All normal children go through a series of stages in the development of spoken language, regardless of their culture. There are, however, individual variations in the rate of progress through the stages. From the earliest weeks of life, newborns develop distinguishable patterns of crying. By the age of three months they can coo; by six or seven months they can babble. Babbling does not seem to be directly related to adult speech, because it can contain sounds from all languages and because there are no differences between normal and deaf babies in the way they babble. Intonation (pitch pattern) and gesturing are also important in prespeech communication.
Children speak their first words at about the end of their first year. These words all focus on present objects and events. At this stage, children often commit errors of overextension (applying a category label to objects that do not fit the category, such as calling all four-legged animals doggie) and underextension (failing to include all category members in the category label, such as not calling a German shepherd a doggie). Through the processes of overextension and underextension, a child learns the mental representations used in a language.
Around age two, children begin putting words together in sentences, the first being two-word combinations. This telegraphic speech is characterized by elimination of descriptors and connectors; it focuses on nouns and action verbs. Even this early speech is highly structured. The emergence of this early speech depends on the attainment of a certain level of neurological maturation, particularly in the rapid increase in the number of neural synapses that occurs at about age one-and-one-half.
Between ages two and five, vocabulary increases dramatically, complex grammatical rules are mastered, and a child's ability to communicate moves beyond the immediate situation. Grammatical rules are acquired in sequential steps. Young children often commit errors of overregularization, in which they extend rules to instances in which the rules do not apply. Children also begin to learn about pragmatics, the study of how social context influences the use of language. Learning theories emphasize the crucial element of experience, and point out that no child learns language without exposure to language. Skinner argued that language mastery is a complex behavior, but a behavior nonetheless. Acquisition of language is accomplished through reinforcements and punishments.
Nativism is a theory of language acquisition that claims that language development is controlled by genetically programmed neural circuits. Noam Chomsky, for example, argued that the human brain contains a language acquisition device (LAD) which automatically analyzes the components of speech a child hears. The patterns of acquiring negation, the age of language mastery, and the speed of acquisition are similar enough across languages to support the nativist view.
Although most parents believe that their children learn language through imitation and reinforcement, research indicates that parents reinforce meaning rather than grammar. Consequently, most psychologists believe that language acquisition is highly creative, although reinforcement and imitation probably have some effect. Children are constantly talking, sometimes to no one in particular. This practice contributes to the mastery of language. It appears that language is to some degree innately human. Enhanced verbal abilities seem to be influenced by learning.