Language development is essential to early childhood growth as it is the first step in literacy, forming the foundation for early childhood learning, reading, and writing. However, all children are unique and reach language development milestones at different times.
Understanding language development milestones are key in assessing your children’s language development. Talking with children and reading books are some of the easiest and best ways to support language development as they promote both speech and listening skills. In this guide, we’ll cover details of typical language milestones by age as well as simple activities to support language development in young children.
What are language development milestones in early childhood?
Language development milestones refer to the language goals most children achieve by a particular age. While all children are unique and develop differently, language development milestones provide the framework for assessing their growth and development.
Children exhibit unique communication skills at each stage of development. This is what you can analyze every step of the way to ensure children are on track with their goals.
What is language development?
Language development refers to the cognitive process of hearing and using sounds to communicate. Language development starts with sounds and gestures and develops into words and complete sentences. It establishes the foundation for other child development domains, such as cognitive, social, and literacy.
Other benefits of language development include:
- Supports children’s ability to communicate by expressing desires and emotions
- Promotes children’s thinking ability
- Helps children develop and maintain relationships with teachers, caregivers, and peers
- Establishes the foundation for literacy skills such as reading and writing
The two main skill areas of language development are receptive and expressive language. The primary difference between expressive and receptive language skills lies in talking and listening. While receptive language skills involve listening and understanding, expressive language skills involve talking.
Expressive language is a child’s way of communicating thoughts and feelings through words, gestures, signs, and symbols. Expressive language development in children is progressive. Children begin to communicate using gestures, signs, and sounds, then graduate to simple words, sentences, and complex sentences.
Expressive language skills are how children use language dynamics to communicate what's on their minds. The skills involve proper sentence construction and using correct grammar and vocabulary.
Receptive language is a child’s ability to receive and interpret information. The information can take various forms like signs, sounds, text, gestures, and symbols. Children develop receptive language skills faster than expressive language.
Examples of receptive language skills include
- Following directions
- Responding to comprehension questions
- Understanding new vocabulary
Stages of language development
Language development doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process starting from birth to school age. There are six primary stages of language development:
- Prelinguistic speech stage: Children acquire basic receptive and expressive language skills in this stage. The stage begins at birth and typically lasts six months. Children primarily use sounds to respond to different stimuli. Typical sounds during the prelinguistic speech stage are cooing, crying, and burping.
- Babbling stage: This stage begins around month six and usually lasts through one year. Children’s pharyngeal cavities and jaws are more developed around this time, and they communicate more through babbling sounds. They also make the same consonant and vowel sounds regardless of language.
- The first words stage: This stage lasts from month six through two years. It overlaps with the babbling stage. For example, with the English language, it’s common to hear children making sounds like mama, dada, and no.
- The two-word stage: This stage starts around age two and lasts for about six months. Children make more distinct sounds at this stage. They also expand their vocabulary knowledge. Examples of words children use at this stage could be something like, “mommy shoes” to refer to their mother putting on shoes. Usually you can only understand what children mean at this stage when you relate what they say to the context.
- The telegraphic stage: Children graduate to this stage between two and three years old. Children can string more than two words by putting together three, four, or even five words. Their style of speaking is similar to the writing style used in telegrams.
- Beyond the telegraphic stage: This stage starts around age three and continues until children develop language skills.
Language development and other developmental domains
Language development and growth in other early childhood developmental domains are closely connected. As children acquire and master language skills, their physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development is also supported. Likewise, as children grow and develop in those crucial areas, their language development improves.
Language development supports children's physical development as they begin to understand and respond to instructions related to moving their bodies. Typical instructions could include throwing or kicking a ball.
Alternatively, when a child’s motor skills are delayed, they can still learn language; however, physical development can affect language in terms of oral language development and speech articulation. Speech production requires physical and motor abilities where children need to learn how to make speech sounds and control their speech.
Cognitive development refers to the ability to process information mentally. Children require cognitive skills to think, read, learn, reason, and pay attention. Language development supports cognitive skills through the learned ability to read and write. Children also use their language skills for critical thinking and problem-solving.
Cognition also directly affects language skills. If cognitive development is delayed, this can affect receptive language development such as understanding conversations and following directions.
Social-emotional development refers to how children relate to others. Language development helps children express and regulate their emotions and form relationships through communication.
The social situations that children experience help them naturally acquire language. These interactions allow children to further their language development by building their vocabulary and phonological skills, such as identifying syllables and words that rhyme.
This is the self-care component of child growth and development. It refers to things like eating, bathing, and dressing. The adaptive development domain depends on instructions and directions, which children learn to understand and follow. This is why language development is crucial to successful adaptive domain development.
Language and speech development milestones
The below language and speech development chart summarizes key milestones by age group.
Children know their parents’ or caregivers' voices between birth and month three. They'll quiet down quickly when crying after hearing a parent's or caregiver's voice. They also startle upon hearing loud sounds.
