to control the sounds he or she can produce and string these sounds together in vocal play. In this stage, the child is not yet able to manipulate these sounds into proper words. Pre-linguistic language development can be divided into four categories: vegetative sounds, cooing and laughter, vocal play and babbling.

Linguistic language development is the stage of language development signaled by the emergence of words and symbolic communication. Linguistic language development can be divided into six categories: early one word, later one word, two word, three word, four word and complex utterance.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Differentiate between expressive and receptive language
  • Summarize the process of language development
  • Describe the four categories of pre-linguistic language development
  • Explain the six categories of linguistic language development
3.4 Categorical Perception: Definition & Explanation
3.2 Linguistic Diversity: Definition & Overview