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Language Development: The First Five Years


Language development, the process by which your baby learns to communicate, is one of the four general categories of childhood development. Your baby will begin communicating by crying, then by cooing and gurgling, and then finally by using words.

While this guide may help you anticipate the next milestone in your child's language development, remember that every child develops at an individual pace. A child who isn't quite on schedule according to the timeline presented here may be busy developing another skill. You may also notice differing progress if you're raising your child to be bilingual. This won't hinder language development, but the child may mix the two languages initially. If you ever have concerns about your child's language development, address them with your child's doctor, who may recommend testing to rule out poor hearing as a cause for speech delay.

Developmental milestones

  • Age birth to 3 months — At this age, babies can turn their head in response to sounds, including a parent or caregiver's voice, and will use different cries to communicate their needs.
  • Age 3 to 6 months — At this stage, your baby will make sounds, including coos, babbles, raspberries and "ah-goo" to get attention. When your child begins babbling, make a game of repeating those sounds back to him or her. By the time your baby is 6 months old, you may even hear the addition of consonants to form noises like "gaga" and "dada." Although babies in this age group aren't yet using real words to communicate, speaking to them regularly throughout the day will help them begin to understand language and the meanings of words.
  • Age 6 to 9 months — At this age, babies can make their wants and needs known through sounds and pointing. Children may even imitate some of your sounds and respond to their own names. At this age, simple, frequently used words, like "no" and "bye-bye" may be understood even if babies aren't yet saying them.
  • Age 9 to 12 months — By now children may be able to say their own names, vocalize different syllables ("ba," "da," and "ka") and, around the 12-month mark, even say three or four words, like "mama," "dada" and "bye-bye." At this age, babies may also begin to shake their head to mean "no" and show possession of their own toys.
  • Age 12 to 18 months — Toddlers in this age group often show a new interest in picture books because they may now associate the pictures with words. At this age, toddlers may understand more words than they can say, including many words that you say. To communicate, children of this age may still point or use a single word or simple phrase to express their needs, like "up" or "want juice!" By 18 months, your child may use as many as 30 different words. Encourage vocabulary development by giving your child simple instructions or pointing to objects for him or her to identify. Your toddler can also make sounds like cars and planes, and can begin to learn body parts, names of people and other objects. If your child isn't speaking by 18 months but seems to understand what you say, speaking may be right around the corner. If you are ever worried about your child's progress, speak with your pediatrician who can evaluate or test your child to identify any underlying problem.
  • Age 18 to 24 months — By the time they turn 2 years old, toddlers may use nearly 50 words but know up to 200. At this age they may ask many questions, talk to themselves and sing along with music; all of which help build their vocabulary. Your child may be able to string two or three words together at this point, such as, "I see kitty," or, "where go mama?" Terms like "all gone," "please" and "thank you" and pronouns like, "I," "he," and "she" are also likely a big part of your toddler's vocabulary. Your child may use familiar words the wrong way, but try not to over correct. Instead, be sure to repeat the misused word correctly and continue speaking correctly and reading your child rhymes and simple stories.
  • Age 2 to 3 years — Teach your child simple songs, word games and nursery rhymes to encourage vocabulary development and keep language fun. At this age, your toddler may use about 200 words and know between 500 and 1,000 words. Toddlers will continue to ask who, what and where questions as well as yes-or-no questions. Be patient when answering your child's many questions and remember this is a learning process. If your child asks questions you can't answer, seek answers together by reading books.
  • Age 3 to 4 years — To continue encouraging speech development, include children in everyday conversation and listen with sincere interest when they talk. Respond in ways that will continue the conversation and ask open-ended questions. Continue to read books with poems, songs and rhymes to your child. By now, your child may begin to use more complex sentences, but may still use words incorrectly. Remember that children in this age group are learning to match their thoughts with their speech, so give them the chance to get the words out instead of saying the words for them. Your child may stammer at times; this is normal and should pass quickly. If it continues, consider having your child tested by a qualified speech therapist. Your pediatrician can give you a referral but your child's preschool may also have a speech therapist available.
  • Age 4 to 5 years old — Your child is speaking more like an adult but will still make errors. Remember that speech will improve as your child continues to grow and develop. You can use educational programs and videos to facilitate language development and understanding, but make sure to incorporate books, music, play and conversation. Remember that most language development takes place naturally, through play and conversation.

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