How We Organize Sounds and Meanings to Learn a Language


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

The overall process by which children learn a language is actually a really complex form of communication that involves several sets of rules for using and organizing sounds and meaning. There’s a wide agreement in the fields of psychology and linguistics about the essential building blocks and the role of grammar in helping us learn all languages.

A pack of books with "SEMANTICS" titles
Semantics is a set of rules in language that helps us combine words in a meaningful order. (Image: Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock)

How Quickly Can We Learn a Language?

An average high school graduate knows about 80,000 words. Before children can perform even the simplest of formal math problems—two plus two equals four—they are already putting together complex and accurate grammatical sentences.

Most two-year-olds can only say a few dozen words, but a four-year-old is typically better at understanding and using their native language than most college students are in the foreign language they studied for four years in high school. 

Then again, young children have huge advantages over high school students. The brains of young children are more flexible, and, unlike high school students, young children also spend every waking moment deeply immersed in mastering the target language.

What Makes Up a Language

The basic building blocks include phonemes, meaning the sounds that make up a language. These are not necessarily the same as the letters or symbols used to write the language. For example, to say the word short, you need just three phonemes sh, or, and t. English has somewhere around 40 different phonemes, Spanish has more like 20, and some languages have as many as 80.

In addition to sounds, language has another set of building blocks, called morphemes, the smallest units that carry meaning. In some cases, morphemes are whole words such as I and a. But a morpheme can be meaningful even if it’s only part of a single word. So, in English, we add the morpheme ed to a verb to show something happened in the past, we add the morpheme pre to indicate something is happening earlier or before, and we add the morpheme s to indicate plural.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Syntax and Semantics 

In addition to these basic building blocks of sound and meaning, a language also must have a system of rules that govern how we order and combine words in particular ways to create meaning. One set of rules is known as the syntax, meaning the rules we use to order words into sentences. And what’s remarkable is that even when children are first learning to speak, they are already following proper rules of syntax. 

Around age one, babies are putting phonemes and morphemes together, but speaking mostly in single words: mama, doggy, ball. Then, at around age two, they move to the second stage of language development, in which they use short statements. This stage is often known as telegraphic speech because kids basically use only nouns and verbs: “pet doggy” or “want cookie”.

Another set of rules, known as semantics, governs how to combine words to create meaning. So, we understand that the phrase, “I went out on a limb for you”, conveys something different than “Humans have several limbs”. So, what is the process by which children develop the ability to use language? 

Image of a baby's ear and hand
Even at 10 months, babies can mimic the sounds they hear. (Image: Roman Sorkin/Shutterstock)

According to one theory—known as the behaviorist or nurturist perspective—babies learn language the same way they learn anything else, they imitate what others are doing and they receive reinforcement for doing so. So, children hear their parents using language and they imitate the sounds they are hearing.

Babies Mimic the Sound They Hear

However, very young babies, around four months, initially utter a variety of simple phoneme combinations when they babble, often one consonant with one vowel, repeated over and over, such as “bababa” and “dadada”. These sounds include those from various languages, not just the ones they hear at home. 

This means that all babies—those who are hearing French, Korean, or Ethiopian at home, and even those who can’t hear, who aren’t hearing any language—all sound the same, suggesting that early on, babbling is not just mimicking the sounds they hear.

But around 10 months, this changes. Now, babbling becomes more focused on the language that is spoken at home, suggesting they are, in fact, mimicking the sounds they are hearing in their environment.

The Power of Reinforcement

A woman and a little girl playing with a a puppet
Babies tend to produce more sounds when they receive reinforcement. (Image: Va.happyfamily2017/Shutterstock)

According to the nurturist view, babies also get powerful reinforcement for using language. First, parents and other adults are typically very excited when babies start using familiar sounds or words. This excitement encourages babies to continue using some sounds, while other sounds get no reinforcement. 

Second, and more practically, being able to use language helps babies get what they want. If you can convey that you’d like a bottle or a cookie or that ball, someone might in fact bring it to you. That is especially reinforcing.

This view that reinforcement matters also helps explain a phenomenon noticed by parents and researchers alike: younger siblings tend to be slower to talk and have fewer words than their older sibling had at the same age, though perhaps more so if the older sibling is a boy. 

As parents with more than one child probably recognize, first-born children tend to get more reinforcement for using language than do subsequent children. Why? It’s more exciting and novel as a parent when your first child begins talking. They also probably have a lot more time to provide reinforcement without the distraction of caring for an older sibling.

Common Questions about Rules That Help Us Organize Sounds and Meanings

Q: What are phonemes and morphemes?

Phonemes are the sound that makes up a language. The word short, for example, has three phonemes. The smallest units of the language that carry meaning, such as I, a, ed, and pre, are considered morphemes.

Q: What is the syntax?

Putting sounds and meanings, phonemes and morphemes, together to create sentences is known as syntax. The rules of syntax are followed by children in their very early stages of learning to speak. For example, babies around one start putting sounds and meanings together and follow syntax rules but can only produce single words such as mama, ball, and daddy.

Q: What are semantics?

Semantics is a set of rules that make humans able to govern and put sounds and meanings together to create meaningful sentences. This rule enables us to understand what a word conveys in so many different contexts.

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