Language development is the process by which children come to understand and communicate language during early childhood.
From birth up to the age of five, children develop language at a very rapid pace. The stages of language development are universal among humans. However, the age and the pace at which a child reaches each milestone of language development vary greatly among children. Thus, language development in an individual child must be compared with norms rather than with other individual children. In general girls develop language at a faster rate than boys. More than any other aspect of development, language development reflects the growth and maturation of the brain. After the age of five it becomes much more difficult for most children to learn language.
Receptive language development (the ability to comprehend language) usually develops faster than expressive language (the ability to communicate). Two different styles of language development are recognized. In referential language development, children first speak single words and then join words together, first into two-word sentences and then into three-word sentences. In expressive language development, children first speak in long unintelligible babbles that mimic the cadence and rhythm of adult speech. Most children use a combination these styles.
Language development begins before birth. Towards the end of pregnancy, a fetus begins to hear sounds and speech coming from outside the mother's body. Infants are acutely attuned to the human voice and prefer it to other sounds. In particular they prefer the higher pitch characteristic of female voices. They also are very attentive to the human face, especially when the face is talking. Although crying is a child's primary means of communication at birth, language immediately begins to develop via repetition and imitation.
Between birth and three months of age, most infants acquire the following abilities:
- seem to recognize their mother's voice
- quiet down or smile when spoken to
- turn toward familiar voices and sounds
- make sounds indicating pleasure
- cry differently to express different needs
- grunt, chuckle, whimper, and gurgle
- begin to coo (repeating the same sounds frequently) in response to voices
- make vowel-like sounds such as "ooh" and "ah"
Between three and six months, most infants can do the following:
- turn their head toward a speaker
- watch a speaker's mouth movements
- respond to changes in a tone of voice
- make louder sounds including screeches
- vocalize excitement, pleasure, and displeasure
- cry differently out of pain or hunger
- laugh, squeal, and sigh
- sputter loudly and blow bubbles
- shape their mouths to change sounds
- vocalize different sounds for different needs
- communicate desires with gestures
- babble for attention
- mimic sounds, inflections, and gestures
- make many new sounds, including "p," "b," and "m," that may sound almost speech-like
The sounds and babblings of this stage of language development are identical in babies throughout the world, even among those who are profoundly deaf. Thus all babies are born with the capacity to learn any language. Social interaction determines which language they eventually learn.
Six to 12 months is a crucial age for receptive language development. Between six and nine months babies begin to do the following:
- search for sources of sound
- listen intently to speech and other sounds
- take an active interest in conversation even if it is not directed at them
- recognize "dada," "mama," "bye-bye"
- consistently respond to their names
- respond appropriately to friendly and angry tones
- express their moods by sound and body language
- play with sounds
- make long, more varied sounds
- babble random combinations of consonants and vowels
- babble in singsong with as many as 12 different sounds
- experiment with pitch, intonation, and volume
- use their tongues to change sounds
- repeat syllables
- imitate intonation and speech sounds
Between nine and 12 months babies may begin to do the following:
- listen when spoken to
- recognize words for common objects and names of family members
- respond to simple requests
- understand "no"
- understand gestures
- associate voices and names with people
- know their own names
- babble both short and long groups of sounds and two-to-three-syllable repeated sounds (The babble begins to have characteristic sounds of their native language.)
- use sounds other than crying to get attention
- use "mama" and "dada" for any person
- shout and scream
- repeat sounds
- use most consonant and vowel sounds
- practice inflections
- engage in much vocal play
During the second year of life language development proceeds at very different rates in different children. By the age of 12 months, most children use "mama/dada" appropriately. They add new words each month and temporarily lose words. Between 12 and 15 months children begin to do the following:
- recognize names
- understand and follow one-step directions
- laugh appropriately
- use four to six intelligible words, usually those starting with "b," "c," "d," and "g," although less than 20 percent of their language is comprehensible to outsiders
- use partial words
- gesture and speak "no"
- ask for help with gestures and sounds
At 15 to 18 months of age children usually do the following:
- understand "up," "down," "hot," "off"
- use 10 to 20 intelligible words, mostly nouns
- use complete words
- put two short words together to form sentences
- chatter and imitate, use some echolalia (repetitions of words and phrases)
- have 20 to 25 percent of their speech understood by outsiders
At 18 to 24 months of age toddlers come to understand that there are words for everything and their language development gains momentum. About 50 of a child's first words are universal: names of foods, animals, family members, toys, vehicles, and clothing. Usually children first learn general nouns, such as "flower" instead of "dandelion," and they may overgeneralize words, such as calling all toys "balls." Some children learn words for social situations, greetings, and expressions of love more readily than others. At this age children usually have 20 to 50 intelligible words and can do the following:
- follow two-step directions
- point to parts of the body
- attempt multi-syllable words
- speak three-word sentences
- ask two-word questions
- enjoy challenge words such as "helicopter"
- hum and sing
- express pain verbally
- have 50 to 70 percent of their speech understood by outsiders
After several months of slower development, children often have a "word spurt" (an explosion of new words). Between the ages of two and 18 years, it is estimated that children add nine new words per day. Between two and three years of age children acquire:
- a 400-word vocabulary including names
- a word for most everything
- the use of pronouns
- three to five-word sentences
- the ability to describe what they just saw or experienced
- the use of the past tense and plurals
- names for body parts, colors, toys, people, and objects
- the ability to repeat rhymes, songs, and stories
- the ability to answer "what" questions
Children constantly produce sentences that they have not heard before, creating rather than imitating. This creativity is based on the general principles and rules of language that they have mastered. By the time a child is three years of age, most of a child's speech can be understood. However, like adults, children vary greatly in how much they choose to talk.
