Author logo Language Acquisition

Beginning to study acquisition
Writing about acquisition in exams
The essay question
The language data question
Standard tasks for exams
Models of language acquisition
Examples of spoken data
Stages of language acquisition
Language acquisition: stage 1
Language acquisition: stage 2
Language acquisition: stage 3
Language acquisition: stage 4
Language acquisition: stage 5
Maximize this page


This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science. In some places I refer explicitly to requirements of the syllabus or mode of examination.

Note the spelling of acquisition. You should read all of the following sources and make your own learning materials to help you study and revise.

For a clear and accessible overview, read Jean Aitchison's The Language Web (1997; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-57475-7), Chapter 3 (Building the Web). Alternatively listen to the third of her 1996 BBC Reith Lectures, from which this chapter is adapted.

For a comprehensive study by a leading authority read Part VII of David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-42443-7) or (briefer but with more up-to-date information) Chapter 23 of Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (19100; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; ISBN 0-521-59655-6)

A good account of speech development is in Shirley Russell's Grammar, Structure and Style, pp. 129-139 (1993; Oxford University Press, Oxford; ISBN 0-19-831198-2).

Less thorough but possibly helpful sections on language acquisition appear in George Keith's and John Shuttleworth's Living Language (1997; Hodder & Stoughton, London; ISBN 0-340-67343-5) and Angela Goddard's Researching Language (1993; Folens; ISBN 1-85008-024-0 ).

Back to top

Beginning to study language acquisition

Professor Aitchison argues that "language has a biologically organized schedule" and quotes Eric Lenneberg's theory that language is "maturationally controlled, emerging before it is critically needed".

There are no exact dates, and some children learn more or less quickly than any notional normal child. The speed of learning is influenced both by innate abilities and by environment. Since language is partly learned by imitation, language learning may be accelerated by the example of parents and siblings. Baby talk may promote language development in infants who have yet to learn to speak but the same baby talk might hinder them later.

However, there is a generally accepted sequence for language learning. Professor Aitchison (The Language Web, p. 43) gives a speech timetable from birth to 10 years old. This is very simple but can be learned for exam purposes. Shirley Russell gives a far more expansive schedule for learning language, with lots of examples of real language data.

Back to top

Do not think in terms of a perfect model of language that children "fail" to achieve - do not describe language data that would be non-standard in a mature speaker as "mistakes". Of course a child might make a mistake by inadvertence (using a non-standard form while knowing the standard) but this is a different matter. Similarly a child's use of a non-standard plural (mouses for mice) or verb tense (catched for caught) is evidence of real knowledge of inflectional morphology, since the child has treated these words as if they followed regular patterns. (That is, the plural form has been inflected with -s to give mouses, and the verb stem, catch has been inflected with -ed to form a past tense.)

Note that performance may be evidence of competence, and repeated performance is evidence of language competence. But the corollary is not true. Any language data you study will be a small sample of a child's performance. And there are many things the child could say but will not say, because the circumstances do not prompt it (like the adult who knows the meanings of the words, but has no reason to refer to igloos or pangolins). We know or can recognize many forms we never write or say!

Back to top

Writing about language acquisition in advanced level exams

If you are taking an exam, you may have two kinds of question. The kind of question will vary from one exam board or specification to another.

In one, you may be asked to outline some part of language development (e.g. speech development from birth to three years old) or the whole developmental process to maturity of speech. You will be expected to quote authorities and language data which you have learned (or found elsewhere on the question paper).

In the other question, you will be asked to comment on some language data, by using an appropriate theoretical framework. This is the kind of assessment task that will be set on the AQA's Specification B.

In some ways, learning language matches structural models of language as children (usually) learn word elements (morphemes) and words, before developing phrase and clause structures. Understanding morphology and acquiring a lexicon precede (come before) competence in syntax. Because of this, if you answer a question on language acquisition you will need to tackle morphology, lexis, and semantics. You must also explain syntax, especially phrases and clauses; simple, compound, multiple and complex sentences; and functions of the sentence (question, command, statement etc.).

