Language Acquisition

Language acquisition refers to the process by which we learn to understand, produce, and use words to communicate within a given language group. The way we acquire language is affected by many factors. We know that learning a language is not just about learning words. We have to learn how to correctly connect the words to what they mean in a given context and be able to order the words in such a way, within the rules of grammar for the language code we are using, that other people will be able to understand us. S. I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, 5th ed. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1990), 86. As if that didn’t seem like enough to learn, we also have to learn various conversational patterns that we regularly but often unconsciously follow to make our interactions smooth and successful. A brief overview of language acquisition from birth to adulthood offers us a look at the amazing and still somewhat mysterious relationships between our brain, eyes, ears, voice, and other physiological elements. David Crystal, How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2005), 80–89. In terms of language acquisition, there is actually a great deal of variation between individuals due to physical and contextual differences, but this overview presumes “typical development.”

Much is being taken in during the first year of life as brain development accelerates and senses are focused and tuned. Primary caregivers are driven, almost instinctively, to begin instilling conversational abilities in babies from birth. As just about anyone who has spent time around a baby during this phase of rapid development can attest, there is a compulsion to interact with the child, which is usually entertaining for adult and baby. This compulsion isn’t random or accidental, and we would be wrong to assume that our communication is useless or just for fun. We would also be wrong to assume that language acquisition doesn’t begin until a baby says his or her first words. By the time this happens, babies have learned much, through observation and practice, about our verbal communication and interaction patterns. These key developments include the following:

  • 2–4 months. Babies can respond to different tones of voice (angry, soothing, or playful).
  • 6 months. Babies can associate some words, like bye-bye, with a corresponding behavior, and they begin “babbling,” which is actually practice for more intelligible speech to come.
  • 8–10 months. Babies learn that pointing can attract or direct attention, and they begin to follow adult conversations, shifting eye contact from one speaker to the next.
  • 1 year. Babies recognize some individual words (people’s names, no) and basic rituals of verbal interaction such as question-pause-answer and various greetings. Shortly before or after this time, babies begin to use “melodic utterances” echoing the variety in pitch and tone in various verbal interactions such as questioning, greeting, or wanting.

Language acquisition after the age of two seems sluggish compared to the pace of development during the first year or so. By the end of the first year, babies have learned most of the basic phonetic components necessary for speech. The second year represents a time of intense practice—of verbal trial and error. From three to five we continue to develop our pronunciation ability, which develops enough by our teens to allow us to engage in everyday communication. Of course, our expressive repertoire, including ways of speaking and the vocabulary we use, continues to develop. A person’s life and career choices determine to a large degree how much further development occurs. But the language abilities we have acquired can decrease or disappear as a result of disease or trauma. Additionally, if such things occur early in life, or before birth, the process of language acquisition can be quite different. Barriers to speech and language acquisition are common and are the domain of a related but distinct field of study often housed in departments of communication sciences and disorders. The “Getting Real” box featured discusses this field of study and related careers.

“Getting Real”

Communication Sciences and Disorders

The field of communication sciences and disorders includes career paths in audiology and speech-language pathology—we will focus on the latter here. Individuals working in this field can work in schools, hospitals, private practice, or in academia as researchers and professors. Speech and language disorders affect millions of people. Between six and eight million people in the United States have some kind of language impairment, ranging from stuttering to lack of language comprehension to lack of language expression. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, accessed June 7, 2012, Speech language pathologists may work with children who have exhibited a marked slowness or gap in language acquisition or adults who have recently lost language abilities due to stroke or some other trauma or disease. Speech-language pathologists often diagnose and treat language disorders as part of a team that may include teachers, physicians, social workers, and others. The career outlook is predicted to be very strong for the next eight years as the baby boomers reach an age where age-related hearing and language impairments develop, as medical advances increase survival rates for premature babies and stroke and trauma victims, and as schools continue to grow. Speech-language pathologists often obtain graduate degrees, complete clinical experiences, and take tests for various certifications and licenses. To be successful in this field, individuals must have good interpersonal communication skills to work with a variety of clients and other service providers, above-average intellectual aptitude (particularly in science), and excellent oral and written communication skills. Typical salaries range from $58,000 a year for individuals working in elementary schools to $70,000 for those in health care settings.

  1. What specific communication skills do you think would be important for a speech-language pathologist and why?
  2. The motto for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is “Making effective communication a human right, accessible and achievable for all.” How does this motto relate to our discussion of communication ethics so far? What kinds of things do speech-language pathologists do that fulfill that motto?


  • The triangle of meaning is a model of communication that indicates the relationship among a thought, symbol, and referent, and highlights the indirect relationship between the symbol and the referent. The model explains how for any given symbol there can be many different referents, which can lead to misunderstanding.
  • Denotation refers to the agreed on or dictionary definition of a word. Connotation refers to definitions that are based on emotion- or experience-based associations people have with a word.
  • The rules of language help make it learnable and usable. Although the rules limit some of the uses of language, they still allow for the possibility of creativity and play.
  • Language acquisition refers to the process by which we learn to understand, produce, and use words to communicate within a given language group. This process happens at an amazing speed during the first two years of life, and we attain all the linguistic information we need to participate in everyday conversations, assuming normal development, by our early teens.


  1. Trace the history of a word (its etymology) like we did with calculate earlier in the chapter. Discuss how the meaning of the word (the symbol) has changed as it has gotten further from its original meaning. Two interesting words to trace are hazard and phony.
  2. Apply the triangle of meaning to a recent message exchange you had in which differing referents led to misunderstanding. What could you have done to help prevent or correct the misunderstanding?
  3. Think of some words that have strong connotations for you. How does your connotation differ from the denotation? How might your connotation differ from another person’s?

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