What are the distinct stages, landmarks or milestones in language acquisition in regard to phonetic development? What is the order they're typically reached, and why is it that order?

For instance, I know that certain types of phonemes are learned at different times. Vowels are usually learned early, and different types of consonants are learned later.

I'm particularly interested in the why of these developmental stages. Phoneme acquisition charts are easily found, but they don't discuss why certain phonemes are learned before others. I understand it's likely rooted in physiological and/or neurological development, so that's what I'm interested in.

I'm asking primarily about English pronunciation and grammar, but would also be interested in info for the entire IPA.

While I'm not a linguistics student or professional, I'm comfortable with technical terms, such as those found in Articulatory Phonetics, Occlusives, Manners of Articulation and linguistic/grammatical terminology. I have access to resources about these areas of interest once I know where to look.

Age range can be assumed to be from start of speech until "mastery" of all landmarks. I'm not just interested in a single age, but the full breadth of development. (Unfortunately, I must be broad, since I don't know the individual stages, I can't right now ask about them individually).

Full disclosure:
I did ask nearly the same question on Parenting, but it was suggested I come here for a better answer.

  • This is a complicated issue. It varies between language and also on an individual basis. I would start with this dissertation, which goes into extreme detail on the stages observed in two French speaking children and theories account for these stages. – user3898238 Apr 11 '15 at 4:52
  • Your title says 'what', your question body says 'why'. Please edit this to make them consistent. – curiousdannii Apr 11 '15 at 23:50

The acquisition of phonology is fairly well studied for English. And although, there is a lot of variation among individuals and there are no definite sequences or ages of acquisition, you can find fairly reliable tendencies across the population. However, these may not be very useful (to a lay person or even a linguist not trained in speech therapy) trying to determine whether any individual child is developing typically or there is cause for concern.

Any list of these stages would be too long for here but you can find it in any introductory text on linguistics that covers language acquisition (partly because it is the one area of language acquisition where there is some certainty). This Wikipedia article does a very good job of describing some of the key phases.

  • Generally speaking, the more distinctive sounds - stops - come first, along with nasals, which are stops pronounced with the nasal passage open. Then various fricatives, and last distinctions among resonants. The vowels gradually differentiate, at their own rates, and in their own orders. There is overlap among the speech groups' developments, and vast individual variation in order of individual sounds. My daughter's last phoneme to get was /l/; she used to say "yunchbox", substituting one resonant for another. – jlawler Aug 11 '15 at 13:42

Have you tried reading pp 223-244 (Chapter 13) of Linguistics For Dummies (1 ed, 2012; by Déchaine, Burton, Vatikiotis-Bateson)? It is too long for me to reproduce here entirely

Page 233 (at least partially answers your question):

Linguists give names to some of the stages that kids go through. The one-word stage (12 to 18 months) is also called the holophrastic or whole sentence stage. It’s followed by the two-word stage (18 to 24 months) and then the telegraphic speech stage (24 to 30 months).

Page 228 dilates on Prof Lawler's comment above:

Stop consonants (/p, t, k, b, d, g, m, n, n/) and glides (/y, w/) develop early across many languages, by around 7 months. Most children master the vowels in their target language by around 24 months. The last sounds to be acquired are fricatives /s, z/, affricates /ts, dz/, and liquids /r, l/ because the production of these sounds requires fine motor control. For example, for children acquiring English, fricatives pop in at around 30 months and /l/ and /r/ make their appearance at around 36 months.

Until they attain the motor control that allows them to produce all the sounds of their language, kids often omit or substitute sounds. For linguists, such omission and substitution “errors” provide a window into the rule system that the child is developing.

[I omit the rest of the page]


I heard in a Norwegian radio program about linguistics, that all languages the child is learning during the first 3 years, can be considered the childs native languages. This means that a child can have more than one native language.

During this period, a child is receptive to any kind of sound, and able to learn it. After the first 3 years, the child become less receptive to new sounds, and after some time, not able to distinguish between sounds they have not learned.

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