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The ABCs of Language Development

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We explore the standard childhood language milestones so you can assess if your child’s language development is on track.

It’s natural for parents to worry that their little one’s expressive language skills aren’t developing at the rate they should be. To help you know if your child’s language development is relatively on track, we’ve compiled important early childhood development cues to look for in specific age ranges. 

We use many of these childhood development markers to inform our early childhood curriculum, but it should not be taken as absolute as every child develops at their own pace. Some children start wrapping their tongues around vowels and consonants early, while others may take an extra few months. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, your first stop should always be with your pediatrician.

Child Language Development: 0–12 Months 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

By the time your child reaches their first birthday, they will be working on their communication by repeating the sounds they hear. Parents should be able to start making out the foundations of vowels and consonants at around 9 months. 

Listen for common English vowels like “aa”, “ee”, “oo” as well as simple consonants like “b”, “m” and “l.” Trickier sounds unique to English like the heavy “th” in “Father” or the airy “w” in “who” take longer for all babies to learn.

Receptive Language

Most pediatricians don’t actually focus on a baby’s ability to say words before they’re one. At this age, healthy language development is all about reactions and non-verbal communication. It’s important that your child looks at the person speaking and reacts to people laughing. They should also be able to follow your line of sight and even point at things they need. 

Child Language Development: 1–2 Years 

Mamma & Dadda

Between the age of one and two, your child’s language development is still in the early stages and parents should manage their expectations. At most, your child may manage a few words such as “Mamma” and “Dadda.” But even if your child does manage to say one of these pronouns, they likely won’t recognize who they’re identifying as mom or dad.

Your best bet is to be patient and repeat the words again and again and again and again, giving them plenty of time to watch your mouth, imitate, and practice.

Follow Simple Directions

Beyond pronouncing words, babies should begin to recognize extremely simple directions. For example, when you’re changing a baby and you say “lift up,” a baby on the latter end of this age range might lift its arms. But again, the directions should be one or two words max. And there’s no cause for concern if your baby isn’t catching the same direction consistently.

Child Language Development: 2–3 Years

Over 50 Words

Toddlers absorb and repeat every word they hear, including some we’d prefer they didn’t repeat, and of course, the power of “no.”

While this age can be challenging, it’s also the most exciting for language development. On average, toddlers between the age of 2 and 3 should have a handle on over 50 words – closer to a few hundred by the 36-month mark. That said, don’t be surprised if your child isn’t always comprehensible. Often only about 50% of what a child says at this stage is discernible.

Simple Sentences

On top of their many new words, you should also begin to notice your child taking their first go at basic two or three-word sentences. For example “My cat” or “I want.” This is an important first step into sentence structure.

Proper Pronouns and Identification

Around 24 months, toddlers should begin to grasp proper pronoun use. They should be able to point to their mom when they say “mamma” as well as themselves when they say “me” or “I.” But be patient – it’s totally normal if your baby isn’t using the right pronouns consistently (maybe the cup is “cat” every now and again). Pronouns can be a fairly abstract concept for babies and we need to be patient with them.

Beyond pronouns, speech development at this stage should also start to include body part and object identification. Can they point to their nose when they say “nose”? Do they say “spoon” when they pick up a spoon? 

Child Language Development: 3–4 Years

Simple Sentences

It’s around this age that you can finally have a simple conversation with your little one. And perhaps 20% of their words still come out as babbling. Nonetheless, your little one is ready to tell you about their day, what they’ve been up to, who their favorite teachers are at Vivvi and so much more. 

250–500 Words

As their world expands and they begin to encounter new things, your child’s vocabulary will also begin skyrocketing. It’s not uncommon for children this age to have a handle on 300, 400, and even 500+ words for things they commonly encounter on a day-to-day basis. While they’ll still fall back on the tried, tested and true point-and-mumble approach, they’ll likely know the names of everyone and everything in their immediate surroundings.

Complex Directions

While two-year-olds are able to handle very basic one-step directions such as “stop” or “sit down,” three-year-olds are able to conquer two to three-step directions. For example, at Vivvi we might ask a three-year-old to “wash your hands and then sit at the table to eat.” Or “put on your jacket then line up to go outside for playtime.” Your child may not fully understand every step of these complex requests, but they should be able to get most of it, most of the time.

Child Language Development: 4–5 Years

Detailed Storytelling

A sure sign that your baby isn’t your baby any longer, is when they come home from Vivvi and tell you all of the fun things they did that day. They elegantly string together eight to twelve-word sentences and communicate everything from how they felt to what their friends are like. Perhaps the best part of this speech development stage is how clear their pronunciation is – you should be able to understand almost everything that comes out of their rapid-fire mouth. 

Communicating The Concept of Time

While they’re still a ways off from being able to actually tell time, children often begin to grasp the basics of time communication at four years old. For example, they should understand that “a few minutes” means a short amount of time. They may even begin to wield words like “soon” or “later” as well as recognize routine tasks like eating breakfast is a morning activity.

Expressing Feelings

Finally, four-year-olds should be able to express strong wants and needs. They’re able to communicate what they want for breakfast, the type of juice they prefer, and even when they feel scared or nervous. And while parents may not like it, speech pathologists always want to see the ability to disagree with directions at this stage. For example, do they respond “no, I don’t want to put my toys away” when dad asks them to clean up? Expressing likes and dislikes, as well as the ability to communicate how they feel to commands and directions is a sign of healthy speech development.

Are You Concerned About Your Child’s Speech Development?

Studies cited by the CDC show that center-based early childhood education can counteract the disadvantage some children experience, and improve their social and cognitive development. Possible benefits include:

  • Improved cognitive development
  • Improved emotional development
  • Improved self-regulation
  • Improved academic achievement

Your child may benefit from attending Vivvi’s early childhood education programs at our NYC child care learning campuses or our in-home individualized care and learning. Our curriculum is developed by leading early childhood educators for children as young as 6 weeks, fostering childhood development and language through activities and projects aligned to learning standards across multiple metacognitive, academic, and physical skill sets. We foster each child’s natural curiosity and encourage them to dive deeper into interests that they care about – the key to being a lifelong learner!

We repeat words and phrases constantly while speaking slowly and clearly to our students so they can learn and grow. If we ever notice a child’s language skills aren’t developing – or they aren’t showing signs of receptive communication – we will always start a dialogue with the parent so they can take the proper next step. 

We hope this guide has been helpful, and encourage you to consult a pediatrician if you are at all concerned about your child’s development.

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