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One-Word stage

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The one-word stage, also known as the holophrastic stage, is the second major phase in the child language acquisition process. It directly follows after the babbling stage, typically occurring at the age of 12 to 18 months, characterised by the use of single words. At this point, infants have learned a handful of convenient words to get attention, call for something, or simply interact with those around them.

They will often utter a word while also using particular body language and tone of voice to express their needs. An example would be when a child says 'food' while pointing to what they want to eat. Here the parent can deduce that the child is hungry and wants food based on word and gesture.

Development of the one-word/holophrastic stage

Upon entering the holophrastic stage, infants will have a few essential words in their vocabulary, learned from the language around them. They continue to develop their ability to pronounce more individual sound segments which allow them to produce new words.

Development of sounds spoken.

1. Pronunciation of vowels.

Infants will tend to acquire the ability to pronounce the full range of vowels in their language first. The pronunciation of vowels happens with an open configuration (the tongue isn't involved in limiting or stopping the breath) of the vocal tract, which makes the pronunciation simpler than consonants.

2. Pronunciation of consonants.

Infants gain the ability to pronounce the full range of consonants in their language after the vowels. The pronunciation of consonants happens when the vocal tract is either partly or fully obstructed , making them technically more difficult to pronounce than vowels.

Consonants tend to be acquired in the following order:

  • Nasals (n, m).
  • Glides (w, j).
  • Stops (p, b, t, d, k, g).
  • Liquids (l, r).
  • Fricatives (f, v, s, z).
  • Affricates (ch, j).

The place of articulation for consonant sounds happens in a front to back order:

  • Labials (made with the lips).
  • Velars (made at the soft palate, behind the teeth).
  • Alveolars (made at the alveolar ridge, further behind the teeth).
  • Velars (made at the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth).
  • Palatals (made against the hard palate, the middle part of the roof of the mouth).

3. Pronunciation of new letters first.

The new consonants that infants learn will often be used in the first letter of a word.

If an infant learns the constant 'd' , the first word they use will be a simple vowel-consonant combination, like 'da'.

Once the infant has become familiar with the consonant and feels more confident, they may utter a new word with the constant letter in the middle or end of the word.

With the letter 'd' , an infant at this stage may say the word 'red'.

Common mistakes in the one word stage

Infants compensate for the inability to produce certain sounds by making small adjustments to communicate a word they cannot properly enunciate.

Substitution of sounds

Infants can perceive more sound contrasts than they can verbally utter during the one-word stage. Their speech won't reveal their full understanding of phonology, but it can be observed when they substitute an easier sound for a one they cannot produce yet.

The substitutions that they make are rule-governed: they always use the same sound as a substitute for a sound they can't produce. ¹

The following table shows some common examples:

Word intendedWord producedLetter substitution
LikeWikeW for L
LegpathW for L
CarAt allG for C
CanGanG for C
TeaDeaD for T
TenTheD for T

Infants will eventually correct this mistake once they gain better control of their vocal tract and articulate more sounds.

Overextension and Underextension.

Infants often overextend the meaning of a word; this occurs when they give a word a broader meaning than its intended meaning.

If a child refers to any small animal it sees as a ' rat' , even if it's a squirrel, dog or cat. The infant has extended the meaning of the word 'rat' because of the child's limited vocabulary.

Overextensions are based on shape, size and texture, but never colour.

The opposite of overextending is called underextending. This is when an infant gives a word a narrower meaning than its intended meaning.

A child might ask for 'juice' anytime it wants its sippy cup.

Interpretation during the one-word stage

The challenge during the one-word stage comes in the interpretation of the child's holophrases. The issue is that the infant's intention may not be interpreted correctly by the adult, and finding evidence for what the infant wants to say isn't easy. ²

When trying to understand the meaning of a word, an adult must interpret the infant's body language and consider the context . Infants use hand gestures and display facial expressions - which can often add helpful information to solve what the child wants to communicate - in conjunction with the single word uttered.³

One-Word Stage - Key takeaways

  • The one-word stage is the second stage of language development.
  • Infants attempt to express complex ideas in a single word.
  • Infants begin by using easy speech sounds, such as vowels, followed by consonants.
  • Infants perceive more sound contrasts than they can utter.
  • Infants make mistakes, since they aren't able to enunciate all the sounds they can perceive.

  1. Oller. D., et al., Infant babbling and speech, Journal of Child Language, 1976

  2. JG de Villiers, PA de Villiers, Language Acquisition, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1980.

3. Lightfoot et al., The Development of Children, 2008.

One-Word stage

The stage where infants use the few words learned to communicate more complex ideas.

The two-word stage succeeds the one-word stage, which is when infants begin to use more complete sentences, which include a noun or a verb and a modifier.

The first stage in speaking is the babbling stage, which is when infants produce simple consonant-vowel sounds.

The 4 stages of language development are the babbling stage, the one-word stage, the two-word stage and the multi-word stage.

The one-word stage typically takes place from 12 to 18 months of age.

Final One-Word stage Quiz


What happens in the one-word stage of language acquisition?

Show answer


Infants begin using single words to communicate more complex ideas to the adults around them.

Show question


What type of speech sounds do infants first learn?

Show answer


Infants usually learn to enunciate vowels first.

Show question


At what age does the one-word stage take place?

Show answer


Typically from 12 to 18 months of age.

Show question


True or false: Consonants are easier to enunciate than vowels.

Show answer


False. Vowels are easier to enunciate since they can be produced without any stricture in the vocal tract.

Show question


Why is the enunciation of consonants usually learned after vowels?

Show answer


The pronunciation of consonants requires a partly or fully obstructed vocal tract, making them technically more difficult to pronounce than vowels.

Show question


True or false: Infants use new letters that they have learned at the start of a word.

Show answer


True. Enunciating a new letter is easier when it's at the beginning of a word.

Show question


What is meant by overextending a word?

Show answer


When a word is given a broader meaning than its intended meaning.

Show question


What is meant by underextending a word?

Show answer


When a word is given a narrower meaning than its intended meaning.

Show question


Why do infants substitute sounds in words?

Show answer


If they aren't able to enunciate a sound in a word, they will replace it with a sound that they can enunciate, which leave the interpretation to the adults.

Show question


True or false: The use of substitution for sounds is rule-governed.

Show answer


True. Infants always use the same sound as a substitute for a sound they can't produce.

Show question

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