Three to four-year-olds usually can do the following:
- understand most of what they hear
- have 900 to 1,000-word vocabularies, with verbs starting to predominate
- usually talk without repeating syllables or words
- use pronouns correctly
- use three to six-word sentences
- ask questions
- relate experiences and activities
- tell stories (Occasional stuttering and stammering is normal in preschoolers.)
Language skills usually blossom between four and five years of age. Children of this age can do the following:
- verbalize extensively
- communicate easily with other children and adults
- articulate most English sounds correctly
- know 1,500 to 2,500 words
- use detailed six to eight-word sentences
- can repeat four-syllable words
- use at least four prepositions
- tell stories that stay on topic
- can answer questions about stories
At age five most children can do the following:
- follow three consecutive commands
- talk constantly
- ask innumerable questions
- use descriptive words and compound and complex sentences
- know all the vowels and consonants
- use generally correct grammar
Six-year-olds usually can correct their own grammar and mispronunciations. Most children double their vocabularies between six and eight years of age and begin reading at about age seven. A major leap in reading comprehension occurs at about nine. Ten-year-olds begin to understand figurative word meanings.
Adolescents generally speak in an adult manner, gaining language maturity throughout high school.
Language delay is the most common developmental delay in children. There are many causes for language delay, both environmental and physical. About 60 percent of language delays in children under age three resolve spontaneously. Early intervention often helps other children to catch up to their age group.
Common circumstances that can result in language delay include:
- concentration on developing skills other than language
- siblings who are very close in age or older siblings who interpret for the younger child
- inadequate language stimulation and one-on-one attention
- bilingualism, in which a child's combined comprehension of two languages usually is equivalent to other children's comprehension of one language
- psychosocial deprivation
Language delay can result from a variety of physical disorders, including the following:
- mental retardation
- maturation delay (the slower-than-usual development of the speech centers of the brain), a common cause of late talking
- a hearing impairment
- a learning disability
- cerebral palsy
- autism (a developmental disorder in which, among other things, children do not use language or use it abnormally)
- congenital blindness, even in the absence of other neurological impairment
- Klinefelter syndrome, a disorder in which males are born with an extra X chromosome
Brain damage or disorders of the central nervous system can cause the following:
- receptive aphasia or receptive language disorder, a deficit in spoken language comprehension or in the ability to respond to spoken language
- expressive aphasia, an inability to speak or write despite normal language comprehension
- childhood apraxia of speech, in which a sound is substituted for the desired syllable or word
Language development is enriched by verbal interactions with other children and adults. Parents and care-givers can have a significant impact on early language development. Studies have shown that children of talkative parents have twice the vocabulary as those of quiet parents. A study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that children in high-quality childcare environments have larger vocabularies and more complex language skills than children in lower-quality situations. In addition language-based interactions appear to increase a child's capacity to learn. Recommendations for encouraging language development in infants include:
- talking to them as much as possible and giving them opportunities to respond, perhaps with a smile; short periods of silence help teach the give-and-take of conversation
- talking to infants in a singsong, high-pitched speech, called "parentese" or "motherese" (This is a universal method for enhancing language development.)
