What are the Stages of Language Development?

24 October 2017

How do you know if you child is reaching their appropriate speech and language milestones? Today we take a look at language development and how it develops at different ages. Please note that this article uses children who have full hearing as the basis for description. This will differ greatly from children with hearing loss. 

An important thing to define before we begin is the word language as many people often use speech and language interchangeably. Although speech is a component of language, speech, by definition, is the way sounds are produced by the mechanisms in your mouth and throat (lips, tongue, jaw, palate and vocal tract). Speech is the spoken form of language (sounds).

Language encompasses socially shared rules about the meaning of words, how the words are put together, and what situations are appropriate to use specific words.

There are two core areas of language: receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive language is our understanding of what is communicated to us by others either by gesture or spoken language. For example, our ability to follow directions, know meanings of words and understand concepts.

Expressive language refers to how we share information with others. This can be either spoken or communicated in some other way such as written language, gestures or facial expressions.

Many parents ask when their children will start to use words, speak or have conversations. This depends on many things, but the general rule is that receptive language develops before expressive language. The theory behind language development is that children need to store a certain number of words and reach a “ceiling level” before they begin to analyse and use words and grammar. You can read more about Brown’s Stages of Language Development here.

If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language you might understand how this works. Without knowing what the words mean or having a frame of reference or context to put them to, it all sounds like gibberish. You can learn the words and how to imitate them, but if you don’t know what they mean or when to use them, these words are useless to you. It is only after being immersed in the language and being given context to conversations, that you would start to gradually pick up some words to help fulfil needs and wants; exposure is the key.

Using the example of learning Spanish, someone who moves to Spain will become more fluent and learn quicker than someone who attends a Spanish class once a week. Likewise, the more you talk to your children and provide meaning to words and sounds, the better chances they have of developing great language skills. You can learn more about factors that that influence early vocabulary development here.

It is important note that all children are individuals and develop at their own pace. Before you scan the following chart, please be cautioned that development charts can be used as a general guide and are not always the rule. Some children will skip steps while some will remain longer in one stage or continue one habit (i.e. blowing raspberries) well into the next stage of development. This does not necessarily indicate delay. If your child is using less than 50 words by age two, we recommend seeing a speech therapist for further investigation (by age 2;0-2;6, typically developing children use 200-300 words and begin joining two words together). A hearing test will always be recommended to rule out hearing loss as a cause for language delay.

Of course, if your child has a hearing loss, the age at which they pass through each stage will certainly differ from those of hearing children. However, your Listening & Spoken Language Therapist will keep you updated on how your child is progressing in terms of stages. 

Age (in hearing children)

Receptive Language Skills Expressive Language Skills

Will startle or cry with unexpected sounds
Will wake with loud noises
Become still when they hear new sounds 

Make sounds that let you know they are happy or in pain 

0-3 months

Responds to human voices without visual cues by turning head and eyes
Appear to recognise voices
Will attend to unfamiliar voices 

Use differentiated cries (one each for hungry, pain etc)
4-6 months

Begin responding to ‘no’
Begin to show interest in non- speech sounds (toys, birds etc)
Respond appropriately to friendly and angry tones

Partake in vocal play (gurgling)
Start to babble
Vocalisation with intonation 

7-12 months

Responds to name
Recognise familiar objects by name (Daddy, milk)
Understands simple instructions, especially if vocal or physical cues are given

Babbling changes to use more consonants and a mix of long and short vowels
Uses one or more words with meaning (this may be a fragment of a word)
Vocabulary made up chiefly of nouns

1-2 years

Can point to pictures in books that you name
Can point to body parts when named
Can follow simple commands (don’t touch, push the car)

Will begin to use 2 word phrases (more milk, where daddy, more push)
Words become clearer
More consonants used 

2-3 years

Can understand 2 stage commands (pick up the bottle and put it on the table)
Understand opposites (hot/cold, in/out)
Recognises indicative sounds; hear the telephone and try to answer it. 

This is when expressive language really begins to explode
Utterances may be one, two or three words long
Can ask for and name items
Vocabulary of approximately 150-300 words
My and mine are beginning to emerge

3-4 years

Understand simple who, what, where questions 

Can combine sentences of 4 or more words
Speech is fluent and clear and can be easily understood 

4-5 years 

Can understand almost everything at home / pre-school / day care
Have developed the ability to answer simple comprehension questions about stories

Can construct long, detailed sentences
Most sounds are produced correctly
May still have difficulty with r, v and th

If you have concerns, regarding your child’s development we are happy to help, just get in touch

Information in the table is derived from Speech-Language-Therapy Dot Com 


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