Language delay has become one of the most concerning topics for today’s parents. And thanks to technology and a everything-must-be-shared culture, we hear and see comparisons of other babies achieving (and overachieving!) in milestone development.
So often, as parents, we begin to wonder: will my baby have a language delay? In this article, we’ll discuss language development during the first four years of a child’s life and next steps if you do suspect or detect unusual signs.
How Communication Progresses in Children
First, it’s important to come back to the adage that each baby follows a unique development route. When we discuss ‘typical’ age ranges of milestone achievement, it is based on the aggregate average of all children who achieved this milestone. As you reference language skill-building, please also consider how environment and play have a role in their development.
Second, communication extends far beyond words. Approximately, 55% of communication is body language, 38% tonality, and a mere 7% is spoken words. Children use expressive language – gestures, emotions, and behaviors – to communicate with us from birth. They show us that they can comprehend what we say and transmit, what we call receptive language, and continue to expand their comprehension as they age.
We’ll share a neurotypical child’s language development pattern during the first four years, and then dive deep into understanding what a language delay might look like.
Newborn & Infancy Stage
From 0 to 3 months, babies communicate through their primitive reflexes. These reflexes serve to satisfy their basic needs: one example is “rooting” when hungry and looking for food. From birth, infants experiment with vocal sounds; however, these sounds are not connected with an intention of speech.
From 4 to 7 Months
By 4 months of age, you can observe their first receptive language advancements. For example, maybe your child pays close attention to specific sounds from their environment: music or a pet barking. Now they can also identify different voices and changes in tonality.
From 6 and 7 months, babies start babbling with lip consonants such as “ba,” “ma,” or “pa.” Even though there is no relationship between sounds like “ma” and the word “mommy,” it is important to repeat these basic words, and emphasize tone, so that you stimulate and provoke your child to repeat the sounds they hear and see your mouth forming.
Before Their First Birthday
From eight months, notice how far their babbling has come along! Their short babbling changes into longer chains of sound. Now, they recognize words for certain objects and people. Although if you ask them who you are, you might get a “mamama” or “papapapa” as they still experiment with vocalizing their new words.
And soon after, they start to ask for help. Since they understand basic gestures, like turning where you point towards, they will mimic behaviors according to their motor development skills. As they become more coordinated, motivate them to wave (and say!) hello and goodbye.
On average, children pronounce their first words on or around their first birthday. Why? Because cognitive and physiological development now work together to support speech. The semantic relationship between “word” and “object” becomes clearer, and they have better muscular control to voice basic words.
Watch as they try to make their needs known through basic words and sounds. If they say “wa” instead of “water”, then it’s good to repeat back to them the correct way to say the word. “Water. Here is some water for you!”.
Babies will also begin to respond (appropriately) to short, simple phrases like, “Come here”.
During Their First Year
Over the next twelve months, we expect semantic relationships to sharpen and both expressive and receptive language to interact together. At the beginning of this stage, ask them “Where is your pacifier?” and see if they can respond with an “Over there” or “Crib”.
Now, their vocabulary is expanding and they have more words to respond and describe what’s around them. By 18 months, the timing for a neurotypical child to acquire a new word will go from one per week to one per day, and they will know approximately 50 words. Amazing!
So much is happening during this first year that children communicate quite simply with one or two words at most when approaching two years old.
The Toddler Two’s
Your little one expresses themselves more fluently. While single word statements to express needs and wants are the norm, they also include verbs. We expect simple statements like “Park” or “let’s go” or “Park go” to let us know they would like to go to the park and play!
Ask them questions like, “Do you want grandma to go with you?” or “Do you want to take a snack to the park?” This helps them continue to make connections and discover how much they can express.
At two and a half years old, children can grasp almost everything you say. This is exclusionary to what is in their vocabulary and based on their environment. They probably don’t follow grammatical rules to the letter, but they’ve demonstrated basic speech patterns in their native language.
As the days pass, they begin to use more complex sentences. They may say “play mama” to start a new game together or “rice no” to tell you they don’t want rice. Expect them to start using possessive language with ideas like “my toy”. Their sentences and pronunciation will become more and more clear, and now you can have small, simple conversations with them.
At Three Years: Can’t Stop Me Now!
Children at this age are ready to receive instructions without the need for additional gestures or signals. They can share about their morning routine, what happened in a book, and repeat songs they have heard (or learned). Get ready for itsy bitsy spider on repeat! Three-year-olds have an average of 1,000 words in their vocabulary!
From Three to Four Years
There’s nothing to stop your little one from expressing themselves and all those needs and desires they have. By this age, their pronunciation is as clear as yours, and they have the ability (and imagination) to tell many stories and ask dozens of questions a day to discover their world through language. Have patience! They say children ask the question, “why?” upwards of 30 times a day to truly understand how things work, perhaps diving deeper into those areas that are really interesting to them.
How Do I Know If My Child Has a Language Delay?
This simplified discussion of language milestone development in the first four years gives you some idea of more or less what to expect from your child in this time frame. This progression of speech and language skills can also be hijacked by major physical milestone achievement, and really takes off at the 2 year mark. Note that, sometimes what seems to indicate a language delay is something temporary. Some children are naturally shy, distracted, learning multiple languages at once, or their language skills are superseded by physical development.
On that note, observe how they respond to your speech, both verbally and non verbally. If they generally do not react when you talk to them or do not interact, mention it in your routine appointments with their pediatrician.
Another possible sign of language or speech delay is in their pronunciation. As time goes by, we expect them to be able to pronounce words with “r”, “w”, “l” amongst others. While it may sound cute, early intervention can help support them develop the physical tonality they need to produce these letters and sounds correctly.
Language and speech delays are important to notice and bring up to your child’s medical provider because they can point to a larger issue. With knowledge comes better attention and stimulation. Usually, a lack of reactions can be a result of hearing problems and/or cognitive development. In a few cases, children with language delays can be on the autism spectrum disorder. Supporting language development, regardless of the outcome, will be important so that your child feels heard and seen.
Remember, spoken language is a tiny percent of how we communicate overall and each child’s development will look unique.