Language Learning in Infants and Toddlers

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Language learning is a long process, and as it evolves, infants and toddlers go through different types of early speech. Learn about language development and some key types of speech, including child-directed or motherese, syncretic speech, holophrase, and telegraphic speech. Updated: 09/28/2021

Language Development

Danny is a psychologist whose daughter, Brooke, is almost a year-and-a-half old. She's lively and fun, and he loves playing with her. Not only that, but in the last six months or so, she's started talking, which is a lot of fun for Danny because he gets to hear what she's thinking.

For years, Danny has studied language development, which is the process whereby a child learns to speak in full, complete sentences. This doesn't happen overnight, of course, and there are many different types of early speech that a child can go through. Danny has seen several of them in Brooke. Let's look closer at some of the early types of speech: child-directed speech (or motherese), syncretic speech, holophrase, and telegraphic speech.

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  • 0:03 Language Development
  • 0:51 Motherese
  • 2:19 Syncretic Speech
  • 3:39 Holophrase
  • 4:45 Telegraphic Speech
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Like other babies, Brooke's first experience with speech didn't have to do with speaking but with listening. When she was just a newborn, the people around Brooke (her mother, her father, aunts and uncles, and nurses and babysitters, and everyone else in her life) talked to her. But few of those people talked to her the same way that they talked to each other. Instead, they engaged in short, simple sentences meant to convey ideas in a way that even a baby could understand.

This 'baby talk' used to be called 'motherese' because it often comes from mothers, but psychologists, like Danny, call it child-directed speech. That term is more inclusive and recognizes that more than just mothers talk to babies. It's also descriptive of what it is: speech that is directed at the child.

Danny himself engaged in child-directed speech with Brooke, and one of his friends criticized him by saying that he should speak in complete, adult-sounding sentences, not baby talk, so that Brooke would learn correct speech. But remember that Danny is a psychologist; he knows that child-directed speech is an important first step in language development. Studies show that babies pay more attention to child-directed speech than to adult language, and some studies show that it might increase bonding between children and their parents. Danny was able to explain to his friend that child-directed speech is actually a good thing to do with infants.

Syncretic Speech

Like all children, Brooke began by listening to the people around her talk. But if that's all Brooke ever did, she'd never be able to communicate. Language development is about learning to speak as much as it is about learning to understand what's being spoken. One of the earliest types of speech that children learn is called syncretic speech. This type of speech is egocentric; that is, it centers on the speaker's perspective and doesn't take others' views into account. The child makes no effort to tailor the speech so that it makes sense to the listener. This isn't just a kid being a brat; it's because at the point at which a child is learning to speak, they believe that everyone knows what they know.

For example, if Brooke sees her mom put her dad's cell phone in a drawer when her dad is not around, she won't understand that her dad doesn't know where the cell phone is. If Brooke knows where the cell phone is, she assumes that everyone does. When Danny comes looking for his cell phone, Brooke might say something unrelated, like, 'That's not there, and it's green because it's green.' This might sound like babbling to Danny, but it makes sense to Brooke. She's learned to speak, but hasn't yet learned to tailor her speech to make true communication possible.

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