Language development – what should I expect?

As new parents, it seems we are inundated by things to worry about! Why is he crying? Is he drinking enough? What’s that rash? When will he sleep? How many layers does he need? The list goes on. I remember, as a new mum and speech therapist being so aware of my children’s language development and worrying about ‘what if’s’. Then they started talking and I worried that they would never be quiet again!

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It is so important to realise that when we are talking about growth and development there is a wide range of what is considered typical or normal. We need to remember that children are humans too, with their own set of interests, strengths and needs. Remember, everyone has an opinion and strategies that work for one family or child may not work for another.

Having said all that – there are expected milestones, certain skills children tend to acquire at certain ages. You can use these as a guide to determine whether your child is on the right track.

Language and communication don’t begin when the child starts talking

All the groundwork is done way before that. At six months, babies will make eye contact with their parents, follow their gaze when they are looking at something and ‘take turns’ in a conversation by babbling. Before they even say their first word (which usually happens at or around one year old) children will generally understand many, many words and be able to follow simple instructions. I’m not saying they always will, just that they can!

By two years old, children tend to be using little two-word sentences, “Mummy help” or, “More juice” and have a vocabulary of about 100 words. That’s fast work, isn’t it? More detailed information about milestones of communication development can be found below (original link here).

Children generally understand a lot more than they can say

They also pick up most of it from their parents. So talk with your babies and children, look at them, engage with them and most of all, enjoy them. As long as you are talking with them you can’t go far wrong. It is important to know that adults cannot – generally speaking – cause a language delay. They can however encourage and support language learning and growth just by talking, looking, listening and playing with their children.

If you have concerns that your child is not looking at you, showing an interest in communicating or doesn’t have the words/sentences you would expect for their age, then do ask for help. We know the earlier that language difficulties are addressed the better the likely outcome. An experienced paediatric speech-language therapist can provide you with strategies and work with your child one to one to ensure they are reaching their communication potential, right from the start.

Language development milestones

Birth to five months

  • Reacts to loud sounds
  • Turns head toward a sound source
  • Watches your face when you speak
  • Vocalises pleasure and displeasure sounds (laughs, giggles, cries, or fusses)
  • Makes noise when talked to
  • Smiles in response to caregivers voice
  • Copies facial expressions
  • Maintains eye contact

Six to 12 months

  • Understands ’no’, ‘come here’ and ’bye-bye’
  • Plays peek-a-boo
  • Babbles (says, “Ba-ba-ba” or, “Ma-ma-ma”)
  • Copies sounds and some words
  • Says one or two words
  • Tries to communicate by actions or gestures

13 to 18 months

  • Attends to a book or toy for about two minutes
  • Follows simple directions accompanied by gestures
  • Answers simple questions non-verbally
  • Points to objects, pictures, and family members
  • Says two to three words to label a person or object (pronunciation may not be clear)
  • Can say eight to 10 words (pronunciation may be unclear)
  • Makes a few animal sounds
  • Tries to imitate simple words
  • Starting to copy other children
  • Pretends to brush teeth, comb hair, feed others
  • Knows a few body parts

19 months to two years

  • Enjoys being read to
  • Follows simple commands without gestures
  • Points to simple body parts such as ‘nose’
  • Understands simple verbs such as ‘eat,’ ‘sleep’
  • Correctly pronounces most vowels and n, m, p, h, especially in the beginning of syllables and short words
  • Asks for common foods by name
  • Makes animal sounds such as ‘moo’
  • Starting to combine words such as ‘more milk’
  • Begins to use pronouns such as ‘mine’
  • May drop the last sound off words (resolves about two years)

Two to three years

  • By age two, knows about 50 words and can say 40 words
  • Knows some spatial concepts such as ‘in,’ ‘on’
  • Knows pronouns such as ‘you,’ ‘me,’ ’her’
  • Knows descriptive words like ‘big/little’, ’happy/sad’
  • Answers simple questions
  • Begins to use more pronouns such as ‘you,’ ‘I’
  • Speaks in two to three word phrases
  • Uses inflection to ask for something (e.g. “My ball?” )
  • Begins to use plurals such as ‘shoes’ or ‘socks’ and regular past tense verbs such as ’jumped’
  • Around  two and a half years articulates h,b,m,n,ng,d,p,w,t,d,k,g and at the end of words may use  s,z,ch,sh,f
  • By three years can articulate f,j and most consonant clusters (e.g. pl,bl,nt,kw,st,sn) especially at the end of words
  • By three years may lisp or slightly distort l,r,s,sh,ch,y,v,z,th
  • Otherwise uses 100% correct consonants in the beginning, middle, and end of words
  • 75% intelligible to strangers
  • By age three, can answer ‘yes’ and ‘no’ correctly
  • By age three, can count to three

Three to four years

  • Groups pictures into categories, e.g. ‘foods’ or ‘clothes’
  • Identifies colours
  • Says ’boy’ and ‘girl’ correctly
  • Able to describe the use of objects such as ‘fork,’ ‘car,’
  • Has fun with language
  • Enjoys poems
  • Recognises absurdities such as, “Is that an elephant on your head?”
  • Expresses ideas and feelings rather than just talking about the world around him or her
  • Uses verbs that end in ‘ing,’ such as ‘walking’, ’talking’
  • Answers simple questions such as, “What do you do when you are hungry?”
  • Repeats sentences
  • By age four, child is at least 90% intelligible to strangers

Four to five years

  • Understands spatial concepts such as ‘behind’
  • Understands complex questions
  • Speech is understandable but makes mistakes pronouncing long or complex words such as ‘hippopotamus’
  • Says about 200-300 different words
  • Uses some irregular past tense verbs such as ‘ran’, ‘fell.’
  • Describes how to do things such as painting a picture
  • Defines words
  • Lists items that belong in a category, e.g. animals, vehicles
  • Answers ‘why’ questions
  • Correctly produces r,l,ch,v and discontinues lisping

Five years and beyond

  • Understands more than 2,000 words
  • Understands time sequences (first, second and third)
  • Carries out a series of three directions
  • Recognises and can make up rhymes
  • Engages in conversation
  • Sentences can be eight or more words in length
  • Uses compound and complex sentences
  • Describes objects
  • Uses imagination to create stories

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.