Other language development skills in this age group include responding to rattle sounds, making noise and smiling when spoken to, and vocalizing sounds other than crying.
Children’s language development skills improve significantly in this age group. They turn or look towards new sounds, enjoy rattles and playing with sound-producing toys, and vocalize when you talk to them. They also respond to no and voice tone change variations. Around this time, they repeat sounds like baba, mama, ahh, and ooh.
This is a crucial time for developing receptive language skills. Children look or turn in the direction of the sound. They're also more attentive and listen intently to different sounds. You'll notice them taking an active interest in conversations, whether they're being addressed.
They also know their name and respond when called. Children in this age group can differentiate between different tones and voices and respond appropriately. Other language development milestones in this age group include:
- Repeating syllables
- Imitating speech sounds
- Experimenting with pitch and volume
- Babbling more random consonants and vowels
- Making long sounds
- Expressing themselves through sound and body language
- Playing with sound-producing toys
Language development takes a new turn between nine and 12 months. Children listen more intently when spoken to and recognize family members' names and other common words. They also understand gestures and respond to requests.
Other language development milestones in this age group include:
- Babbling short and long groups of sounds
- Using other sounds besides crying to get attention
- Engaging in vocal play
- Practicing inflections
- Using more consonant and vowel sounds
- Shouting and screaming
Language development in the second year of life improves significantly compared to the first year. During this timeframe, children recognize their names, understand directions, laugh appropriately, understand gestures, and understand the word no.
They can also ask for help using gestures, sounds, and four to six intelligible words. Their language skills develop further between 15 and 18 months, and they can do the following:
- Use more intelligible words (between 10 and 20)
- Use complete words
- Follows directions given with both a gesture and words
18 months-2 years old
Between 18 and 24 months, children understand there’s a word for everything. Their words are more universal and include names of foods, animals, toys, family members, or vehicles. Also, they learn general words like animals instead of cat. Other language development skills at this age include:
- Learning more words for social situations and greetings
- Expressing love emotions
- Using more intelligible words (between 20 and 50)
- Following one-step directions
- Knowing and identifying different body parts
- Asking two-word questions
2-3 years old
Children experience an explosion in language development between two and three years. In this age group, children are saying 50 words or more, can construct two- or three-word sentences, and can follow two-step instructions.
Other language developmental milestones include:
- Using pronouns
- Using past tense and plurals
- Repeating rhymes, songs, and stories
- Answering “what” questions
3-4 years old
Around this age, children’s language development is more advanced. Nearly everything can be understood when a child speaks in this age group. They can also understand what they hear and have more than 100 words in their vocabulary.
Other language development milestones include:
- Using pronouns correctly
- Saying three to six-word sentences
- Answering simple questions like, "What is a spoon for?"
4-5 years old
Children's language development skills thrive between four and five years. They can verbalize extensively, communicate hassle-free, articulate most words correctly, know over 1,000 words, and construct sentences with four or more words. They also begin to tell simple stories and answer related questions.
5-6 years old
Children’s language is more developed and refined between five and six years. Language development skills in this age group include:
- Following three consecutive directives.
- Tells stories with at least two events
- Answers questions about a story after hearing it
- Using or recognizing simple rhymes
Activities to promote language development
Language development is incremental from birth to school age. Here are some activities to promote language development and help children reach language milestones.
- Say different sounds like "ma" and "da" and let the child repeat them
- Repeat sounds children make like you’re having a conversation
- Respond when the child laughs
- Teach the child how to clap their hands
- Talk to the child during bath time or when feeding
- Teach the child animal sounds
- Add words to what the child says, for example, if they say, “Mama”, you can complete it by saying “Mama’s here”
- Show picture stories and ask them to identify objects
- Read stories
- Encourage children to ask questions
- Teach new vocabulary
- Sing songs and say simple rhymes
- Listen attentively when children talk to you
- Pause to allow your children to process and respond
- Teach children where things can be using location words like up, down, under, right, or left
- Play the guessing game where you describe an object and let them guess what it is
- Teach directions and encourage them to practice giving directions
- Go shopping together
Early literacy and language activities help to strengthen language development and help children become successful speakers, listeners, readers, and writers.
Signs of language delays and when to seek professional help
Language development milestones provide the framework for assessing children’s language skills. Although every child develops at their own pace, if you are concerned that your child isn’t meeting key development milestones or has lost any skills, talk to your child’s doctor right away.
Signs of a speech and language disorder could include things like:
- Your child does not smile or interact with others
- Your child does not babble (4-7 months)
- Your child makes only a few sounds or gestures (7-12 months)
- Your child does not understand what others say (7 months - 2 years)
- Your child says only a few words (12-18 months)
Complete a milestone checklist for your child’s age and share any concerns with your child’s doctor. You may also ask for a referral to a specialist or contact your state’s early intervention program.
Language development milestones are crucial for assessing children's language skills development. As children gain valuable language skills, their ability to communicate and build relationships with others strengthens and builds the foundation for reading and writing skills.