Language acquisition is a product of active, repetitive & complex learning. A child's brain learns & changes more during language acquisition in the first 6 years of life than during any other time.
When you think about it, words are just a stream of sounds that have come to symbolise & mean specific things. These sounds are the first thing babies must learn to distinguish.
Before babies are born, they already recognise the rhythm of language. At birth they can recognise the rise/fall of their parents’ voices. By 4 months, they know the difference between language sounds & other noises – they can tell the difference between a spoken word & a clap.
Around 6 months, as babbling begins, babies are capable of making all the sounds in all human language. However, by the time they’re a year old they'll have lost this & instead focus just on the sounds of their native language.
Learning language, at least in the beginning, occurs via “associative learning”. This happens when two previously unrelated elements become connected in our brains. A lot of this is done via repetition. For example, an infant notices that when the black furry thing walks in the room, their mother always makes the same sounds. One day, the infant makes a “k” sound when looking at the animal & their mother excitedly says “yes, Cat!”, clapping and smiling.
Across dozens of iterations, just like this one, the infant starts to make the connection that the sounds “k-a-t” refer to that black animal. A child’s first few hundred words are learned just like this – through repetitive pairings alongside parental enthusiasm. With adequate language exposure, most children will start speaking around 12-18 months.
⭐What can you do?⭐
What can you do to help? Talk, talk, talk. It sounds too simple to be true, but the best thing to do for your little one is to model good language. Treat your baby like a full conversation partner, until they are! Talk your way through the day: commentate changing a nappy or what you see out the window. Talk until they can talk back, & then keep talking.
References: Elmlinger, Schwade & Goldstein (2019)