Learning Language by Age and Stage

by Dana Bader Smith
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Language is essential for building relationships, expressing our needs and wants, verbalizing our feelings, helping us to learn, and for sharing knowledge. As a result, parents and educators alike put a lot of emphasis on learning language. Parents often worry when their children are young that their speech is delayed or that their children will not be able to speak properly, but most often, parents just do not understand the stages of learning language or the language milestones for each age.

Learning to talk is actually a process that starts at birth, when your baby experiences how voices can sound, and by 2 years old, most babies have a large vocabulary and can begin putting words together to express their needs and ideas. However, specifically what happens between birth and 2 years and even afterwards up to 4 years is a language acquisition process that involves several steps. The steps for language and communication development include the following:

  1. Attention and listening
  2. Play
  3. Understanding language
  4. Vocabulary use and acquisition
  5. Building sentences
  6. Telling stories
  7. Speech

These steps can progress chronologically, and one can be completed before the next step begins, or they can progress mostly chronologically with two or more steps occurring simultaneously. Also, from birth to age 5, there are several general milestones that may be noticed. However, these milestones are not set in stone; some may be noticed later than the age referenced, and some may be noticed earlier. What’s important is to see progress of developing language and communication and to support that progress with stage and age-appropriate activities.

From birth to 12 months, most babies will respond to sounds, express their needs by crying, quieten they are picked up, and make eye contact. Also, from 1 to 4 months, they will recognize their main carer’s voice, make cooing noises, move their arms and legs when excited, and smile. From 6 to 9 months, most babies will start to use single vowel and consonant sounds, and from 9 to 12 months, they may start following simple instructions (e.g. blow a kiss, wave bye bye, etc.).

To support your child’s language development in this first year, you can enjoy reading stories, singing songs, and talking about literally everything you do, see, or think. It is true that you will be the one doing most of the actual talking, but don’t feel silly. Your incessant talking, singing, and storytelling will lay the groundwork for your child’s later verbal language. To enhance your child’s listening skills, you can “tell your baby secrets” and watch his or her reaction as you whisper stories, you can play name that sound, where you make a sound and then name the sound, or you can play “find the sound.” In this game, you hide somewhere where you can actually see your child, make a noise repetitively, and watch your child’s reaction. Eventually, you should see your child find the sound by looking or turning his or her head towards the sound.

From 1 to 2 years, your child should begin to develop language quite rapidly. You may see your child begin talking using words and gestures, and by 18 months your child should enjoy listening and singing songs. Your child will also echo your last words and develop gestures alongside words.

From 2 to 3 years, your children will rapidly become competent speakers. They may begin to talk about absent objects, and they probably will overextend words. For example, all animals may become “doggie.” They might be able to use about 50 words regularly probably understand 200 to 500 words. They will follow simple instructions, and be able to name things. They probably will use simple phrases too like, “Mommy gone.”

From 3 to 4 years, their vocabulary will increase to 500 to 900 words, and they will be able to speak in simple sentences that are understood by others. They should be able to follow two-part instructions and to respond to simple questions. They may also begin to talk about the past and use plurals and pronouns. Their sentences may become more complex, and they may begin to negotiate.

At 4 years, your child will begin to question everything with who, what, when, where, and why questions, and their vocabulary will reach 1000+ words. Their sentences will be more complex with enhanced grammar, and they will be able to talk about past, present, and future. Also, they will enjoy silly rhymes and nonsense words, and they will be more interested in the meaning of words.

During this accelerated time of language and communication development, it is essential that you continue to Read, Read, Read, as much as possible! Also, you should continue to sing your heart out and talk about absolutely everything. However, now you may have a singing partner and a child who responds with his or her own dialogue. It is also important to play a lot of instructions games to continue to enhance listening skills and your children’s ability to follow instructions. For example, you can play Simon Says, or a wonderfully silly game called Thumbs Up, Thumbs, Down. In this game, a thumbs up means the sentence you say is true, and a thumbs down indicates that the sentence you say is false. To make it as entertaining as possible, try to think of the silliest sentences to get the most giggles and keep your children’s attention. For instance, you can start with something simple like, “Thumbs up or thumbs down, mommy has a lion head and slides on her belly like a seal!”

In addition to the above tips, you can also follow these general rules to ensure you encourage language and communication with your children;

  • Follow your child’s lead. If your little one seems interested in a particular picture book, keep talking about it. If she seems intrigued by a boat, show her more boats and talk about them too. Repeat her babbles back to her, ask questions, and interact with her. You can even try recording your child and playing it back to her.
  • Never criticize your child’s articulation or speech patterns. Instead, repeat his statements back to him with the correct pronunciation and word usage. Give your child lots of praise for his efforts.
  • Give wait time. Most of us don’t even wait for people to finish a sentence before we chime in with what we have to say. A good rule of thumb is to wait 5-10 seconds for your child to answer. It gives your child time to process what she want to say.
  • Treat your children as full communication partners. This can be tricky to balance. You need to talk to them as if they are adults but still remember they are children. Talking with them like adults doesn’t mean use adult vocabulary, jokes, or information they won’t understand. It means take turns, use eye contact, and, most importantly, value what they say, and, by all means, do not talk to them in baby language.
  • Be a good role model. If you want to build strong speech and language skills in your child, you need to show that you have skills yourself. A good rule of thumb for how to improve communication skills is to talk slightly above your child’s level. That way they will be stretched enough to keep building their skills.
  • Repeat words often. When children are young, they need to hear sounds and words at least 100 times before they will even start to say them, so don’t limit how many times you say the same word. Repetition is the key to learning, and it’s how to improve communication skills.
  • Use television and computers sparingly. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 not watch television at all, and that children 2 and older view no more than two hours of quality programming a day. While some educational programs can be beneficial to kids, TV shows don’t interact with or respond to children, which are the two catalysts kids need to learn language. Computer games are interactive, but they aren’t responsive to a child’s ideas.
  • Praise your child for talking. Last but certainly not least, make sure you give your child plenty of praise for talking. For younger children, when they call something by the right name, say, “You are such a good talker!” When children are older, you might compliment them when they use a new vocabulary word that you modelled for them.

To help your child develop language, know the milestones, keep the stages in mind, and stay engaged in the language building process with your children, and you will be an active partner in enhancing their language and communication development. Eventually, your child will begin talking and communicating with you if you remain patient and persistent. Your children may not always listen, but, that’s another topic for another time.

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