Prelinguistic language development is the first stage of language development in a child. At this stage, children begin to familiarize themselves with the sounds of their native language. Prelinguistic language development is integral, as without it, children could not separate sounds from words. This stage of language development lasts until they speak their first words, usually in their second year of life.
The Beginning of Learning
The learning process has an upper limit: the physical development of the child. When a child just enters the world, his vocal tract can't produce speech, and will not be for a year. And their brains will not be ready for even the most basic types of vocalization besides crying and vegetative sounds for at least a couple of months. It is only when mom notices her child expressing emotions of comfort and enjoyment that the brain is ready to start focusing on the language aspect of the world. Until that point, the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotion and language, is not fully functioning, leaving the child to rely mainly on the brain stem for the expression of primitive needs. When a mom see’s cooing and laughing, she will know that the child has entered the main part of the prelinguistic language development stage.
Familiarity With the Native Language
According to Marilyn Vihman, author of “Phonological Development: The Origins of Language in the Child,” without actually knowing it, a newborn is slowly learning about their parents’ language simply by listening to the sounds. In this way, they are defining their native language. This “definition” solidifies by the age of 1, at which time children surprisingly lose their ability to separate the nuances between certain sounds in non-native languages. For example, consider the difference between the English word “John” and the Chinese word “Zhan.” If you heard these two words spoken individually, you, as an adult, would believe they were the same word. But a 3-month-old can recognize the slight difference between these two sounds. However, a 1-year-old would hear these as the same sound, because they virtually are the same. Thus, taking advantage of the prelinguistic phase in language development is integral for parents who want to raise bilingual children.
Parents are often all to ready to jump at the opportunity to tell others, “My girl just said her first word.” While it’s natural for a parent to get excited at her 10-month-old’s word-like sounds, it’s not natural for a child at such an age to speak. The confusion is in the babbling that children begin to produce in the middle of the prelinguistic stage. At this time, children begin to mimic the sounds with which they have become familiar. For a language such as English, the produced sounds are usually in a consonant-vowel format, such as “fee-row” or “ree-tee” which can lead to a premature speech ability judgment from mom.
The way a mom talks to her child plays a major role in prelinguistic language development. Moms of newborns talk to their newborns in a way that they wouldn’t talk to their bosses, co-workers, or even husbands. This mom-to-baby language, or Mothernese, is spoken with higher pitches, more variance in pitch, shorter phrases, and long pauses. In a word, Mothernese overemphasizes specific aspects of the language, making it easier for the newborn or infant to learn the language.