ED209 revision: first words

First words covers quite literally the first words as grammar is considered by a separate chapter. This might sound a little odd at first but considering that children only deal with isolated words to begin with and add the various bits of grammar around them later it’s not as un-natural a split as you might think.

Recognising speech is the first stage of acquiring language. Recognition and memory of speech sounds whilst still in the womb has been looked at via experiments by DeCasper & Spence among others who looked at the pre-birth understanding of words through having the mother read stories or rhymes before the birth and checking through dummies containing sensors and heart monitors that they remembered the words. That they still recognised these when someone else read the text suggests that they recognised the words. Distinguishing of languages by newborns has been looked at by Mehler et al and Christophe & Morton. Babies use of prosodic cues to identify word boundaries has also been looked by Johnson & Jusczyk who considered transitional probability (via nonsense words) and syllable stress.

Harris et al found that understanding first words is facilitied by mothers referred and especially when they pointed to the objects and that the age at which children point is strongly correlated with the age at which they show understanding of object names. Comprehension starts around 7 or 8 months and continues nicely to 12 months when there’s usually a vocabulary spurt. The possible reasons behind this spurt include naming insight, change in cognitive development and simply that it gets easier when you’ve reached a critical mass of words (eg the child can then ask).

Learning to say words occurs in parallel with neural maturation which enables the fine motor control required. Macarthur found that children couldn’t accurately reproduce all the sounds in their language until around age 5 or 6. The discrepancy between comprehension and production varies.

The meaning of children’s first words can be context bound (eg “cup” being used when asking for a drink) although some are contextually flexible; Harris et al found that this varied. Goldfield & Reznick and Nelson found that some children focused on gaining vocabulary whilst others went for verbs. Harris weighs in again in finding that usually the first use of a word is close to the mother’s use but later uses moved away from this. All this is highly dependant on the structure of the language obviously thus whilst in English the concentration is usually on nouns, in Korean it’s on verbs.

I felt that this chapter is possibly the closest to “where it’s at” in terms of child development for me. The downside is that it’s relatively short and doesn’t strike me as an easy chapter to answer a question from. I suspect that it’s easier to follow for those of us with a linguistic background.

Luckily the brain and cognitive development chapter isn’t on my list so it’s on to the companion to this chapter next: the development of children’s understanding of grammar which is, of course, another one for the linguists.

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