Back to top

The essay question

Here the examiners may well specify areas of theory for you: if you omit any, you will lose marks accordingly - you must attempt to cover the implied essay plan. You should be able to supply data (examples) of your own, but may use those given for the second option.

Here is an example of an essay question from a 1997 examination paper:

Describe and comment on ways in which children learn the meanings of words

Here is an example of an essay question from 1998

Describe and comment on the development of language functions in the early stages of language acquisition up to the age of nine. In your answer you should comment on the development of the following language functions, giving brief illustrations: describing things, real and imaginary; influencing the behaviour of others; expressing feelings; thinking and problem-solving; taking part in exchanges and conversations.

Back to top

The language data question

For tasks that use example texts, the examiners will supply you with a body of data, with appropriate information about the age of the speaker(s). You will be asked to comment on the development of some aspect of language use - you must keep to this. Below are some examples of questions based on example data from recent examination papers.

Back to top

Standard tasks for exams

June 2002 exam | January 2003 exam

The example questions below come from recent examination papers of the AQA for its Specification B English language GCE A2 assessment.

June 2002 exam

Answer either Question 1 or Question 2.

Each question carries 35 marks.

Questions 1 and 2 refer to Texts A, B and C on pages 4, 5 and 6. These are transcripts of a child, Anna, who is 2 years 6 months old, and her mother, who is reading to her before she goes to bed. On all three occasions Anna was sitting on her mother's knee and could see the books.



Describe and comment on the importance of interaction with adult caregivers for young children's acquisition of spoken English. You should refer to data from at least two of the transcripts and to other examples and research you think relevant.



Describe and comment on what these transcripts show about how children learn to be literate. You should refer to data from all three transcripts and to research you think relevant.

Transcript Conventions

Pauses are indicated by brackets with (.) being a pause under a second's duration. Vertical lines indicate where A and her mother speak at the same time.
Sections in inverted commas indicate the text of the book they are reading from.
Words in capital letters are spoken loudly.
Other contextual information is in italics in square brackets.

Back to top

January 2003 exam

Answer either Question 1 or Question 2.

Each question carries 35 marks.

Questions 1 and 2 refer to Texts A, B and C on pages 4, 5 and 6. These are transcripts of a child, Anna, who is 2 years 6 months old, and her mother, who is reading to her before she goes to bed. On all three occasions Anna was sitting on her mother's knee and could see the books.



Text A is a transcript of Jamie ( 17 months) and his father Phil as they look through a children's alphabet book together. Jamie's mother is playing the violin in another room.

By close reference to Text A, discuss how Jamie is using language, relating your observations to ideas from language study.

Where Jamie's pronunciation is significantly different from the adult form, phonemic symbols have been used in bold, followed by an interpretation of the word in brackets.



Texts B, C and D are extracted frorn a transcript of two children playing together. Keri is 3 years, and 2 months and Anya is 3 years 8 months and they met at playgroup. Anya has come to Keri's home to play for the first time.

With reference to at least two of the texts, describe and comment on the children's interactive language skills.

In your answer you should refer to ideas from language study.

Back to top

Models of language acquisition

There are various models that explain or describe the process of language acquisition. Simple models will identify an approximate time period, and explain some of the features of language development which are expected to appear in this period. More complex models will organize language development under headings such as language functions, meaning and grammar.

A very simple model, which covers the period from birth to language maturity, is given by Jean Aitchison in The Language Web. Professor Aitchison notes cooing and babbling at 6 weeks, single-word utterances at a year, two-word utterances at 18 months and complex constructions at 5 years.

A different approach to modelling language acquisition is to look at different aspects of language. LINC: Language in the National Curriculum (a UK government project to educate teachers about theoretical aspects of language, in response to the 1988 Kingman Report) organizes early language acquisition under the categories of:

  • Function: what children are trying to do with their language (such as make requests, ask questions, make statements);
  • Meaning: the states, events and relationships the children talk about;
  • Structure: the way in which language is put together - its grammar.

