Early Childhood Communication: Prelinguistic Sounds

Last week, we discussed some of the behaviors that precede language in children, including eye contact, gesture, and joint attention. Each of these behaviors is a stepping stone on the road to meaningful communication with others. Today, we’ll take a look at the sounds and vocalizations a child makes on their way to developing true language.

The earliest sounds that a child makes are reflexive sounds, such as crying, burping or sneezing, or unintentional vocalizations made when air passes through the child’s closed vocal chords. At approximately two months, the child begins to “coo”. Cooing consists of vowel-like vocalizations that the child typically produces when a baby is happy or content. Around this time, laughter will also usually make an appearance.

Vocal play follows cooing, at around four to six months old. This child begins to produce consonant-like sounds and interchange them with vowels in sequences of increasing length. As time goes by, the child will also begin introducing pitch contours (rising and falling tonality) into these vocalizations.

At about six months, a child will begin to produce reduplicated babbling. This type of vocalization consists of repeated consonant-vowel combinations, for example, “ba-ba-ba-ba” or “mu-mu-mu-mu”. This slowly progresses into variegated babbling, during which children combine different vowel-consonant combinations into syllable strings; for example “goo-ee-ada-um”.  The child will incorporate pitch contours more consistently with this babbling, often sounding similar to linguistic inflection.

Stay tuned: next week we’ll delve into a child’s first symbolic sounds and how they develop into language.

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