Language Development in Children

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Language skills are essential to a child’s ability to communicate and develop. These skills enable children to engage with other people and learn from their surroundings and in the classroom.

Language skills are about children learning the rules for putting words together in a way that will express their thoughts and feelings and understanding the meaning of both the written and spoken word.

Language is made up of four main areas, which include:

  1. Phonology - The way sounds are structured and sequenced in speech
  2. Semantics - How vocabulary is used to express concepts
  3. Grammar - This involves syntax, which is the way words are arranged to for m a sentence, as well as morphology, which is the use of grammar to express tense or the active voice, for example.
  4. Pragmatics - The skills used to communicate effectively such as waiting your turn to speak, adapting language based on the person you are speaking to and how to ask for something or greet someone.

The first five years of a child’s life are the most important in terms of language development, although they continue to develop through the rest of childhood and into adolescence. During the first five years, new nerve cells grow and connect in the brain that enable the child to use language for self expression . It is therefore important that the child is stimulated during this time, to ensure their progress is not slowed and their communication skills are not affected.

Although each child develops language skills at their own pace, there are some general milestones that can act as indicators that language is developing normally. Healthcare professionals use these indicators as a guide when assessing whether a child may need any extra assistance.

Improving early child development with words: Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald at TEDxAtlanta

Early Stages

In the early stages of developing language, a baby’s brain is geared to pay attention to the sounds used in speech, so they can attempt to mimic and repeat them. The baby may also make up their own sounds.

Developmental Milestones: Baby Talk from First Sounds to First Words

Three Months

Once a baby has reached three months, they may make “cooing” sounds, smile in response to being spoken to, recognize certain voices and make different crying sounds depending on what they want.

Six Months

After six months, the baby may be able to make various sounds such as babbling and gurgling. They may move their eyes in the direction of where a sound is coming from and express pleasure or displeasure using their voice. They may also respond to changes in tone of voice.

Twelve Months

After 12 months, the infant may mimic speech sounds, understand simple instructions, recognize the words used to describe common items and be able to say a few words. An infant usually utters their first word sometime between nine and 18 months of age, with the most common being “mama” or “dada.”

18 Months

After 18 months, the child may be using up to 10 words and be able to assemble a couple of words to make a simple sentence such as “mummy throw ball.” They may also be able to recognize the names of people and objects that commonly surround them and follow simple instructions.

Two Years

By the age of two, the child may use various simple phrases, ask and understand simple one-to-two word questions and have a vocabulary of up to 50 words.

Three Years

By about three years of age, the child has started to use language for various things such as trying to get what they want and trying to tell stories.

Preschool Age

By time the child is old enough to go to preschool (4.5 years), they may be familiar enough with language rules to be able to connect, quantify and express their thoughts, with their language becoming closer to that of an adult’s.

Elementary School Age

Once attending elementary school, the child continues to expand their use of spoken language, as well as starting to learn how to read and write. As they progress through middle school, children continue improving their vocabulary and grammar, their writing becomes more complex and their reading and comprehension skills continue to develop.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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