First language acquisition age: does it differ by language?
January 4, 2017 6:15 AM   Subscribe

Does the age of first language acquisition differ by language?

I'm interested in any evidence that compares the age of first language acquisition across languages. My assumption is that it is broadly similar across all languages, but I've struggled to track down any empirical research on the subject despite finding quite a bit on the differences between first and second language acquisition.

Any evidence on this would be warmly welcomed.
posted by knapah to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you including sign language in this? Because there are entire programs set up for babies to learn ASL, because there's some evidence that they can start signing before they start speaking.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:25 AM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


Try using the keywords "Language Development" rather than language acquisition; that might help with filtering out any bilingual second language acquisition stuff. My understanding (speech pathologist) is that gross milestones are broadly similar across languages. There may be some differences with regard to markers with more or less cultural relevance or differences driven by parent-child interaction styles, but none of these lie significantly outside global norms.

... And of course I'm having a hard time citing one specific source for this; a work around might be to look at different languages (eg: "language development milestones farsi")?
posted by lilnublet at 6:54 AM on January 4, 2017


I would be very happy to see evidence on sign language, dinty_moore.

And thanks for the keyword suggestion, lilnublet. I find that's half the battle.
posted by knapah at 7:00 AM on January 4, 2017


I think that you'd have to define 'language'. I don't have references to hand, but the age at which babies 'babble' is (I think) generalisable betweeen languages; however, there are certainly different ages for acquiring different sounds. The simplest 'mm' (all air out via nose) and 'aa' (all out by mouth) will appear by a few months old; there are complex syllables in some languages (I want to say that Czech is one of them, but I'm not sure) that children don't master until about the age of five. A lot of languages have a word for mother which is similar to 'mama' as it's such a simple, early sound; do you count that as first language acquisition? Or use of the complete range of expression of language? If the latter, then you're a bit stuffed for English as there isn't a central authority which defines a full range of expression for the language.
posted by Vortisaur at 7:35 AM on January 4, 2017


> If the latter, then you're a bit stuffed for English as there isn't a central authority which defines a full range of expression for the language.

This makes no sense. There is no "central authority which defines a full range of expression" for any language; there are officially constituted "authorities" for some languages that purport to define the limits of officially acceptable language use, but they are largely ignored by the people who actually use the language, and their influence on what gets published varies by country. The range of expression for a language is the range of ways its speakers use it, which can be described by linguists but not regulated by authority. In any case, such "authorities" have nothing whatever to do with child language acquisition, which is a fascinating topic I know too little about; I will be glad to see any studies that get linked to (though I too assume that it is broadly similar across all languages).
posted by languagehat at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2017 [10 favorites]


Some discussion of this in a reddit thread that may be of interest. I landed on this after some loose googling based on a hunch I had that Danish children are slower to arrive at fully fluent speech on account of that language's awful sounds.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:29 AM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


My understanding (based on wikipedia research, no doubt, so take it fwiw) is that sign language acquisition comes earlier not because of cognitive development, but physical -- young children develop the manual dexterity to begin to sign before they develop the fine motor skills to be able to reproduce aural speech.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:05 AM on January 4, 2017


The short answer: yes, milestones such as babbling, single-word and multi-word utterances and particular syntactic structures are the same across languages. Also, it's comparable across modalities (spoken vs. signed). Deaf children of deaf parents babble (with their hands) at the same age as hearing babies.

Here is a page from a reputable introductory linguistics course that goes over some typical milestones. Here is another.

There are complications, of course. For example, bilingual acquisition (which is the norm in many cultures) can seem to be a bit slower and the vocabulary size may initially be smaller in each language. Also, a child born to one linguistic environment and then moved into another (because of international adoption, for example) will have some catching up to do--but they do ultimately catch up.
posted by karbonokapi at 9:14 AM on January 4, 2017 [5 favorites]


> My understanding (based on wikipedia research, no doubt, so take it fwiw) is that sign language acquisition comes earlier not because of cognitive development, but physical -- young children develop the manual dexterity to begin to sign before they develop the fine motor skills to be able to reproduce aural speech.

That's right, there's been a lot of work done in reexamining babies' language cognition in the last 20 years or so, and it turns out that they understand vocabulary and grammar far earlier than the age at which they can use language to express themselves.

(Learning this made me much more sympathetic to crying babies. I, too, get frustrated when I have thoughts and feelings that I can't translate into comprehensible words.)
posted by desuetude at 9:19 AM on January 4, 2017 [5 favorites]


Thanks all, really interesting. I suppose I was thinking about some moderate level of childhood fluency, which is wonderfully vague. Rejigging the question a little brings me more to wondering whether children master different levels of complexity at different times for various languages and whether there are any studies on that front. As noted though, it's very hard to have some kind of objective scale.

The background for this was someone suggesting that the supposed difficulty of English could help explain poor performance of pupils with English as a first language on international tests. I was rather sceptical.
posted by knapah at 4:29 AM on January 5, 2017


whether children master different levels of complexity at different times for various languages and whether there are any studies on that front

No, basically kids learn the same things in the same order and at the same rough age, regardless of what language they happen to be learning. This may be in part because you need to figure out certain things about your language to "bootstrap" into others. To take a very basic example, of course you need to learn single words before you can string words together.

There is no evidence I am aware of to suggest that English is more or less difficult than any other language for children to acquire as their first language.
posted by karbonokapi at 3:30 PM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


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