How Do Children Learn Languages? What The Experts Have To Say

How Do Children Learn Languages? What The Experts Have To Say

You may have heard that it is easier and quicker for children to learn languages than it is for adults. 

Actually, forget “may have heard”, chances are you’ve experienced it yourself!

If you’ve spent any time around babies or children, you might have seen examples of just how quickly they learn to speak and understand a language. 

From babbling to baby talk to simple sentences to cheerful conversations, it seems like the gently cooing baby becomes a mile-a-minute toddler in no time!

Linguistics and psychologists agree that how children learn language is through exposure and interaction with language. They pick up the language that they hear spoken around them and spoken to them.

The key here is “interaction”, that means the child needs to be spoken to. 

It’s not enough that the child hears a conversation, say on a TV or radio program.  

While for older children, educational TV or radio programs may have some benefits in increasing their vocabulary, for children below the age of 2 it could actually have a negative effect on their language development.

Language learning is instinctive

The ability to acquire language and use it is thought of as a distinctively human trait. While animals may “communicate” using gestures or body language or even sounds, they are incapable of combining these sounds to convey complex thoughts and messages.  

Many linguists believe that for a child, language acquisition is easier because it is genetic and instinctive. A newborn’s brain is programmed to learn language – there is some evidence as well that a fetus can listen and register the sounds of language even in the womb. 

So, children are born with the ability to learn how to talk and may already recognize some sounds as “language”.

Some researchers believe that there is a “critical period”, around infancy till puberty, where language acquisition is easier. This is because of the structure of the brain, which changes slightly upon puberty. 

The idea that babies are born with an instinctive means to acquire language is usually associated by linguist Noam Chomsky, who proposed a theory called Universal Grammar.

Universal Grammar proposes that there we are born with grammatical information, an innate set of structural rules.

According to Chomsky, the human brain has a limited set of constraints placed on how we organize language. This means that all languages have a common structural basis and we are born with an instinctive knowledge of what these structures are.

For example, according to the idea of Universal Grammar, at birth we already know to categorize some words as nouns and some as verbs and have the ability to combine these into phrases. A child then just needs to learn these words in their native language.

There is another psychological theory about child language acquisition called morphology acquisition which postulates that what children are born with is sensitivity to the patterns found in language. By gradually recognizing these patterns, mostly through repetition, the child picks up the meaning of language and how to use it. 

How does a child learn language?

When we look into how a child learns their mother tongue, the obvious layman answer would be that the child learns to speak from its family. Would you be surprised to know that the expert opinion of many linguists and child development psychologists is pretty much the same?

While most linguists do believe that children are born with a natural ability to learn language, they also say that language development in children comes through interaction with their parents and any other adults or even older children.

Parents and caretakers need to speak to the child in order for the child to pick up that language. Children who are not spoken to will not acquire language skills.  The need to hear people speaking and be spoken to is one of the reasons why deaf children have difficulties learning to speak. 

One of the earliest psychological explanations of child language acquisition came from psychologist B. F. Skinner, who developed the idea of “Behaviorism”. According to Skinner environmental influence, the input of those around them are crucial to a child learning the proper use of language.

Skinner championed the behaviorist reinforcement principle, which meant that a child learned through positive reinforcement. When a child tries to say something, and gets a positive response from its caretakers, that is when it realizes that words are not just sounds but a means to communicate.

Skinner also postulated that this is how child learns meanings and uses of language. For example, if it say’s “cookie” and gets a cookie, it now knows what that “sound” means. A child can be said to have acquired or understood a language when it uses “sounds” to get a desired effect. 

The idea that children learn language by interacting with adults is called the “social interactions theory” and it’s similar to Skinner's idea of behaviorism in the sense that a child learns through the reactions of the adults around it.

According to proponents of social interaction, a child develops language skills from “modeling” or copying adults and “interaction”, getting feedback and correction.

Is “baby talk” language?

Not really, but it is important for language acquisition.

It’s thought that “baby talk”, the simplified and exaggerated way that some adults speak to small children might actually be helpful in allowing them to learn language.  Baby talk often uses simpler words and even sentence constructions, which makes their meaning easier to grasp.

The exaggerated sounds and intonation of an adult speaking “baby talk” also makes it easier for a child to pick up and copy. Not to mention the fact that “baby talk” tends to feature a lot of repeated phrases and questions.  

All these features of “baby talk” help a baby figure out the sounds and sentence patterns of their native language as well as their meanings.

Stages of learning to talk

A baby learning to talk first learns to make sounds and recognize sounds. There are about 150 sounds that are common to 6,500 languages. These sounds are called phonemes and the ability to recognize and repeat these sounds is called phonemic awareness.  

The first sounds they make are basically crying. But by around six weeks of age, a baby will start making sounds that resemble vowels, like “ah” and “ee” and “oh.” This is usually referred to as “babbling”

At around four months, another important skill for language learning is developed. This is the ability to distinguish a noise from a language sound. 

By the time a baby is about six month old, their “babbling” gets a bit more complex and they start producing sounds that are basically a pairing of the vowel sounds they made at six weeks, plus some constant sounds that they have picked up. This is usually the time that proud parents start declaring that they have said either “ma” or “da”.

By the time a baby is eight months old, the can distinguish word boundaries are starting to recognize sound groups. 

When a child reaches the age of one or one and a half years, they will probably start uttering single words, mostly words that refer to a concrete thing, such as “cookie”. They are beginning to recognize that certain sounds are “words” and that they refer to something. This is when we can say that a baby is learning words.

By the time they turn two, they might start putting words together to make simple sentences, such as “eat cookie” or “like cookie”. They also start being able to express sentences and even ask questions. 

When a child hits the age of three years old, they are beginning to develop more complex language skills and can be said to be “talking” even if their sentences tend to be simple and their grammar needs to be corrected.

It is at this age that many children around the world start going to some sort of preschool or kindergarten. Their experiences here and with people outside of their immediate family group begin to really shape their language skills and enable them to gain fluency.


Most linguists and psychologists seem to agree that children learn a language by being regularly exposed to it. Specifically, interactions with caretakers help a child acquire language in order to be able to use it to communicate.

This isn’t that different from the idea that, if you want to learn a second language as an adult, you need to be immersed in it. Having the opportunity to hear it spoken by native language speakers and – best of all – having the chance to have conversations with native language speakers is the quickest way to gain fluency.

This is why, for an adult looking to learn a second language, working with a native language speaking tutor, like the ones who work with JustLearn is crucial. It ensures that you are regularly exposed to the language that you want to learn and get to practice having conversations with native speakers.

Why is it easier for a child to learn a second language?

It's easier for children to learn languages as they are younger, they have more time and their brain is designed to learn a new language. While they're still learning their own mother tongue, it's easier for them to get used a foreign language than it is for adults whose brain is more experienced.

When should I start teaching my child a second language?

It's good to start teaching your children a second language as early as possible, because it's easier for them to become fluent in it. Introduce the foreign language in the first year of your child if you want to increase their chances of becoming fluent one day.

How do you teach a child language?

Parents and caretakers need to speak to the child in order for the child to pick up that language. Children who are not spoken to will not acquire language skills.

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