- using one- or two-syllable words and two to three-word sentences
- using proper words rather than baby words
- speaking slowly, drawing-out vowels, and exaggerating main syllables
- avoiding pronouns and articles
- using animated gestures along with words
- addressing the baby by name
- talking about on-going activities
- asking questions
- singing songs
- commenting on sounds in the environment
- encouraging the baby to make vowel-like and consonant-vowel sounds such as "ma," "da," and "ba"
- repeating recognizable syllables and repeating words that contain the syllable
When babies reach six to 12 months-of-age, parents should play word games with them, label objects with words, and allow the baby to listen and participate in conversations. Parents of toddlers should do the following:
- talk to the child in simple sentences and ask questions
- expand on the toddler's single words
- use gestures that reinforce words
- put words to the child's gestures
- name colors
- count items
- gently repeat correctly any words that the child has mispronounced, rather than criticizing the child
Parents of two to three-year-olds should do the following:
- talk about what the child and parent are doing each day
- encourage the child to use new words
- repeat and expand on what the child says
- ask the child yes-or-no questions and questions that require a simple choice
|Two months||Cries, coos, and grunts.|
|Four months||Begins babbling. Makes most vowel sounds and|
|about half of consonant sounds.|
|Six months||Vocalizes with intonation. Responds to own|
|Eight months||Combines syllables when babbling, such "Ba-ba."|
|Eleven months||Says one word (or fragment of a word) with|
|Twelve months||Says two or three words with meaning. Practices|
|inflection, such as raising pitch of voice at the|
|end of a question.|
|Eighteen months||Has a vocabulary between five and 20 words,|
|mostly nouns. Repeats word or phrase over and|
|over. May start to join two words together.|
|Two years||Has a vocabulary of 150–300 words. Uses I, me,|
|and you. Uses at least two prepositions (in, on,|
|under). Combines words in short sentences.|
|About two-thirds of what is spoken is|
|Three years||Has a vocabulary of 900–1000 words. Uses more|
|verbs, some past tenses, and some plural nouns.|
|Easily handles three-word sentences. Can give|
|own name, sex, and age. About 90% of speech is|
|Four years||Can use at least four prepositions. Can usually|
|repeat words of four syllables. Knows some|
|colors and numbers. Has most vowels and|
|diphthongs and consonants p, b, m, w, and n|
|established. Talks a lot and repeats often.|
|Five years||Can count to ten. Speech is completely|
|understandable, although articulation might not|
|be perfect. Should have all vowels and|
|consonants m, p, b, h, w, k, g, t, d, n, ng, y. Can|
|repeat sentences as long as nine words. Speech|
|is mostly grammatically correct.|
|Six years||Should have all vowels and consonants listed|
|above, has added, f, v, sh, zh, th, l. Should be able|
|to tell a connected story about a picture.|
|Seven years||Should have consonants s–z, r, voiceless th, ch,|
|wh, and soft g. Should be able to do simple|
|reading and print many words.|
|Eight years||All speech sounds established. Carries on|
|conversation at a more adult level. Can tell|
|complicated stories of past events. Easily uses|
|complex and compound sentences. Reads simple|
|stories with ease and can write simple|
|SOURCE: Child Development Institute. 2004. http://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com.|
- encourage the child to ask questions
- read books about familiar things, with pictures, rhymes, repetitive lines, and few words
- read favorite books repeatedly, allowing the child to join in with familiar words
- encourage the child to pretend to read
- not interrupt children when they are speaking
Parents of four to six-year-olds should:
- not speak until the child is fully attentive
- pause after speaking to give the child a chance to respond
- acknowledge, encourage, and praise speech
- introduce new words
- talk about spatial relationships and opposites
- introduce limericks, songs, and poems
- talk about the television programs that they watch
- encourage the child to give directions
- give their full attention when the child initiates a conversation
Parents of six to 12-year-olds should talk to the children, not at them, encourage conversation by asking questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer, and listen attentively as the child recounts the day's activities.
Additional recommendations for parents and care-givers, by the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, include:
- talking at eye level with a child and supplementing words with body language, gestures, and facial expressions to enhance language comprehension
- talking in ways that catch a child's attention
- using language to comfort a child
- using correct pronunciations
- using expressive language to discuss objects, actions, and emotions
- playing with sounds and words
- labeling objects and actions with words
- providing objects and experiences to talk about
- choosing activities that promote language
- listening carefully to children and responding in ways that let them know that they have been understood, as well as encouraging further communication
- using complete sentences and adding detail to expand on what a child has said
- knowing when to remain silent
- reading to a child by six months of age at the latest
- encouraging children to ask questions and seek new information
- encouraging children to listen to and ask questions of each other
Television viewing does not promote language development.
When to call the doctor
- avoiding eye contact
- neither understanding nor speaking words by 18 months of age
- difficulty learning nursery rhymes or simple songs
- not recognizing or labeling common objects
- inability to pay attention to a book or movie
- poor articulation, such that a parent cannot understand the child more than 50 percent of the time
Apraxia—Impairment of the ability to make purposeful movements, but not paralysis or loss of sensation.
Expressive aphasia—A developmental disorder in which a child has lower-than-normal proficiency in vocabulary, production of complex sentences, and word recall, although language comprehension is normal.
Expressive language—Communicating with language.
Expressive language development—A style of language development in which a child's babble mimics the cadence and rhythm of adult speech.
Receptive aphasia—A developmental disorder in which a child has difficulty comprehending spoken and written language.
Receptive language—The comprehension of language.
Referential language development—A style of language development in which a child first speaks single words and then joins words together into two- and three-word sentences.
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Margaret Alic, PhD