Back to top

This model may help you to look for the right things, but you should realize that in normal speaking, children will not consciously separate these things. The LINC explanation of meaning is not very clear. In this on-line guide meaning refers to semantics, that is, the relationship between symbol and referent or more simply between words and the things they denote, connote, describe, qualify, enumerate and so on.

The first category, of language functions, can be expanded, as M.A.K. Halliday has done, to produce a list of such functions, something like this:

  • Naming things;
  • Describing things real and imaginary
  • Influencing the behaviour of others
  • Expressing feelings
  • Thinking and problem solving
  • Asking questions
  • Communicating - taking part in language interactions

Back to top

The LINC model places these functions within five stages of development - thus, at the first stage (according to LINC), children's utterances are made to get someone's attention, to direct attention to an object or event or to get something they want; later, but still within this stage, they make rudimentary statements (Bird gone) or requests.

Theories of language acquisition focus almost exclusively on speech. This is because speech is (usually) prior to reading and writing, while semantic and grammatical knowledge is largely acquired before any reading or writing occurs for most children. Writing will extend the functions for which language is used or give them new powers (having a permanent record or communicating over geographical distance).

Back to top

Examples of children's spoken data, with commentary

Example 1 | Example 2 | Example 3 | Example 4 | Example 5 | Example 6

These examples have been taken, with some slight emendations from the LINC material.

Example 1

A four-year old talks about what he wants to be when he grows up.

Adult What do you want to be when you grow up?

Child A dowboy.

Adult So you want to be a dowboy, eh?

Child (irritated) No! Not a dowboy, a dowboy!

Comment This extract (from Garton and Pratt, 1989) reminds us that very young children's awareness of phonological sound often outstrips their capacity to form the correct sounds. The child understands the distinction between /k/ and /d/ but cannot pronounce /k/. The child knows more about language than he is able to produce.

Back to top

Example 2

Kate (2 yrs 6 mths) is sitting on the knee of a family friend.

Adult (pointing to one of Kate's feet) What's that?

Kate A footsie

Adult (pointing to both feet) What are these?

Kate Two footsies - no, two feetsies, I mean.

Comment Here language is being used as a ritual adult/child game rather than for purposes of genuine instruction. In this example there is evidence of the child's awareness of over-regularization of a rule and its self-correction. The rules are complicated by the child's use of the baby talk form footsie. Kate remembers that the irregular (vowel mutated) plural of foot is feet and not foots, but then she inflects the corrected plural with -s to form a double plural: feetsies. The "I mean" draws attention to the change as the self-conscious and deliberate correction of a slip. (From Garton and Pratt, 1989.)

Back to top

Example 3

Kate (3 yrs 1 mth) is sitting at the table.

Kate Can I have a bit of cheese, please? - "Cheese, please?" - that's a rhyme.

Comment This is a spontaneous example of metalinguistic awareness or reflection upon language. Recent research [according to LINC; no details given] points to children's experience and awareness of rhymes and songs as a powerful source of information about the phonological system of their language and as a support to success in early reading. (From Garton and Pratt, 1989.)

Back to top

Example 4

Matthew (2 yrs) watches his mum spoon stewed rhubarb from a saucepan into a bowl.

Matthew Dis rubile looks like biscetti.

Comment Matthew is using language to make links and comparisons. He notices that the stringy nature of stewed rhubarb is like spaghetti. Conceptually the words are meaningful and distinct, but he hasn't yet perfected their pronunciation. Rubile is quite like the pronunciation of rhubarb (where the final b is often not distinctly sounded) and biscetti probably derives from the familiarity of biscuit and the difficulty of pronouncing the /sp/ in initial position. In some families, children's early mispronunciations are retained (sometimes embarrassingly) as part of the family code of "intimate speech" - lornwakes for cornflakes, etc.

Back to top

Example 5

Malpreet (2 yrs 6 mths) is talking to her mother in the kitchen.

