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Language Acquisition in Childhood

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff

Subject Communication and Development » Developmental Communication

Key-Topics education, language

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405131995.2008.x


Language learning starts before babies utter their first words. Even in the womb, they jump in response to noises, such as fireworks and loud bands; they eavesdrop on their mother's conversations. Within just hours of birth, newborns recognize their mother's voice, along with stories and songs they've heard in the womb. They can even distinguish their native language from a foreign one (for example, French versus Russian). They enter our world prepared to learn any of the 7,000 languages spoken and signed around the globe. Though language begins as a flowing melody of sounds and sights (for signers), babies quickly learn to find meaningful patterns in the speech they hear. Where does one word end and the next begin? How do building blocks like words come together to form sentences? Research suggests that by 4.5 months of age, they're on the way to finding words in the stream of speech that washes over them. They start by recognizing their own name (“IRVing” is different from “AnnETTE”); in very little time, they distinguish their name (e.g., “IRVing”) from other names with the same stress pattern (“WILson”). Their names and other frequently occurring words – like “mama” – serve as anchors into the speech stream ( Bortfeld et al. 2005 ). Babies also compute statistics on the sound stream to find the words. In one classic study, 8-month-old babies heard a string of nonsense sounds ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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