Vocabulary and language development in children at 4-5 years
At this age, children begin to learn and use more:
- connecting words, like ‘when’ and ‘but’
- words that explain complicated emotions, like ‘confused’, ‘upset’ and ‘delighted’
- words that explain things going on in their brains, like ‘don’t know’ and ‘remember’
- words that explain where things are, like ‘between’, ‘above’, ‘below’ and ‘top’.
Your child is also learning more and more adjectives that help them explain things better – for example, ‘empty’ and ‘funny’.
Preschoolers are getting better at using language to tell you their thoughts and ideas. But they understand many more words than they can use.
Sentences and grammar in language development
As part of language development at this age, your child will speak in increasingly complex sentences by joining small sentences together using words like ‘and’ or ‘because’.
By five years, your child will begin to use many different sentence types. For example, they might say both ‘The dog was chasing the cat’ and ‘The cat was chased by the dog’ to mean the same thing. And your child will be able to use long sentences of up to nine words.
Also by five years, your child will know all of the different word endings. For example, your child can add ‘er’ to the ends of words, so that words like ‘big’ turn into ‘bigger’.
But your child might still make some grammatical mistakes – for example, ‘They wants to go’ instead of ‘They want to go’.
Your child will be able to talk about things that have happened in the past or will happen in the future, rather than just things that are happening now. They’ll get better at using the past tense, as well as irregular plurals like ‘mice’ and pronouns like ‘them’, ‘his’ and ‘her’.
Understanding and language development
By five, your child will understand and use words that explain when things happen, like ‘before’, ‘after’ and ‘next week’. They might still have trouble understanding complicated ideas like ‘at the same time’. They might start asking questions if they don’t understand an instruction.
Your child will start to understand figures of speech like ‘You’re pulling my leg’ and ‘They’re a couch potato’.
And your child will follow directions with more than two steps, even if the situation is a new one. For example, ‘Give your ticket to the man over there, and he’ll tear it. Then we can go to the movie’. But your child might do what they hear first and ignore words that tell them the order they should do things in. For example, they might ignore the word ‘before’ in the sentence ‘Before we go into the movie, give your ticket to the man’.
Pronunciation in language development
By the time your child is 4½ years old, strangers can understand almost every word your child says.
Your child might still have trouble using some speech sounds – for example, saying ‘fing’ for ‘thing,’ or ‘den’ for ‘then’. Your child might also occasionally mispronounce some complex words by missing sounds – for example, saying ‘amblance’ instead of ‘ambulance’ or ‘paghetti’ instead of ‘spaghetti’.
Developing conversation and storytelling
Your child will keep getting better at storytelling, although they might sometimes give too much or not enough information. They might also have trouble telling things in order and making it clear who they’re talking about. Their story endings might not make sense or might seem sudden.
But your child will also be better at seeing things from other people’s points of view, so they might add useful background information in conversation. For example, ‘I went to Max’s and we had cake and Max is from my preschool’.
Your child will be getting better at taking turns in conversations with a group of people. And they’ll start talking at the right volume for the situation. They might make requests more politely, using words like ‘can’, ‘would’ and ‘could’. Their requests might also be less direct and obvious. For example, your child might say, ‘That smells good!’ when they want something to eat.
And your child will begin to use language to tease and tell jokes. They might laugh at silly or made-up 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 five-year-old child:
- isn’t using short sentences to communicate
- has trouble having a conversation – for example, doesn’t understand how to talk, listen and respond
- can’t understand two-part instructions like ‘Put down the train and come here’.
- 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.