Language development in children: what you need to know
Language development is a critical part of child development.
It 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.
How to encourage early language development in children
The best way to encourage your child’s speech and language development is to do lots 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, pointing, babbling or using words.
Talking with your child
Talk to your child and treat them as a talker, beginning in the first 12 months. When you finish talking, give your child a turn and wait for them to respond. And when your child starts babbling, copy your child and babble back. You’ll probably find that your child babbles back to you again. This keeps the talking going and is great fun.
Responding to your child
As your child grows up and starts to use gestures, you can respond to your child’s attempts to communicate. For example, if your child shakes their head, respond as if your child is saying ‘No’. If your child points to a toy, respond as if your child is saying, ‘Can I have that?’ or ‘I like that’.
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?’
When you tune in and respond to your child, it encourages your child to communicate. You’ll be amazed at how much your child has to say, even before words develop.
Talking about what’s happening in your daily life together is a great way to increase the number of words your child hears. You can talk about things that make sense to your child, like what you’re seeing or doing together – the key is to use lots of different words and in different contexts. For example, you can talk to your child about an orange tree and about cutting up an orange for lunch. This helps your child learn the meaning and function of words in their world.
It doesn’t matter if your child doesn’t understand, because understanding will grow as your child develops.
From the time your child starts telling stories, encourage your child to talk about things in the past and in the future. For example, at the end of the day, you could talk about plans for the next day, by making a shopping list together or deciding what to take on a visit to grandma. Or when you come home from an outing together, you could talk about it.
Reading with your baby
Read and share lots of books with your child, and read more complex books as your child grows. Reading lets your child hear words in different contexts, which helps with learning the meaning and function of words.
Linking what’s in the book to what’s happening in your child’s life is a good way to get your child talking. 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 written and spoken words, and helps your child learn that words are distinct parts of language. These are important concepts for developing literacy.
Your local library is a great source of new books.
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.
In this period, your baby will most likely coo and laugh, play with sounds and begin to communicate with gestures like waving. Babbling is an important developmental stage during the first year.
Babbling is often followed by the ‘jargon phase’ where your child might sound like they’re talking or having a conversation. At this stage, though, this ‘speech’ doesn’t mean anything. First words often start by around 12 months.
You might hear babbling, jargon and new words together as your child gets closer to saying first words.
If your baby isn’t babbling and isn’t using gestures by 12 months, talk to your GP or child and family health nurse or another health professional.
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 will keep adding more words to their vocabulary. Your child can understand more than they can say and can follow simple instructions too. For example, your child can understand you when you say ‘No’ – although they won’t always obey!
18 months to 2 years
In your child’s second year, their vocabulary has grown and they’ll start to put two words together into short ‘sentences’. Your child will understand much of what you say, and you can understand what your child says to you (most of the time!).
Language development varies hugely, but 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 can speak in longer, more complex sentences now, and is getting better at saying words correctly. Your child might play and talk at the same time. Strangers can probably understand most 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 abstract and more complex conversations now. For example, your child might say things like, ‘Will I grow into a watermelon because I swallowed the watermelon seed?’
Your child will probably also want to talk about a wide range of topics, and vocabulary will keep growing. Your child might show understanding of basic grammar, as they experiment with more complex sentences that have words like ‘because’, ‘if’, ‘so’ or ‘when’. And you can look forward to some entertaining stories too.
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.