What amazes me most about babies is their ability - as they are growing up - to acquire language before learning anything else. On my journey of learning more about the fascinating world of babies, I’ve found interest in the writings of the British linguist, David Crystal.
In one of his books, A Little Book of Language, David Crystal provides answers to common questions about babies and language, like “When does a newborn baby start to acquire any language?”, “Do babies understand any language from the moment they’re born?” or “What do babies hear when they’re in their mother’s womb?”
Although we know that babies don’t understand a word of what we’re saying when we’re talking to them, Crystal says that mothers and other adults use baby talk as a way of developing a bond with the baby. Even though the baby hasn’t learned any language yet, by repeating words, sounds and word patterns to them, we are laying the foundation for the development of language, and we initiate them on the process of language learning.
The first three months: Just cries and sounds.
On their very first month of life, babies cry as a way of communicating their basic needs. They also begin vocalizing and making noises that do not sound like language at all. At this age, babies around the world sound the same, that is why we wouldn’t be able to make the difference between a Chinese crying baby or an English one. It is around three months old when babies begin making noises that will sound more like “goo” or “coo”, - a stage which is called “cooing”. Babies start paying more attention to us, and it is around this time that we feel like the baby is trying to tell us something.
Six to nine months: rhythm and intonation shapes their language
Around six months old, babies start making more controlled noises that will sound like the language being used around them. Between six months until nine months old, babies try out a large number of sounds like, “na na na”, “da da da” and other combinations. This process is known as “babbling, and it is a significant step in the development of language. Although around six months old, babies begin to interact more with the mother and other adults around them, babies still have no idea of what we are saying. It will take a few more months before the baby realizes that “ma-ma” has a meaning.
By the time the baby reaches nine months old, his utterances will start having a beat, sounding more like the language they are learning. It is now that babies learn about the two most important aspects of language: rhythm and intonation. Rhythm is the beat that a language has, and the intonation is the melody of a language. As babies acquire these two important aspects of their language, we would be able to differentiate an English baby from a Chinese baby, as their rhythm and intonation are very different.
When babies reach their first birthday, they usually develop intonation patterns, and they start using their tone of voice as a way of conveying meaning. From that moment on, their language journey has no limits.