Malpreet One day there was a little horse then there was a big horse, then there was a mummy horse. They came to my house. They went out to car, then I started to cry and I said "Sadha nell owna"(transcription of Panjabi - "I want to go, too") and mummy said they are going, then I went safari park.

Comment Malpreet is talking to her mother in the kitchen. Her oral narrative tells the story of horses coming to the house to go to the safari park in her car. She thinks she is being left out, and cries. The narrative has the conventional opening One day, sustains a first-person narrative and past tense, and includes direct speech. Elements of the story are connected, using the adverb then. As a bilingual child, Malpreet switches into Panjabi for the dramatic centre of the story, where she utters her own words as a character in her story.

Back to top

Example 6

A teacher has asked a group of nursery children (exact ages not given in source)"What is a story?"

Child 1 Something you read.

Child 2 You could say that it's something that you read to children.

Child 3 It's got words in it.

Child 4 And it's got the title of the book.

Child 5 Sometimes it's got a tape with a book tape.

Child 6 Sometimes it starts "Once upon a time"...and sometimes it's got chapters in it.

Child 7 Sometimes at the end it goes..."Happily ever after".

Comment Here are the beginnings of some explicitly stated concepts of story. The children are reflecting upon their shared understandings of an aspect of language. While several offerings explain story in terms of the book as an artifact, the last two begin to identify aspects of story as a written form.

Back to top

Stages of early language acquisition

Stage 1 | Stage 2 | Stage 3 | Stage 4 | Stage 5


What children are trying to do with their language (e.g., make requests, ask questions, make statements)


The states, events and relationships about which children talk

Meaning here refers to meaning shown in performance. Children may have competence which they have no occasion to demonstrate.


The way in which the language is put together - its grammar

Back to top

Stage 1

Children's first utterances usually serve three purposes:

  • to get someone's attention
  • to direct attention to an object or event
  • to get something they want

Next, they begin to:

  • make rudimentary statements (Bird gone)
  • make requests

Children begin by naming the thing referred to (the "naming insight")

Soon they move beyond this to relating objects to other things, places and people (Daddy car; There Mummy) as well as to events (Bird gone). They are concerned with articulating the present state of things, describing or relating things and events in their world.

Because of the limited language forms which they can control, children convey information by intonation, by non-verbal means, or by the listener's shared awareness of the situation. (It gone - the listener has seen what it is.)

Many of the remarks at this age are single words, either the names of things, or words such as there, look, want, more, allgone. They are often referred to as operators because here (as opposed to their function in adult speech) they serve to convey the whole of the child's meaning or intention.

Other remarks consist of object name and operator in a two-word combination: Look Mummy, Daddy gone, There dog.

Back to top

Stage 2

At this stage children begin to ask questions; usually where questions come first.

Children become concerned with naming and classifying things (frequently asking wassat?).

They may begin to talk about locations changing (e.g. people coming or going or getting down or up).

They talk simply about the attributes of things (e.g. things being hot/cold, big/small, nice; naughty doggy; it cold, Mummy).

Children's questions at this stage often begin with interrogative pronouns (what, where) followed by a noun (the object being asked about) or verb (denoting some action): where ball? where gone?

Articles (a/an or the) appear before nouns. Basic [subject]+[verb] structure emerges: It gone, Man run, or [subject]+[verb]+[object]: Teddy sweeties (=Teddy wants some sweets).

Back to top

Stage 3

By now children ask lots of different questions, but often signalling that they are questions by intonation alone (Sally play in garden, Mummy?).

They express more complex wants in grammatically complex sentences: I want daddy [to] take it [to] work.

Children now begin to talk about actions which change the object acted upon (You dry hands).

Verbs like listen and know appear, as children start to refer to people's mental states.

Children refer to events in the past and (less often) in the future.

Children talk about continuing actions (He doing it; She still in bed) and enquire about the state of actions (whether something is finished). They begin to articulate the changing nature of things.

The basic sentence structure has expanded: [subject]+[verb]+[object] +[adverb or other element] appears: You dry hands; A man dig down there.

