Film growth of hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) by hot-wire chemical vapor deposition was studied simultaneously and in real-time by spectroscopic ellipsometry and attenuated total reflection infrared spectroscopy. The a-Si:H films were deposited on native oxide-covered GaAs(100) and Si(100) substrates at temperatures ranging from 70 to 350 °C. A temperature dependent initial growth phase is revealed by the evolution of the surface roughness and the surface and bulk SiHx absorption peaks. It is discussed that the films show a distinct nucleation behavior by the formation of islands on the surface that subsequently coalesce followed by bulk a-Si:H growth. Insight into a temperature-activated smoothening mechanism and the creation of a hydrogen-rich interface layer is presented.