How Do Children Learn Language?

Anyone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult will know that it can be extremely difficult. Yet, a child can normally learn their mother tongue (or mother tongues) without even trying! It seems that children have a special language-learning ability.


Most children can speak their mother tongue perfectly by the time they are six years old. They go through many stages before they reach this point.

In the first year, babies learn to make sounds. The first sounds they make, like crying, are not language sounds. Language sounds come when a baby is about 6 months old. This is called ‘babbling’. If you listen to a baby babbling, some of the sounds they make might sound like they could form words. Some scientists think babies babble to practise using their speech muscles.

In the second year, babies start to use single words or pairs of words. They do this by copying words that they hear. These might be words for important people, food, or favourite objects. They might combine these words to make simple sentences, for example ‘doll now’.

Between the third year and the sixth year, children learn to use grammatical structures. This means they can make and understand whole sentences. Once they can do this, children can say long and complex things.


A bilingual person is somebody who can speak two languages fluently. Many children learn two (or more) languages at the same time from birth. This might be because their mother and father speak two different languages, or because their country uses more than one language.

It appears that bilingual children have no extra trouble learning two languages than a child learning one language. This is part of their amazing language-learning ability.


Scientists do not know for sure how this amazing ability works. It is impossible to look inside someone’s brain to see how language is learnt.

Some linguists (scientists who study language) believe that all humans are born with a particular part of the brain that already knows certain things about language. For example, it knows that different parts of a sentence can be related to each other in different ways. This is true in all languages. For example, in English, if we say ‘the red dog is playing’, we know that ‘red’ and ‘dog’ are related. We don’t need to be taught any rule to know this.

It is interesting that all children are born with the same kind of ability, yet children all over the world learn many different languages as their mother tongue. Somehow, they use sentences that they hear to learn rules for their own language.

Some time between the age of 5 and puberty, we lose the ability to learn language so effectively. This ability is unique to children, and we are yet to understand it completely. It is a very interesting and exciting area of study.



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