Children develop a large part of their speech and language skills from birth to age three.  Language and communication skills are critical to a child’s development. Good communication makes them better able to engage in socialization and to learn from their environment. When we talk about communication we are talking about both speech, which is the verbal means of communication, and language which is using rules to put words together to express thoughts and feelings as well as to understand the meaning of language through both spoken and written communication.  Since parents are a child’s first teacher, the knowledge of language development in children improves their ability to interact with their child to stimulate and guide them in their ability to understand and communicate with their environment.

The 4 main components of language:

  • Phonology involves the rules about the structure and sequence of speech sounds.
  • Semantics consists of vocabulary and how concepts are expressed through words.
  • Grammar involves two parts. The first, syntax, is the rules in which words are arranged into sentences. The second, morphology, is the use of grammatical markers (indicating tense, active or passive voice, etc.).
  • Pragmatics involves the rules for appropriate and effective communication. Pragmatics involves three skills:
    • using language for greeting, demanding, etc.
    • changing language for talking differently depending on who it is you are talking to
    • following rules such as turn taking, staying on topic

From birth, children are programmed to develop speech and language. Their first five years are most critical, but language development continues throughout early childhood and on into adolescence.   During the first five years, stimulation of language development is important as the brain is both developing new nerve cells as well as multiple connections between nerve cells to serve the function of language both expressive and receptive. Lack of stimulation during this time could result in a child making slower progress or end up with poor communication skills.  Parents can help with language development by spending lots of time talking, singing and reading to their child.

In the early stages of language development, the brain is programmed to attend to speech sounds and mimic them. Babies like to make sounds up on their own.  Later they begin to repeat sounds and words that they are exposed to from their environment.

Children’s first words usually come between nine and 18 months old. The most common first words are either “mama” or “dada’. By the age of 18 months, a child usually has a vocabulary of 50 to 150 words. By two they can probably use over 300 words and understand about 1,000 words.  Around 18 months, children begin to put a couple of words together to form a sentence sometimes referred to as “telegraphic speech” such as “Mommy play” or “Mommy play ball.”

Around 3 years of age, children begin to use language for all kinds of things.  They are not only trying to get things by asking, but they are also talking about past experiences and even beginning to use it to pretend.  By preschool, they are beginning to understand and use language to express possession of something, connect their thoughts and quantify.  Their language is becoming more like that of adults.

Activities To Stimulate Language Development

Early Years

  • Verbally respond to your baby’s vocalizations.
  • Talk to your baby.
  • Around six months use shared attention and gestures.  Point and name things that they see.  Use an exaggerated voice when you describe things.  Use feeling words.
  • Sing to your child.
  • Use songs to communicate things like time to go to bed, time to clean up, etc.
  • Makeup songs that are silly.

Toddler and Preschool

  • Initiate conversations with your child related to what they are doing.
  • Make up stories along with your child.  Each one of you contributes.  This not only stimulates language but thinking, creativity and a sense of humor.
  • Gradually increase the complexity of grammar and vocabulary you use to communicate.
  • Provide children with expanded information about events, things they see and how they feel.
  • Read interactively to engage their participation.  Ask questions, use dramatic inflections, let them guess what will happen next, point to pictures and describe them, ask your child to do the same

When difficulties are noted in any area of speech and language skills, intervention may be necessary.  A Speech-Language Pathologist is a professional trained to evaluate these communication skills and to provide an intervention plan for improvement.


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