By Raising Children Network
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Toddler laughing cheekily
Language is an amazing skill for children to master, and it’s a development that many parents really look forward to. The secret to helping your child learn language is very simple: talk together lots and listen lots.

While the first year is particularly important for language development, major learning continues throughout a child’s early years. And let’s not forget, learning language is a lifelong process. 

In their first 12 months, babies develop many of the foundations that underpin speech and language development. For the first three years or so, children understand a lot more than they can say.

Language development supports your child’s ability to communicate, and express and understand feelings. It also supports thinking and problem-solving, and developing and maintaining relationships. Learning to understand, use and enjoy language is the critical first step in literacy, and the basis for learning to read and write.

What can I do to encourage my child’s language development?

The best way to encourage your child’s speech and language development is to talk together frequently and naturally.

  • Talk to your baby and treat her as a talker, beginning in her first year. Assume she is talking back to you when she makes sounds and babbles, and even when she is just paying attention to you. When you finish talking, give her a turn and wait for her to respond – she will! When she starts babbling, babble back with similar sounds. You will probably find that she babbles back to you. This keeps the talking going and is great fun!
  • Respond to gestures and words. As your baby grows up and starts to use gestures and words, respond to his attempts to communicate. For example, if your child shakes his head, treat that behaviour as if he is saying ‘no’. If he points to a toy, respond as if your child is saying, ‘Can I have that?’ or ‘I like that’.
  • Talk about what is happening. Talk to your baby even if she doesn’t understand – she soon will. Talk about things that make sense to her, but at the same time remember to use lots of different words. As your baby becomes a toddler, continue to talk to her – tell her the things that you are doing, and talk about the things that she is doing.
  • Introduce new words. It is important for children to be continually exposed to lots of different words in lots of different contexts. This helps them learn the meaning and function of words in their world.
  • Share books with your baby and continue to as he grows. Talk about the pictures. Use a variety of books, and link what is in the book to what is happening in your child’s life. Books with interesting pictures are a great focus for talking. Your local library is a great source of new books to keep things fresh.
  • Follow your child’s lead in conversations. If she initiates a conversation through talking, gesture or behaviour, respond to it, making sure you stick to the topic your child started.
  • Repeat and build on what your child says. For example, if he says, ‘Apple,’ you can say, ‘You want an apple. You want a red apple. I want a red apple too. Let's have a red apple together’.
  • From the time your child starts telling stories, encourage her to talk about things in the past and in the future. At the end of the day, talk about plans for the next day – for example, making the weekly shopping list together or deciding what to take on a visit to grandma. Similarly, when you come home from a shared outing, talk about it.

What can I expect in the first six years?

Here are just a few of the important things your child might achieve in language development between three months and six years.
3-12 months
In this period, your baby will most likely coo and laugh, play with sounds and begin to communicate with gestures. Babbling is an important developmental stage during the first year and, for many children, words are beginning to form by around 12 months.

Find out more about language development from 3-12 months.

12-18 months
During this time, the first words usually appear (these one-word utterances are rich with meaning), and by 18 months babies use around 50 words. Babies can understand more than they say, though, and will be able to follow simple instructions and understand you when you say ‘no’ (although they won’t always obey!). If your baby is not babbling and not using gestures by 12 months, talk to your doctor or a health professional.

18 months to 2 years 
In her second year, your toddler’s vocabulary will probably grow to around 300 words, and he will start to put two words together into short ‘sentences’. He’ll understand much of what is said to him, and you’ll be able to understand what he says to you (most of the time!). Language development varies hugely, but if some words have not emerged by around 18 months, talk to your doctor or a health professional.

Find out more about language development from 1-2 years.

2-3 years
She’ll be able to speak in longer, more complex sentences, and use more and more speech sounds properly when she speaks. She might play and talk at the same time. Strangers will probably be able to understand most of what she says by the time she’s three.

Find out more about language development from 2-3 years.

3-5 years 
Now your child’s a preschooler, you can expect longer, more abstract and complex conversations. He’ll probably also want to talk about a wide range of topics, and his vocabulary will continue to grow. He might well show that he understands the basic rules of grammar, as he experiments with more complex sentences. And you can look forward to some entertaining stories, too.

Find out more about language development from 3-4 years and 4-5 years.

5-6 years
During the early school years, your child will learn more words and start to understand how the sounds within language work together. She will also become a better storyteller, as she learns to put words together in a variety of ways and build different types of sentences.

Find out more about language development from 5-6 years.

Developmental milestones are only guidelines. Children grow and develop at different rates, and no child exactly fits a description of a particular age. In each area of development there is a fairly predictable order or sequence of events, but there is also a wide variation in what’s normal. If you have any concerns, ask your GP or paediatrician or see a speech pathologist. 

What’s the difference between speech and language?

Speech means producing the sounds that form words. It’s a physical activity that is controlled by the brain. Speech requires coordinated, precise movement from the tongue, lips, jaw, palate, lungs and voice box. Making these precise movements takes a lot of practice, and that's what children do in the first 12 months. Children learn to correctly articulate speech sounds as they develop, with some sounds taking more time than others.

Language refers to the words that your child understands and uses as well as how he uses them, and includes spoken and written language. The parts that make up language include vocabulary, grammar and discourse:

  • Vocabulary is the store of words a person has – like a dictionary held in long-term memory.
  • Grammar, or syntax, is a set of rules about the order in which words should be used in sentences. These rules are learned through the experience of language.
  • Discourse is a language skill that we use to structure sentences into conversations, tell stories, poems and jokes, and for writing recipes or letters. It’s amazing to think that very young children begin to master such a complex collection of concepts.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-02-2012