In this seminar, we will study how children learn language. In just a few years – without a dictionary, grammar book or teaching – all normal children learn language, in all countries of the world, regardless of culture or intelligence. How are children able to learn any language so naturally when it is so difficult for us as adults?

We will examine this question in our seminar. You will study the typical stages of child language, from babbling to first words, to combination of words and beyond. And we will look at different theories of how children acquire language, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

Did you know that babies become familiar with the sound of their mother’s language even before they are born? We will study English and Japanese children’s typical first words. For example, English children have many double words – like woof-woof (for dog), bye-bye (for goodbye), wee-wee (for toilet) – and Japanese children, too, have double words like wan-wan, buu-buu and pon-pon – as well as of course ma-ma and pa-pa. Why is this?

You will learn why Japanese children say kukku for kutsu, and why English children say tummy for stomach and nana for banana. You will also study how children learn the meanings of words. For example, how do children figure out that d-o-g means a furry living thing with four legs and a tail, while c-a-t is another animal and g-o-d something completely different? And how do children learn that Snoopy means one particular dog – a fictional one – while dog means all dogs? We will also study how children learn grammar: for example, why do English children say mans instead of men, foots instead of feet, and goed instead of went? In addition, we will examine the ‘critical period’ – what happens if a child is not exposed to language, as in the case of the American girl Genie or the French boy Victor. Could they still learn language?

Finally, we will think about what child language acquisition can teach us about how we can better learn foreign languages at school.

At the end of the two years, you should have a deeper and broader understanding of how children learn language. If possible, I hope you will also have the chance to study a real child or children as part of our seminar. The language of the seminar will be English, so you will have plenty of opportunity to speak, read and write in English.

Below of a selection of the topics we will cover in this seminar, week by week. Each week we will also have student presentations and class discussion.


First semester

Week 1 Introductory class

Week 2 Landmarks in the landscape of child language

Week 3 Levels of language

Week 4 Listen in mother

Week 5 Word learning

Week 6 Can animals acquire human language? Shakespeare’s typewriter

Week 7 What is language?

Week 8 Teaching words to animals

Week 9 Animal grammar

Week 10 The critical period hypothesis: now or never?

Week 11 Documentary: Genie and Victor

Week 12 What is a critical period?

Week 13 The effects of linguistic deprivation

Week 14 Age of acquisition effects in second language learning

Week 15 End of term class


Second semester

Week 1 Input and Interaction: tutorials for toddlers

Week 2 Characteristics of child directed speech

Week 3 Lack of interaction: can children learn language from television?

Week 4 Imitation

Week 5 Corrective input

Week 6 Language in the first year: breaking the sound barrier

Week 7 Hunt the phoneme

Week 8 Specialization towards the native language

Week 9 Word segmentation

Week 10 Grammar from the babble

Week 11 The developing lexicon: what’s in a name?

Week 12 Approaches to word learning

Week 13 First words

Week 14 Up, up and away: the vocabulary spurt

Week 15 End of term class


Third semester

Week 1 The acquisition of morphology: linguistic Lego

Week 2 Morphological processes

Week 3 The past tense debate: rules or connections?

Week 4 Compounding and derivation

Week 5 Linguistic nativism: to the grammar born

Week 6 Universal Grammar

Week 7 The problem of linguistic diversity

Week 8 Arguments for linguistic nativism

Week 9 The poverty of stimulus argument

Week 10 The usage-based approach: making it up as you go along

Week 11 Language knowledge from language use

Week 12 Early constructions: a route into grammar

Week 13 The productivity puzzle

Week 14 Constraining productivity

Week 15 End of term class


Fourth semester

Week 1 You say nature, I say nurture: better call the calling off off

Week 2 Some basic facts

Week 3 Learning mechanisms

Week 4 Nature and nurture in the study of child language

Week 5 Methodology: limitations and possibilities

Week 6 Child language: acquisition and development

Week 7 Graduation thesis

Week 8 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 9 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 10 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 11 Deadline for second draft of thesis

Week 12 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 13 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 14 Graduation thesis presentations and discussion

Week 15 Deadline for final draft of thesis



Child Language: Acquisition and Development, Matthew Saxton, London: Sage, 2010.