The first 3 years of a child’s life are their most formative in terms of speech and language acquisition. This is a time when the brain is rapidly developing and maturing, and is best able to absorb all the language around them. Children at this age greatly benefit from a language-rich environment, with consistent exposure to the sights, sounds, and speech from the people and world around them.
The stages of early language development are universal. A baby’s cries soon turn into cooing and babbling, and their first words follow shortly after. These foundational language skills are essential to building more complex communication that allow children to clearly express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
However, how do you know if your child may have a developmental delay? These early years are when parents routinely ask themselves “what’s normal?” Children don’t come with a handbook, and knowing what stage of development your child is in, and whether they’re hitting milestones appropriate for their age, can be difficult. While it can be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, you may be missing the early warning signs that support might be needed. There’s a lot to consider!
When it comes to early language development, educating yourself is the best way to make informed decisions. For that reason, we’ve put together this informational guide to answer common questions about early language development, review important milestones your child should be reaching, identify signs of a delay, and discuss possible treatment options.
The acquisition of speech and language skills follow a universal timeline. That means that all children will universally make babbling sounds before they say their first word, and say their first word before they can complete a sentence.
With that said, there’s a lot of variation in when children reach these crucial developmental milestones. However, there is an expected age range in what’s considered “typical.” The guidelines below help doctors, healthcare professionals, speech-language pathologists, and other clinicians better understand whether a child is on track or needs some extra help.
Language development begins even before your child is born! In the later stages of pregnancy, an unborn baby will start to absorb and acclimate to the sounds emanating from outside the mother’s body. From your child's very first cries, they’re already starting to communicate. And these skills only grow as they watch your face as you talk, and begin to imitate your sounds.
During your child’s 2nd year of life, language begins developing momentum. Kiddos should be adding new words to their vocabulary each month, and towards the end of their 2nd birthday, start to understand that words and language are how they express their thoughts, needs, and feelings. This is also a time when there may be more variation among childrens’ development.
By now, children should have undergone a major growth spurt and added hundreds of words to their vocabulary. As opposed to just imitating the sounds and words children hear, they should start to produce unique sentences to better express themselves. Additionally, the majority of their language should be intelligible and be easily understood by others, even people that are not familiar with your child.
As children begin to enter school, you should continue to see a rapid maturation and expansion of their communication abilities. Beyond the age of 5, children should continue to double their vocabulary on a regular basis. These foundational language abilities will become vital as they learn to read around the ages of 6-7, with their comprehension abilities occurring around 8-9 years of age.
Early language development delays can be caused by a variety of factors. Children learn and absorb language from regular interactions with their loved ones. Lack of language stimulation and one-on-one attention early in life can set a child back on their language journey.
There are also physical and neurological issues that can play a role in language delays. These can be caused by:
As mentioned earlier, children progress at different rates and hit language milestones at different times in their life. However, there are some clear signs that may indicate a child is at risk for language problems. These issues below are particularly relevant if your child is between 18-30 months of age and has not started speaking as well as they should.
Speech and language skills build upon one another in sequential order. As mentioned, a child will not start using words until they’ve started imitating sounds, and will not speak in sentences until they’ve said their first word. It is very uncommon for children to “leapfrog” these important stages of language development.
Some parents may believe that their child will simply outgrow their language delay, leading them to take a “wait and see” approach. However, the longer that intervention is delayed, the more likely your child is to fall further behind. Children become at risk for losing precious time during one of the most critical learning phrases of their life.
Early intervention is often delivered to children and their families from birth to age 3, and it can extend until age 5. While it is different for each child and will depend on their needs and priorities, it often involves working with a speech-language pathologist and/or other providers that make up each child’s early intervention team. They’ll work with your child to improve
Other benefits of early intervention include the effect it has on your child’s educational success as well as their self-esteem.
On the educational front, strong speech and language skills correlate with academic success. When a child begins to grow familiar with words and increases their receptive language skills, they are also learning to listen to the similarities and differences between the structure and sounds of words. This correlates to phonemic awareness skills. Early phonemic awareness (the recognition of speech sounds) directly correlates to early reading success. We want children to be able to identify words that rhyme, and even the sounds that make up words, as they get older and closer to reading age.
Additionally, clear and confident communication is key for a child’s self-esteem. Think about it - what if you were unable to communicate to others your needs and wants? What if others had to constantly say, “What?” or ask you to repeat what you said every time you spoke? This would be extremely frustrating. It would likely even make you shy away from speaking to others, avoiding social situations all together, and lead to feelings of embarrassment or frustration. The same is true for kids. Strong communication skills help them to express basic wants and needs, and form relationships with family and peers. That’s why addressing these issues with professional help early on, before they exacerbate over time, is so important.
Expressable matches families with a certified speech therapist that specializes in early intervention, and is trained to effectively evaluate and treat early developmental delays.
At this young age, the most effective treatment approach involves training parents on how to use cues and strategies to incorporate language-building techniques into daily interactions with their child. While all of Expressable’s therapy is delivered online via face-to-face video conferencing, these sessions largely involve parent coaching and support so you can be empowered to improve your child’s communication skills at home.
As children get older, around the ages of 3-6, parents can attend video sessions alongside their child so they both learn valuable skills from their speech therapist.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of parent involvement in the early years of your child’s language growth. After all, who spends more time speaking and interacting with your child than you? When you simply talk with your child, you build a language-rich environment that supports language development.
Here’s a few very simple ways you can support your child’s language abilities:
Expressable is an online speech therapy practice committed to expanding access to quality services for everyone with a communication disorder. Expressable has pioneered a parent-focused care model that uses technology and education to integrate speech therapy techniques into children’s daily lives, improving outcomes and experiences.