Stage One – Learning Sounds
When babies are born, they can make and hear all the sounds in all the languages in the world.
That’s about 150 sounds in about 6500 languages! However, no language uses all 150 sounds. The sounds a language uses are called phonemes and English has about 44. Some languages use more and some use fewer.
In this stage, babies learn which phonemes belong to the language they are learning and which don’t. The ability to recognize and produce those sounds is called “phonemic awareness,” which is important for children learning to read.
Stage Two – Learning Words
At this stage children essentially learn how the sounds in a language go together to make meaning. For example, they learn that the sounds m, ah, m, and ee refer to that “being” that cuddles and feeds them – mommy. That’s a significant step because everything we say is really just a stream of sounds. To make sense of those sounds, a child must be able to recognize where one word ends and another one begins. These are called “word boundaries.”
It’s not exactly words, though, that children are learning. What children are actually learning are morphemes, which may or may not be words. That’s really not as confusing as it sounds. A morpheme is just a sound or sounds that have a meaning, like the word mommy. The word mommies, however, has two morphemes: mommy and –s.
Children at this stage can recognize that the –s means “more than one” and will know that when that sound is added to other words, it means the same thing – “more than one.”
Stage Three – Learning Sentences
During this stage, children learn how to create sentences. That means they can put words in the correct order. For example, they learn that in English we say “I want a cookie” and “I want a chocolate cookie,” not “Want I a cookie” or “I want cookie chocolate.”
Children also learn the difference between grammatical correctness and meaning. Noam Chomsky created an example of this difference in the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Children will know that although the sentence is grammatically correct, it doesn’t make sense. They know that green is a color and can’t, therefore, be colorless!