Here's a little video of when Piper (our two year-old granddaughter) was about 20 months old. Her mom and I were trying to get her to say stuff on camera. And despite our noisy attempts to extract words from her, she managed to think about what she was trying to say, and blurt it out. You can totally see the wheels turning in her head. She even asks her own questions (mom translates.)
I took a linguistics class a couple of years ago and one of the units was on language acquisition, also known as language development. I had never really thought much about how babies acquire the ability to communicate, and became pretty fascinated with the theories (especially because at the time my granddaughter was just learning to talk!) Experts disagree on how we "learn" to speak. Some theorists say that it's strictly learned or imitated, but that doesn't account for the fact that kids put sentences together that they've never heard. It also doesn't account for the fact that kids make mistakes in predictable ways. For example, it's common for kids to say, "I goed home" instead of "I went home." And they've likely never heard anyone use the term "goed."
Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous American linguists, believes that language is an innate thing, that somehow our DNA gives us the raw capacity to learn verbal communication. So a child who is born into a Spanish-speaking family will use the innate characteristics she has to learn the Spanish language, and a kid in Japan will do the same thing with the Japanese language.
I kind of believe that it's a mixture of innate ability and learning. All things considered, kids aren't given much information (i.e. stimulus) but they're still acquiring new words and phrases all the time. Yes, they hear us label things and learn to imitate that, but we don't teach them how to structure a sentence, they just eventually learn how to properly arrange nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc. And really, little kids can understand so much more than they can say when they're about a year old. If I say, "Haven, where are your eyes?" my genius little seventeen month-old granddaughter points right to them, even though she can't formulate the sentence.
Watching kids figure the whole language thing out can be so fun. A few personal examples:
• About three months ago Piper and I drove through Sonic. I was going to get her a kiddie ice cream, and I said, "Piper, which do you like better: chocolate or strawberry?" She replied, "No, I don't." She got strawberry; easier to clean.
• Last weekend Craig asked her if she was tired, and she said, "I don't tired."
• I recently went to pick Piper up so I could take her to the park. I said to her mom, "Maybe we can get ice cream while we're out!" Little did I know that Piper had asked her mom to pack some creamy yogurt in a cooler so she could eat it at the park. She heard me make the ice cream remark and had a startled look on her face, as if to say, "Listen to me!" I waited for her to formulate the sentence, and it came out haltingly, like this: I! Have! Yogurt! And then she smiled from ear to ear, because she was so proud of herself for telling me.
• Recently Piper spent the night with us. The next day she kept saying she wanted Popeye's.
Popeye's?? Fried chicken and biscuits??
Craig told her no, that we had stuff to eat at home and weren't going to Popeye's. She threw herself down on the ground and started crying. Later on I called her mom and said, "Do you guys take her to Popeye's a lot?" She replied, "Mom, she's saying "Pop Ice, as in the frozen popscicle things." Piper didn't have the ability yet to separate the two words, especially when there's a "p" at the end of one, and a vowel at the beginning of the other. The "p" and the "I" run together - try saying "pop ice" and you'll see that you do it too. The difference is that as adults we know to enunciate them separately if we need to.
Here's a video from a few weeks ago. You can see how much she's progressed. She even knows how to tell me that she's not going to do what I'm asking her to! Her phrase "No, I don't" has become somewhat iconic around here. I baited her to try and get her to say it, but when that failed I just flat out asked.