Language development in children: what you need to know
Language development is an important part of child development.
It supports your child’s ability to communicate. It also supports your child’s ability to:
- express and understand feelings
- think and learn
- solve problems
- develop and maintain relationships.
Learning to understand, use and enjoy language is the first step in literacy, and the basis for learning to read and write.
In their first few years, children develop many of the oral language skills that help them to learn to read when they go to school. And they keep developing language skills throughout childhood and adolescence.
How to encourage early language development in children
The best way to encourage your child’s language development is to do a lot of talking together about things that interest your child. It’s all about following your child’s lead as they show you what they’re interested in by waving, babbling or using words.
Talking with your child
From birth, talk with your child and treat them as a talker. The key is to use many different words in different contexts. For example, you can talk to your child about an orange ball and about cutting up an orange for lunch. This helps your child learn what words mean and how words work.
When you finish talking, pause and give your child a turn to respond.
As your child starts coo, gurgle, wave and point, you can respond to your child’s attempts to communicate. For example, if your baby coos and gurgles, you can coo back to them. Or if your toddler points to a toy, respond as if your child is saying, ‘Can I have that?’ For example, you could say ‘Do you want the block?’
When your child starts using words, you can repeat and build on what your child says. For example, if your child says, ‘Apple,’ you can say, ‘You want a red apple?’
And it’s the same when your child starts making sentences. You can respond and encourage your child to expand their sentences. For example, your toddler might say ‘I go shop’. You might respond, ‘And what did you do at the shop?’
When you pay attention and respond to your child in these ways, it encourages them to keep communicating and developing their language skills.
Reading with your child
Reading and sharing books about plenty of different topics lets your child hear words used in many different ways.
Linking what’s in the book to what’s happening in your child’s life is a good way to get your child talking. For example, you could say, ‘We went to the playground today, just like the boy in this book. What do you like to do at the playground?’ You can also encourage talking by chatting about interesting pictures in the books you read with your child.
When you read aloud with your child, you can point to words as you say them. This shows your child the link between spoken and written words, and helps your child learn that words are distinct parts of language. These are important concepts for developing literacy.
Your local library or mobile library is a great source of books.
If your family speaks two languages, you can encourage your child’s language development in both languages – for example, English and Spanish. Bilingual children often have language skills similar to their peers by the time they’re in primary school.
Language development: the first eight years
Here are just a few of the important things your child might achieve in language development between three months and eight years.
At three months, your baby will most likely coo, smile and laugh. As they grow, your baby will begin to play with sounds and communicate with gestures like waving and pointing.
At around 4-6 months, your baby will probably start babbling. Baby will make single-syllable sounds like ‘ba’ first, before repeating them – ‘ba ba ba’.
Babbling is followed by the ‘jargon phase’ where your child might sound like they’re telling you something, but their ‘speech’ won’t sound like recognisable words. First words with meaning often start at around 12 months or so.
If your baby isn’t babbling and isn’t using gestures by 12 months, talk to your GP or child and family health nurse.
Find out more about language development from 3-12 months.
At this age, children often say their first words with meaning. For example, when your child says ‘Dada’, your child is actually calling for dad. In the next few months, your child’s vocabulary will grow. Your child can understand more than they can say. They can also follow simple instructions like ‘Sit down’.
18 months to 2 years
Most children will start to put two words together into short ‘sentences’. Your child will understand much of what you say, and you can understand most of what your child says to you. Unfamiliar people will understand about half of what your child says.
If your child doesn’t have some words by around 18 months, talk to your GP or child and family health nurse or another health professional.
Find out more about language development from 1-2 years.
Your child most likely speaks in sentences of 3-4 words and is getting better at saying words correctly. Your child might play and talk at the same time. Strangers can probably understand about three-quarters of what your child says by the time your child is three.
Find out more about language development from 2-3 years.
You can expect longer, more complex conversations about your child’s thoughts and feelings. Your child might also ask about things, people and places that aren’t in front of them. For example, ‘Is it raining at grandma’s house, too?’
Your child will probably also want to talk about a wide range of topics, and their vocabulary will keep growing. Your child might show understanding of basic grammar and start using sentences with words like ‘because’, ‘if’, ‘so’ or ‘when’. And you can look forward to some entertaining stories too.
Find out more about language development from 3-4 years and language development from 4-5 years.
During the early school years, your child will learn more words and start to understand how the sounds within language work together. Your child will also become a better storyteller, as they learn to put words together in different ways and build different types of sentences. These skills also let your child share ideas and opinions. By eight years, your child will be able to have adult-like conversations.
Find out more about language development from 5-8 years.
When to get help for language development
You know your child best. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development, ask your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician. They might refer you to a speech pathologist.