Language Development

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Language development is a remarkable accomplishment. Your child must learn:

  • Words and their meanings
  • How to combine words to make understandable sentences
  • How to use words and sentences to communicate with other people

It is truly amazing that most children acquire most of their native language by age five. In order to accomplish so much in such a short time, the process starts long before children actually say their first words. The roots of language can be found in the early interactions of babies and their caretakers.

The Steps of Language Development

Children are unique individuals who develop language at their own rate. Some children will develop faster or slower than the average. The average steps of language development from infancy through the preschool years are:

Newborn – 6 Months: Early Communication

Your baby does not yet understand language. But the baby will respond to loud noises with a startle and to your voice by becoming quiet. By three months of age, babies will turn their heads when they hear a voice or an interesting sound.

From the very beginning, parents and their babies become partners in “conversation.” They create a pattern of turn-taking which is basic to communication. A good example of early turn-taking between an infant and mother occurs at feeding time. While feeding, mother and newborn look at one another. When the baby is actively sucking, the mother is passive. She continues to look at her baby. When the baby stops sucking briefly, the mother becomes active, cooing and talking to the baby. Finally, when the baby starts to suck again, the mother quiets and continues looking. The mother fits her behavior to her baby’s behavior, each one taking a turn. Turn taking is the basis of a conversation.

Even though babies do not use words, their parents interpret their behavior as if they were trying to communicate. When babies look at faces or objects, smile, or grasp for objects, their parents react as if they meant to communicate.

When a baby looks into a parent’s face and smiles, the parent smiles in response. The parent reacts as if the baby has started up a conversation. When the baby turns away, the “conversation” ends. At this stage of development the baby does not have intentional behavior. But parents respond as if the baby were truly trying to communicate. The baby is learning how to initiate, maintain, and end a conversation.

7 – 12 Months: Understanding Routines

During this period, babies learn to have some control over their environment through communication. They begin to use facial expression, eye gaze, vocalization, and gestures such as reaching and pointing to communicate:

  • Desire to have something – baby points to a cookie on the kitchen table, saying “uh.”
  • Interaction with others – baby looks up and says “da” as parent comes into sight.
  • Expression of feeling – baby says “mmm” with a smile and giggle when drinking juice.

At this age we cannot speak of babies understanding or comprehending language. However, by experiencing daily activities such as feeding or bedtime over and over in the same way, babies come to “expect” these things to happen in a certain way. These “routines” form the basis of early understanding of events in their world.

By parent’s well-timed comments or questions during routine events, babies look as though they also understand language. Eventually they will! For now, they do understand the routine. For example, the parent can give a direction to “get the ball” when it rolls near the baby’s outstretched hand. By timing the direction when they are both focused on the same object, the baby appears to understand the direction, What the baby really understands is the routine activity of playing ball. This understanding does form the basis for developing “true” language comprehension.

12 – 24 Months: First Words

Around the child’s first birthday, your child will use words instead of vocal noises. Children build a vocabulary of approximately fifty words by the time they are about two years old. The words will most likely include the names of objects and people, action words like “up” and “eat,” personal-social words like “no” and “please,” and description words like “mine” and “dirty.”

These first words don’t necessarily mean the same thing to your child as they do to you. For example, children at this period may use the word “doggie” to mean all four-legged furry animals, instead of just dogs. Children use their newly developed vocabulary in many ways. They make demands and requests. They protest with a loud “no!” as many mothers know. They can also label familiar objects and respond to other people’s questions and comments.

Now, your child also understands words. The names of objects and some and some action words are recognized when they are used in a familiar situation. For example, the parent is dressing the child. Everything is on but the baby’s socks and they are lying on the changing table next to baby. The parent says, “Get your socks” while pointing and looking at them. The child knows the word “socks” and picks them up. Young children will appear as if they understand requests and statements directed to them because familiar single words are used as part of their daily routine.

2 – 3 Years: Putting Words Together

At this time, children develop language very rapidly. Your child starts to put words together to form sentences. Early attempts include two-word phrases like “Eat cookie.” These phrases expand to full sentences of three to four words such as “Me eat cookie now” by age three. These first sentences express ideas about the world such as:

  • Possession – “My sock.”
  • Location – “There ball.”
  • Action + object – “Roll ball.”

Your child talks about events in the “here and now.” You will find that your child has become a more skillful partner in real conversations. The child can easily take turns being the speaker and then the listener. But, be prepared for your child to change topics very frequently.

As a toddler, your child understands the combination of single words with familiar routines or activities. In addition, the child now understands the names of things that are not immediately present. The child has greatly expanded the number of single words understood, as well as the number of daily activities that are familiar.

Your child responds to directions and questions based upon what has usually happened in a similar situation in the past. For example, the baby is wearing a dirty diaper. The parents pats the baby’s bottom and says “Go get a diaper.” The baby knows the word “diaper” and brings a clean diaper back to the parent. By using both the knowledge of words and routines, the child responds to the parent’s direction correctly.

3 – 5 Years: Using Language

Both your child’s vocabulary and sentence length greatly expand during the preschool years. Vocabulary grows to over 2,000 words. Sentences can be eight or more words long. As they get longer, sentences also become more complex. For example, “I don’t want the cookie that has icing on it.” The child knows that adding “s” at the end of words (dogs) means “more than one,” and that adding “ed” to words, (“Mom cooked yesterday”) means something happened in the past. Your child is also much more skilled in conversation. The child follows a topic and uses polite forms (please and thank you) appropriately.

Your child is finally able to understand sentences alone, without the extra information of a familiar situation. The child understands most question words like “who,” “what,” and “where,” but may have difficulty with “how” and “why.” Time words like “before” and “after” are more difficult. The child may not always understand them until well into the school years.


Throughout childhood and adolescence, your child will continue to learn vocabulary words. Your child will also learn to read and write, both of which are dependent upon early language development. The child will continue to use language as a means to communicate and as a tool to gain knowledge. In five short years, your child has accomplished much of what needs to be done to develop language. This is a remarkable accomplishment!