How do children learn language? The phonetic aspect of language knowledge.

When we consider children’s language development, including learning a second or third language, most of us think of things like building pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and comprehension in reading, writing and conversation.

Linguists who have researched infant-toddler development expand on these concepts. They have identified five aspects of language knowledge common to young children, which are outlined in the following posts: phonetic, semantic, syntactic, morphemic and pragmatic.

Language begins with the discrimination of sound, which precedes the ability to make those sounds. (That’s why it’s often easier to understand, or at least feel familiar with the sounds and cadences, than to speak a language.) Young children quickly create a “knowledge of sounds” and learn how to use them to communicate.

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. In the English language, for example, a baby might be able to sound out “b” and then use or expand on that sound for many words that begin with B. Ba becomes ball. Ba ba is bottle. Bu is bubble. Ni ni is night night, etc. Infants and toddlers distinguish your sounds (receptive language), and will imitate them verbally (expressive language). Even when they aren’t able to fully pronounce a word, they may comprehend its meaning.

Another part of phonetic knowledge is using “prosodic features” of language. In other words, the way something is said. In English, we can alter or add meaning to a word by changing the volume, tempo, intonation, or rhythm of speech: “Did you hit Lina?” (or hit someone else?) “Did you hit Lina?” (or do something else to her?) “Did you hit Lina?” (or did someone else do it?) In Mandarin, for instance, tone is used to connote meaning for what might otherwise appear to be the ‘same’ word.

Book sharing is a great way to introduce children to the variety of sounds, and their contexts, in language. It’s never too early to introduce children to sound-symbol relations. You probably know the excitement of the first time your toddler pointed to a word on a page and understood that it meant something. When children re-create a story without reading it, they are demonstrating phonetic knowledge.

Eventually, young children experiment with writing. At first, most children will select letters at random, without matching different sounds. This is called pre-phonemic spelling. Then, they begin placing one or two sounds together: bg stands for big. Later, in English for instance, each letter-name corresponds to a specific sound: LADE for lady. Children will use inventive spelling when they’re uncertain. This is a normal transition to learning conventional spelling patterns–an important part of their learning process.

(The information above was compiled and summarized from Preschool English Learners, written and published by the California Department of Education.)

Parents and Teachers: What examples of phonetic knowledge have you observed while your children are learning English, Mandarin or other languages?

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