Vocabulary and language development in children at 3-4 years
Your child learns a lot of new words by listening to you and other adults and guessing from context. They also learn from new experiences and from listening to stories read aloud. Your child still understands many more words than they can say.
Your child will learn and use:
- more connecting words like ‘because’, ‘and’ or ‘if’
- more numbers
- names for groups of things like ‘vegetables’ or ‘animals’
- family terms like ‘aunty’ or ‘brother’.
Your child might be able to name basic emotions like ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’.
Sentences and grammar in language development
Your child is learning more about how to put words together into sentences.
This means that your child might begin to use more complex sentences that include words like ‘because’, ‘so’, ‘if’ and ‘when’ – for example, ‘I don’t like that because it’s yucky’.
Also, your child will show that they understand the basic rules of language. For example, your child will start using possessives like ‘daddy’s hat’. You’ll hear past and present tense too, like ‘talked’ and ‘talk’.
And your child will often apply these rules strictly across all examples, not realising that sometimes English breaks its own rules. For example, ‘He runned away’ instead of ‘He ran away’.
By this age, your child might be using ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘me’ correctly. But they might confuse the use of negatives. For example, if you say, ‘Don’t you want to go to the park?’, your child might reply, ‘I don’t not want to go’.
At this age, your child might tell stories that follow a theme and often have a beginning and end. But they might need a lot of prompting to keep the story moving, so you might have to ask, ‘And then what happened?’
Your child might reason, predict things and start to express empathy. They’ll also use a lot of ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions to find out more about their world.
As your child gets closer to four, they’ll start to tell you about what they’re thinking. They might start conversations using questions like ‘Guess what?’ They’ll talk about all sorts of different topics and their questions might be more abstract and complex. For example, ‘If it keeps raining, will we have to build a boat to get to Grandma’s?’
By age four, most adults will understand your child, although your child might not pronounce some words the right way. They might still have trouble pronouncing words that include the sounds ‘l’, ‘th’ or ‘r’.
Understanding and language development
When your child doesn’t understand what you say, they might ask you to explain or ask you what specific words mean.
Your child will understand instructions that have more than two steps, as long as they’re about familiar things – for example, ‘When I open the gate, take my hand, then we’ll walk down to the corner’.
Also, your child will understand questions most of the time, especially if they’re about something that’s happening right now, or that they can see. And they’ll understand slightly complicated explanations, as long as they can see the results themselves. For example, they’ll understand an explanation like ‘When the sun shines on things, it makes them hot. The water in the dog’s bowl has been in the sun. Feel how warm it is’.
By four, your child might be able to understand and use words to express emotions like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ or ‘surprised’.
And your child might also know one or more colours and can compare two things, like ‘This carrot is longer than that one’.
Play, communication and language development
By now, your child will be able to do some simple negotiation with other children. For example, they’ll be able to talk about who can play with a toy first.
At around four years, your child might even be able to explain why they want an object from another child – for example, ‘Can I have the green pencil? I want to colour in the grass’.
And at this age, your child will begin to use language in role play. For example, they can pretend to be ‘mummy’ and copy their mother’s tone and words.
Growing up in a bilingual or multilingual family doesn’t affect how early or quickly children learn to use language. Sometimes multilingual or bilingual children mix their languages for a while, but this stops once they understand that they’re using more than one language.
When to get help for language development
If you notice any of the following signs in your child, or you’re worried about your child’s language development, it’s a very good idea to see your child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician.
Your four-year-old child:
- isn’t using three-word sentences
- doesn’t understand simple instructions – for example, ‘Please give me the spoon’
- is often hard to understand when they’re talking to you, family or friends
- has stopped using a language skill they once had.
Your health professional might refer you to a speech pathologist.
Children learn new skills over time and at different ages. Most children develop skills in the same order, and each new skill they learn builds on the last. Small differences in when children develop skills are usually nothing to worry about.