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 foetus 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, colours, 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
  • converse
  • 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

School age

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.

Common Problems

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.

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