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One-Word stage

One-Word stage

As children acquire language, they progress through four different stages. We'll be looking at the second stage of child language acquisition called the 'one-word stage'.

One-word stage definition

The one-word stage, also known as the holophrastic stage, is the second major phase in the child's language acquisition process. It comes after the babbling stage and is 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.

One-word stage age

The one-word stage typically occurs at the age of 12 to 18 months.

One word stage of language development

Upon entering the holophrastic stage, infants will have a few essential words in their vocabulary that are 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.

Let's look at the process by which children develop the ability to make sounds.

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 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'.

Examples of the one-word stage

Examples of children's speech during the one-word stage include:

'Milk' (meaning 'I want milk', 'it is milk', etc.)

'Daddy' (meaning 'I want daddy', 'it is daddy', 'daddy is gone', etc.)

'No' (meaning 'I don't want it', 'don't do that', etc.)

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 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
CarGarG for C
CanGanG for C
TeaDeeD 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.

Frequently Asked Questions about One-Word stage

The stage where infants use single words that they've learnt to communicate more complex ideas.

The two-word stage comes after the one-word stage. 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 is typically from 12 to 18 months of age.

Final One-Word stage Quiz

Question

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

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Answer

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

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Question

What type of speech sounds do infants first learn?


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Answer

Vowels

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Question

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


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Answer

12-18 months

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Question

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


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Answer

False. Vowels are easier to enunciate since they can be produced with an open configuration of the vocal tract.

Show question

Question

Why is the enunciation of consonants usually learned after vowels?


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Answer

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

Show question

Question

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


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Answer

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

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Question

What is meant by overextending a word?


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Answer

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

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Question

What is meant by underextending a word?


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Answer

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

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Question

Why do infants substitute sounds in words?


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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.

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Question

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


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Answer

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

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Question

The one-word stage is the _______ stage of language acquisition. Fill in the blank.

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Answer

Second

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Question

The one-word stage is also known as:

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Answer

The holophrastic stage

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Question

At the one-word stage, children are able to gesture whilst saying a word. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following is an example of the one-word stage?

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Answer

‘Food’ *points at bowl*

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Question

The pronunciation of consonants happens when the vocal tract is either partly or fully __________. Fill in the blanks.

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Answer

Obstructed

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Question

Which of the following are types of consonants:

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Answer

Nasals

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Question

The one that a child utters can have multiple meaning. It is up to the caregiver to interpret it. True or false?

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Answer

True. For example, the word 'milk' may mean 'I want milk' or 'It is milk'.

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Question

Which of the following are common mistakes in the one-word stage?

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Answer

Substitution of sounds

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Question

What is substitution of sounds? 

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Answer

Children may substitute a sound they can’t yet produce for an easier sound e.g. ‘Like’ becomes ‘wike’.

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Question

Overextension is when infants give a narrower meaning than its intended meaning whilst underextension is where they give a word a broader meaning than its intended meaning. True or false?

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Answer

False, it is the other way round! (overextension is giving a word a broader meaning whilst underextension is giving a word a narrower meaning)

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