Children begin to use auxiliary verbs (I am going) and phrases like in the basket [preposition]+[article]+[noun].

Back to top

Stage 4

As children begin to use increasingly complex sentence structures, they also begin to:

  • make a wide range of requests (e.g. Shall I cut it? Can I do it?)
  • explain
  • ask for explanations (Why questions appear)

Because children are now able to use complex sentence structures, they have flexible language tools for conveying a wide range of meanings.

Perhaps the most striking development is their grasp (language competence) and use (language performance) of abstract verbs like know to express mental operations.

Children in this stage begin to express meaning indirectly, replacing imperatives (Give me...) with questions (Can I have?) when these suit their purposes better.

As well as saying what they mean, they now have pragmatic understanding, and suit their utterances to the context or situation.

Children by this stage use question forms (Can I have one?) and negation (He doesn't want one) easily, no longer relying on intonation to signal their intent. They are now able to use auxiliary verbs: do is the first to appear, followed by can and will. Children may duplicate modal verbs (Please may can I...?): this may reflect understanding that may is required for courtesy, while can indicates the fact of being able to do something.

Children use one part of a sentence to refer to another part - they use (often implied) relative clauses: I know you're there (implied that after know); I want the pen Mummy gave me(implied that after pen). Now they can do this, language is a very flexible means of communication for them.

Back to top

Stage 5

By now children frequently use language to do all the things they need it for:

  • giving information
  • asking and answering questions of various kinds
  • requesting (directly and indirectly)
  • suggesting
  • offering
  • stating intentions/asking about those of others
  • expressing feelings and attitudes and asking about those of others

Children are now able to talk about things hypothetically or conditionally: If you do that, it'll...

They are able to explain the conditions required for something to happen: You've got to switch that on first... Often they talk about things which are always so - that is, about general states of affairs.

As well as general references to past and future, children now talk about particular times: after tea; before bedtime; when Daddy comes home...

They are able to estimate the nature of actions or events, e.g., that things are habitual, repetitive or just beginning.

By this stage, children are quite at home with all question structures including those beginning with words like What? and When? where the subject and verb are inverted (transposed): What does it mean? When is Mummy coming?

Children use sentences made up of several clauses, whether multiple (using co-ordinate clauses) or complex (using subordinate or relative clauses, and parentheses).

Up to now grammatical development has mostly added to the length of sentences. Now children use structures which allow more economy (this is known as cohesion).

Back to top

This model explains the process of language acquisition. Children will vary individually in when (relative to their peers) they reach each stage, but there is little variation in the sequence of language learning. By the end of Stage 5, a child's language is in place and he or she has a basic lexicon (personal vocabulary) of several thousand words. From now on what is learned increasingly depends upon experience and environment - on opportunities to use language and to hear it used, for a wide range of purposes and a wide range of audiences in a wide range of contexts. The model does not show the acquisition of literacy, which is more subject to environment and cultural expectations.

Back to top


Aitchison, J. (1997) The Language Web, Chapter 3; Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-57475-7

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Part VII, Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-42443-7

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Chapter 23, Cambridge University Press; ISBN 0-521-59655-6

Goddard, A. (1993) Researching Language, pp. 177-184, Folens; ISBN 1-85008-024-0

Keith, G and Shuttleworth, J (1997) Living Language, Chapter 5, Hodder, ISBN 0-340-673435

Russell, S. (1993) Grammar, Structure and Style, pp. 129-139; Oxford University Press; ISBN 0-19-831179-6

Back to top

DfEE Standards Site
BBC Education
BBC Education's Bookcase site
BBC revision site
Public Broadcasting Service
Public Broadcasting Service Arts site
European Virtual School
Virtual Library
Homework High
Ask Jeeves
Raging Search
All the web

© Andrew Moore, 2000; Contact me

Search Now:
In Association with
  • Use the search box on the left or the link below to go to for books, video tapes, DVDs and much more.
  • Go to Home Page