Understanding Language Development Milestones

Understanding Language Development Milestones

What is language? How many words should my child be saying? What is a communication disorder? What is early intervention? How do I know if my child needs intervention?

These are just some common questions parents raise when they become concerned about their child’s communication skills. Understanding when and how children are expected to communicate helps parents make important early intervention decisions to support and encourage their child’s language development. 

Language is the code in which humans communicate and share meaning. We use language to express our thoughts, wants, and needs. When language delays are suspected, a speech-language pathologist will look at different parts or aspects of language. Understanding the language development milestones helps determine if a child is experiencing delays in language and speech development. If they are experiencing delays, it could be a sign of a developmental disability.

Receptive Language and Expressive Language

The two main areas of language are receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive Language 

Receptive language is the ability of a person to understand the code in which other people are communicating with them. We ask: 

  • What do they understand?  
  • Can your child follow directions?  
  • Can your child point to pictured objects when asked?  
  • Can your child respond to questions and gestures appropriately?  

Receptive language includes comprehending what is said and what is read or written. A speech-language pathologist will evaluate what a child understands and how they respond to others.  

Expressive Language 

Expressive language is the ability to use the correct code to communicate with others.  

To determine expressive language ability, we ask: 

  • Can they string sounds together to make words and string words together to make sentences to share their thoughts and feelings?  
  • Can your child express themselves, their wants, and needs through verbal and nonverbal means of expressive language?  
  • Can your child ask questions?  
  • Can your child use gestures?  
  • Can your child use language for a variety of functions or reasons?  

A speech-language pathologist will look at the child’s ability to use language and how they use language to relate to others.  

What are the major milestones of language development?  

Developmental milestones in a young child range from birth to about 5 years old.

Birth to 1 year

Reception Langauge

  • Smiles at familiar voices & faces 
  • Pays attention to toys 
  • Turns when their name is called 
  • Starts to understand common words in their environment like “mommy” or “daddy” 
  • Understands commands such as “no” & “give me” 

Expressive Language

  • Coos 
  • Cries in different ways for different reasons 
  • Giggles & laughs 
  • Babbles using early developing sounds such as p, b, m 
  • Uses gestures like waving hi 
  • Attempts to imitate adult speech. 
  • Produces 1-2 words 

1 to 2 years

Receptive Language

  • Follow one-step directions 
  • Responds to yes/no questions 
  • Responds to wh questions like “what” 
  •  Looks at pictures in books 
  • Points at pictures 
  • Sings songs 

Expressive Language

  • Imitates & uses new words 
  • Names objects in pictures 
  • Starts to ask questions such as “what” 
  • Combines two words together  
  • Such as “Daddy go” or “more cookie” 

2 to 3 years

Receptive Language

  • Follows two-step directions 
  • Continues to understand new words 
  • Responds to more complex questions such as “What doing” & “where”  
  • Understands prepositions (in, on, under) & actions words 

Expressive Language

  • Uses new words often 
  • Combines 2-3 words 
  • Uses 2-3 words to ask for things 
  • Asks questions such as “where” & “why” 
  • Uses words with later developing sounds such as k, g, t, d, n

3 to 4 years

Receptive Language

  • Develops an understanding of more abstract vocabulary such as color & shape words 
  • Understands feeling words 
  • Plays next to peers 
  • Takes turns 

Expressive Language

  • Begins to have conversations with self & others 
  • Talks about experiences
  • Combines 4 to 5 words to make sentences   
  • Asks questions such as “when” &“how” 
  • Uses parts of speech such as plural ending –s & present progressive ending –ing 
  • Uses a variety of pronouns like “I, you, me, mine” 

4 to 5 years

Receptive Language

  • Follows multi-step directions (3 to 4 steps) 
  • Understands language specific to the classroom such as “Cut out the circle and glue it on the paper” 
  • Takes turns in conversations 
  • Understands order (I.e. first, last) 

Expressive Language

  • Names letters, numbers, shapes 
  • Repeats for clarification 
  • Uses later developing sounds l, f, s, z, j, ch sh
  • Tells stories 
  • Talks about their day 
  • Able to have back & forth conversations 

How do speech and language develop?  

Speech and language start developing at birth and are nurtured by environments that are rich in language. Research has shown that the critical periods for learning speech and language are within the first three years of life.  

Children learn speech and language in stages. Children exposed to the constant communication of others, social groups, and various sights and sounds, such as reading books, recitation of nursery rhymes, and singing songs, are provided with ample opportunities to develop speech and language within developmental expectations.       

What happens when language development is delayed?  

Language developmental delay can happen for numerous reasons. A child may not have opportunities to learn within a language-rich environment, or they may miss opportunities for less obvious reasons to learn speech and language, even though their parents provide thoughtfully designed learning areas.  

Language delays are symptoms of other delays, disorders, or medical conditions. For example, a child might present with a hearing loss that prevents them from hearing all sounds or just certain sounds, or a child is unable to make eye contact and struggles to imitate actions and words. A child may be exhibiting difficulty forming sounds with their mouth because they can’t plan the motor movements necessary for speech. Maybe a child presents with a cleft palate, making it difficult structurally to produce specific consonant and vowel sounds. These are just some of the reasons why language delays occur.  

Effects of developmental delay

When language development is delayed, children may struggle in various ways, such as: 

  • Attending to and imitating others’ facial expressions 
  • Imitating gestures 
  • Imitating sounds and words 
  • A baby may not laugh and giggle at her mother’s funny face 
  • A toddler may not gesture for or attempt to name things they need, like a drink or food 
  • A young preschooler may struggle to follow one-step directions or may not be understood by others because they do not have enough sounds in their sound inventory 
  • An older preschooler may struggle to play cooperatively with others or talk about their day 

Children develop at their own rate. However, early intervention is key to minimizing or preventing further delays when a child presents one.

At what age is speech considered delayed?  

There is a lot of variability in speech and language development in children, especially as they go beyond 12 months. Some pediatric specialists may say there is a range of typical developmental milestones at each age and stage. However, speech is considered delayed when that child does not meet that milestone for their age.  

For example, a child aged 12 to 15 months who is not responding to their name, not responding to gestures, or is not babbling, has a speech and language delay. At this age, a parent should observe their child:

  • Looking at faces 
  • Turning to their name 
  • Following simple directions 
  • Hearing constant babbling. Babbling should be with sounds such as p-, b-, m-. It should sound like “bababa” or “papapa” 
  • Using their bodies and voices to relate to their environment 

This is one example of when a child may not be reaching a developmental milestone. There are different instances of what delays in language development milestones can look like.

Ivy Rehab for Kids Can Help 

If you are concerned that your child’s speech and language skills are delayed, it’s a good time to speak with your pediatrician and make an appointment with one of our licensed speech-language pathologists for a speech therapy evaluation.  

At Ivy Rehab for Kids, our speech-language pathologists are trained and licensed to treat a variety of communication delays and disorders, including: 

  • Feeding delays 
  • Picky eating 
  • Language delays 
  • Articulation 
  • Voice 
  • Fluency 

We can help provide you with a clearer understanding of your child’s communication skills and determine if your child may benefit from speech and language therapy. Visit our website to request an appointment online or find a location near you.  

Article By: Kerri Bell, M.A., CCC/SLP 

Kerri began their Speech-Language Pathology career 22 years ago. Kerri loves working with the pediatric population and believes in the importance of providing early intervention for those with communication delays. She specializes in language therapy, feeding therapy, and alternative augmentative communication. Kerri enjoys working with a variety of children from birth to 5 to reach communication potential and milestones. Kerri currently treats patients at Ivy Rehab for Kids in Newtown, CT 

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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