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Expressive Language Development

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babyBy Sharon Hendrickson-Pfeil, M.S., M.A., CCC
Copyright 1990 by Communication Skill Builders, Inc.

You may be wondering if your child is learning to talk "on time" or if your child's speech and language development is delayed. Parents of children with special needs are often concerned about expressive language development, since language delays may be caused or complicated by a wide range of problems.

Some conditions which delay language development are hearing loss, physical disabilities which interfere with learning experiences, problems which directly interfere with speech (such as cleft palate), and overall delays in development and learning.

Most children learn to talk in predictable stages. This is true even for many children whose language development is delayed. You should become familiar with the normal process of speech and language development, so you can better help your child learn to communicate.

Preparing for language

During the first few months of life, babies are already learning to use the senses and the parts of the body which will be necessary for speech. They begin to develop attention, memory, and listening skills. They also learn to control adults by gestures and by different kinds of crying.

Here's how most babies develop the skills that lead up to speech.

During the first month: Vowel-like sounds and crying emerge.

By 2 months: Baby is able to produce different kinds of cries.

By 3 months: Baby begins using m, p, and b, which are made with the lips and are easy to see and imitate.

Over the next few months, babies begin to use their voices in ways other than crying. They learn to vary their tone of voice to express different feelings, and new sounds start to emerge. Now, the baby begins to stop making sounds while being addressed by an adult. Your child is really listening to you!

By 6 months: may spend long periods of time making sounds. May begin producing simple syllables, such as ma and pa. This vocal play is a very important foundation for spoken language, which will emerge within the next 6 months.

The beginnings of language

The second 6 months are increasingly dedicated to "making things happen". Babies learn how to make the same sounds over and over again. They learn to control adults by using gestures. They learn how to imitate adults' speech sounds. Your baby will show enjoyment while you play together and will begin to take part in simple turn-taking routines such as bath time, mealtime, and simple games such as "peek-a-boo". Gradually, babies put these skills together and learn to use their first real words.

Here are some milestones in this learning process.

By 7 months: Begins to put two syllables together while babbling. Some sounds begin to sound almost like real words. Vocal play is more frequent.

By 9 months: May "sing along" with music and has probably learned to play "peek-a-boo" or "pat-a-cake." Can babble a number of different syllables and is learning to produce new sounds. Asks for toys or food by pointing and making sounds. Shakes head for "no!"

By 10 to 12 months: Tries to imitate new words and usually says first words. More sentence-like sounds are present. May "talk" to family members without using true words. May make sounds as if singing along while listening to music and may wave "bye-bye" when asked to.

By 1 year: The baby who is developing language normally will use from one to three spoken words. However, these words may have uncommon and unexpected meanings-baby may use bird for just birds but also kites and even airplanes!

Developing early conversational skills

During the second year, most children will learn about fifty new words. They are learning to understand simple turn-taking rules and are begriming to really converse with adults.

By 18 months: Toddler repeats some overheard words and usually tries to communicate using real words-not just gestures. May begin getting ready to put phrases together by linking single words with a long pause in between:



"All gone...milk."

By 2 years: Most children use simple two-word phrases such as, "bye-bye daddy", or "more cookie". Since they have become skillful at joining single words, pauses between words decrease. During this year, the child begins making different kinds of short phrases in order to talk about objects, locations, and actions. The two-year-old will use words to control adults' behavior, to request toys, to answer questions and, of course, to reject some foods or, perhaps, a wet washcloth.

By 2 1/2 years: Children use more short phrases than single words. They usually begin to put together some three-and four-word phrases. At this age, your child will probably sit with you and go through a picture book, repeating names of animals or vehicles and making the appropriate noises. More turn-taking is obvious during conversations.

Mastering language forms

The three-year-old is rapidly mastering grammatical skills.

Children between two and three years old use very simple phrases; they often omit many word endings and small "helping words" (such as is, are, and and).

In contrast, three-year-olds are rapidly learning to use verb tenses, helping verbs, and other language forms to talk about past experiences as well as about what is going on in the present.

They can use many different kinds of words in conversation. At this age, children learn to join short sentences together to make longer ones and begin to use plurals (cars, cookies). They use some basic prepositions (such as on, off, in, and out) and adjectives (such as big and little) to describe things.

Language uses are expanding at this age. The three-year-old asks "what," where," and "who" questions and is able to discuss a single topic over several listener-speaker turns. Many three-year-olds will use language imaginatively while playing with dolls and toy animals.

What do children need in order to develop expressive language skills?

Talk with your child! Children learn to use new words, grammatical forms, and rules for conversation by listening. Teach your child the names of toys, family members, pets, foods, clothing, add places you visit together. Talk about the activities such as playing, cooking, shopping, and household chores that you share with your child. Really listen to whatever you child has to say, rather than asking questions or trying to make your child repeat words after you say them.

What if my child is slow in learning to talk?

See a speech-language pathologist if you think your child is late in developing expressive language skills. This specialist will determine whether there is a problem with your child's language. If help is needed, the speech-language pathologist will recommend an individual program of activities and will provide therapy if appropriate.


The first three years of life provide the foundation for the development of expressive language. The three-year-old has the ability to participate in conversations and can communicate effectively in simple but complete sentences. Remember, the more you talk with your very young child, the more you help your child learn to talk.

Ask Dr. Susan