Language is a system of symbols and rules that is used for meaningful communication. A system of communication has to meet certain criteria in order to be considered a language:

  • A language uses symbols, which are sounds, gestures, or written characters that represent objects, actions, events, and ideas. Symbols enable people to refer to objects that are in another place or events that occurred at a different time.
  • A language is meaningful and therefore can be understood by other users of that language.
  • A language is generative, which means that the symbols of a language can be combined to produce an infinite number of messages.
  • A language has rules that govern how symbols can be arranged. These rules allow people to understand messages in that language even if they have never encountered those messages before.

The Building Blocks of Language

Language is organized hierarchically, from phonemes to morphemes to phrases and sentences that communicate meaning.


Phonemes are the smallest distinguishable units in a language. In the English language, many consonants, such as t, p, and m, correspond to single phonemes, while other consonants, such as c and g, can correspond to more than one phoneme. Vowels typically correspond to more than one phoneme. For example, o corresponds to different phonemes depending on whether it is pronounced as in bone or woman. Some phonemes correspond to combinations of consonants, such as ch, sh, and th.


Morphemes are the smallest meaningful units in a language. In the English language, only a few single letters, such as I and a, are morphemes. Morphemes are usually whole words or meaningful parts of words, such as prefixes, suffixes, and word stems.

Example: The word “disliked” has three morphemes: “dis,” “lik,” and “ed.”


Syntax is a system of rules that governs how words can be meaningfully arranged to form phrases and sentences.

Example: One rule of syntax is that an article such as “the” must come before a noun, not after: “Read the book,” not “Read book the.”

Language Development in Children

Children develop language in a set sequence of stages, although sometimes particular skills develop at slightly different ages:

  • Three-month-old infants can distinguish between the phonemes from any language.
  • At around six months, infants begin babbling, or producing sounds that resemble many different languages. As time goes on, these sounds begin to resemble more closely the words of the languages the infant hears.
  • At about thirteen months, children begin to produce simple single words.
  • By about twenty-four months, children begin to combine two or three words to make short sentences. At this stage, their speech is usually telegraphic. Telegraphic speech, like telegrams, contains no articles or prepositions.
  • By about age three years, children can usually use tenses and plurals.
  • Children’s language abilities continue to grow throughout the school-age years. They become able to recognize ambiguity and sarcasm in language and to use metaphors and puns. These abilities arise from metalinguistic awareness, or the capacity to think about how language is used.

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