Language development in children is amazing, and it is a development parents anticipate with excitement. The secret to helping your child learn language is very simple: talk together lots and listen lots.

Language development in children: what you need to know

Language development is an important part of child development.

It supports your child’s ability to communicate. It also supports your child’s ability to:

  • express and understand emotions

  • think and learn

  • solve problems

  • develop and maintain relationships.

Learning to understand, use and enjoy language is the first step in literacy and the basis for learning to read and write.

In their first few years, children develop many of the oral language skills that help them to learn to read when they go to school. They keep developing language skills throughout childhood and adolescence.

How to encourage early language development in children

The best way to encourage your child’s language development is to do a lot of talking together about things that interest your child. It is all about following your child’s lead as they show you what they are interested in by waving, babbling or using words.

Talking with your child

From birth, talk with your child and treat them as a talker. The key is to use many different words in different contexts. For example, you can talk to your child about an orange ball and about cutting up an orange for lunch. This helps your child learn what words mean and how words work.

When you finish talking, pause and give your child a turn to respond.

As your child starts to coo, gurgle, blow raspberries, wave and point, you can respond to your child’s attempts to communicate. For example, if your baby coos and gurgles, you can coo back to them. Or if your toddler points to a toy, respond as if your child is saying, ‘Can I have that?’ For example, you could say ‘Do you want the block?’

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?’

It is the same when your child starts making sentences. You can respond and encourage your child to expand their sentences. For example, your toddler might say ‘I go shop’. You might respond, ‘And what did you do at the shop?’

When you pay attention and respond to your child in these ways, it encourages them to keep communicating and developing their language skills.

Reading with your child

Reading and sharing books about plenty of different topics lets your child hear words used in many different ways.

Linking what is in the book to what is happening in your child’s life is a good way to get your child talking. For example, you could say, ‘We went to the playground today, just like the boy in this book. What do you like to do at the playground?’ 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 spoken and written words, and it helps your child learn that words are distinct parts of language. These are important concepts for developing literacy.

Your local library or mobile library is a great source of books.

Growing up in a bilingual or multilingual family can be good for children’s learning and create strong family and cultural bonds. If your family speaks 2 or more languages – for example, English and Mandarin – it’s good to encourage your child’s language development in those languages.

3-12 months: what to expect

At 3 months, your baby will most likely coo, smile and laugh. As your baby grows, they will begin to play with sounds and communicate with gestures like waving and pointing.

At 4-6 months, your baby will probably start babbling. Your baby will make single-syllable sounds like ‘ba’ first, before repeating them – ‘ba ba ba’.

Babbling is followed by the ‘jargon phase’. This is when your baby might sound like they are telling you something, but their ‘speech’ would not sound like recognisable words.

At around 10-11 months, your baby might speak their first word and know what it means.

If your baby is not babbling by 6 months and is not using gestures by 12 months, talk to your child health professional.

1-2 years: what to expect

At 12-18 months, children can probably say a few words and know what those words mean. For example, when your child says ‘dada’, they might be calling for dad.

In the next few months, your child’s vocabulary will grow. Your child can understand more than they can say. They can also follow simple instructions like ‘Sit down’.

At 18 months to 2 years, most toddlers will start to put 2 words together into short ‘sentences’. Your toddler will understand much of what you say, and you can understand most of what your toddler says to you. Unfamiliar people will understand about half of what your toddler says.

If your toddler does not say any single words by 18 months or cannot put 2 words together by 2 years, talk to your child health professional.

2-3 years: what to expect

Your toddler is getting better at saying words correctly. By 3 years, they will be able to speak in sentences of 3 or more words.

Your toddler might play and talk at the same time. By 3 years, strangers can probably understand at least three-quarters of what your toddler says.

3-5 years: what to expect

You can expect longer, more complex conversations about your child’s thoughts and feelings. Your child might also ask about things, people and places that are not in front of them. For example, ‘Is it raining at grandma’s house too?’

Your child will probably also want to talk about a wide range of topics, and their vocabulary will keep growing. Your child might show understanding of basic grammar and start using sentences with words like ‘because’, ‘if’, ‘so’ or ‘when’. You can look forward to some entertaining stories too.

5-8 years: what to expect

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 8 years, your child will be able to have adult-like conversations.

Find out more about language development at 5-8 years.

When to get help for language development

You know your child best. If you have any concerns about your child’s language development or your child has stopped using a language skill they once had, it’s a good idea to see your General Practitioner or paediatrician. They might refer you to a speech therapist.

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. But if you are wondering whether your child’s development is on track or you feel that something is not quite right, it is good to get help early.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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