Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)

The Mystery of Learning Language

by Maddison Cox

Have you ever thought about how children really learn to speak? When children are born, they are immediately exposed to all kinds of sounds that they have never heard before. Soon after they are born, they learn to speak our language, and it takes no time at all. They learn to break down the words that we speak, figure out these words mean, and how to rearrange them into new words. Although there is not a clear answer on how children learn to do these things so fast, there are parts of the answer that are starting to emerge–but there are also many myths about how they learn best.

William O’Grady, the author of How Children Learn Language, states that imitation and teaching from parents isn’t the best way that children learn to speak our language. Imitation of adults is probably one of the most common thoughts on how language is learned. There are certain aspects of language that children probably learn from imitation. Children have to imitate what they hear, but there are major parts of language that they are not able to imitate. Sentences are created as we think of them, so it wouldn’t make sense that children are able to imitate them. There are two facts that O’Grady says prove that imitation is not the explanation for how children produce sentences. First, children typically only repeat words that they can already say, and don’t attempt words that they are unfamiliar with. Second, children do not often attempt to imitate full sentences as seen in the following image:

Another theory is that parents somehow teach their children how to speak. Parents do this by explaining things to children and by correcting them when they make a mistake. O’Grady states that this is unlikely because most of what we know about language is subconscious. We don’t realize how much we already know about language, but we aren’t able to explain what we know to children in a way that they would be able to understand it. O’Grady says that there are two main problems with the idea that parents correct their children but DON’T correct them. First, parents don’t pay much attention to how their child says something, but they do pay attention to what their child says. Second, young children don’t often respond well to corrections, as seen in the following image. Parents don’t give enough effective instruction to have a major impact on a child learning language.

What children really need from their parents when learning to talk is for parents to speak to the children in a slow, carefully articulated way. They need parents to use basic vocabulary, short sentences, and exaggerated intonation. This way of speech is designed to enhance the comprehensibility of the parents speech. O’Grady says that children need to hear sentences that they are able to understand without knowing a lot about the language that they are learning.

Although language and how children learn language has been studied for many years, we still don’t know a lot about how it really works. We are still unsure about what really goes on during this time of development. The mystery continues as millions of children around the world quickly learn the language at ease.


O’Grady, W. (2005). How Children Learn Language. Cambridge University Press.

Maddison Cox is a junior at Chadron State College originally from Rushville, Nebraska. She is studying Elementary Education K-8 and someday hopes to teach 1st or 2nd grade in a small school district.


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