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Language Development

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National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders

Language Development

The most intensive period of speech and language development for humans is during the first three years of life, a period when the brain is developing and maturing. These skills appear to develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and exposure to the speech of others.


There is increasing evidence suggesting that there are "critical periods" for speech and language development in infants and young children. This means that the developing brain is best able to absorb a language. The beginning signs of communication occur during the first few days of life when an infant learns that a cry will bring food, comfort, and companionship. As they grow, infants begin to sort out the speech sounds that compose the words of their language. Research has shown that by six months of age, most children recognize the basic sounds of their native language.
As the speech mechanism (jaw, lips, and tongue) and voice mature, an infant is able to make controlled sound. This begins in the first few months of life with "cooing." By six months of age, an infant usually babbles or produces repetitive syllables such as "ba, ba" or "da, da." Babbling soon turns into a type of nonsense speech that often has the tone of  human speech but does not contain real words. By the end of their first year, most children have the ability to say a few simple words.
By eighteen months of age, most children can say eight to ten words. By age two, most are putting words together, such as "more milk." During this period, children learn that words represent objects, actions, and thoughts. At this age they also engage in pretend play. At ages three, four, and five, a child's vocabulary rapidly increases, and he or she begins to master the rules of language.

Birth to 5 months

Reacts to loud sounds.
Turns head toward a sound source.
Watches your face when you speak.
Vocalizes pleasure and displeasure sounds (laughs, giggles, cries, or fusses).
Makes noise when talked to.

6 - 11 months

Understands "no-no".
Babbles (says "ba-ba-ba" or "ma-ma-ma").
Tries to communicate by actions or gestures.
Tries to repeat your sounds.

12 - 17 months

Attends to a book or toy for about two minutes.
Follows simple directions accompanied by gestures.
Answers simple questions nonverbally.
Points to objects, pictures, and family members.
Says two to three words to label a person or object (pronunciation may not be clear).
Tries to imitate simple words.

18 - 23 months

Enjoys being read to.
Follows simple commands without gestures.
Points to simple body parts such as "nose."
Understands simple verbs such as "eat," "sleep."
Says 8 to 10 words (pronunciation may still be unclear).
Asks for common foods by name.

2 - 3 years

Knows about 50 words at 24 months.
Knows some concepts such as "in," "on."
Knows pronouns such as "you," "me," "her."
Knows descriptive words such as "big," "happy."
Says around 40 words at 24 months.
Answers simple questions.
Speaks in two to three word phrases.

3 - 4 years

Groups objects such as foods, clothes, etc.
Identifies colors.
Uses most speech sounds but may distort some of the more difficult sounds such as l, r, s, sh,ch, y, v, z, th. These sounds may not be fully mastered until age 7 or 8.
Able to describe the use of objects such as "fork," "car," etc
Strangers are able to understand much of what is said.
Has fun with language. Enjoys poems and recognizes language absurdities such as, "Is that an elephant on your head?"
Uses verbs that end in "ing," such as "walking," "talking."
Answers simple questions such as "What do you do when you are hungry?"

4 - 5 years

Understands concepts such as "behind," "next to.
Speech is understandable but makes mistakes pronouncing long, difficult, or complex words such as “hippopotamus."
Says about 200 - 300 different words.
Describes how to do things such as painting a picture.
Answers "why" questions.

5 years

Understands more than 2,000 words.
Understands time sequences (what happened first, second, third, etc.)
Carries out a series of three directions.
Understands rhyming.
Engages in conversation.
Describes objects.
Uses imagination to create stories.

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