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Speech and Language Development: Birth to Age 5

Learn about which milestones you should expect as your child learns to communicate.



You wouldn’t find it at all surprising to hear a speech pathologist say communication is our greatest asset. But do you know why? Just like breathing and eating, our need to communicate begins at birth. As a child grows, his speech and language becomes richer and more complex as his thoughts and ideas develop beyond basic needs.

How we communicate

When discussing communication development, it is important to focus on the essential parts of successful communication. The two most basic elements of communication are speech and language. Speech is the sound we make when we verbalise. Sounds are important. Think of an excited two year old pointing to the "tat"; you know, the furry animal that goes meow. Mummy and daddy probably know their two year old is saying, "cat" but unfamiliar listeners might not. As children grow, they must learn to articulate speech accurately in order to communicate their thoughts and ideas clearly. But it doesn’t end there. We begin our lives communicating with sounds: crying, cooing, laughing and eventually with language.

Language is comprised of the socially accepted rules that determine the meaning of a word, how that word can be changed and how we connect words to have meaning and convey messages. The word "bat" may bring to mind an animal that sleeps upside-down and flies or a long thin object we swing to hit a ball. In either case, we agree the word conveys this image or meaning. We also change words to make new ones. One can be happy, happily do something or be the happiest. Words can also be connected to convey entire ideas that make sense to the listener. We could say, "The bat happily ate the fruit," but, "Ate the fruit bat happily," would not make sense. As children grow, they become more knowledgeable about and successful at following these rules to communicate what they think and to understand the messages they hear.

Milestones 

From birth, a child relies on their ability to make sounds and listen for their care taker’s voice to get their needs met. During the first three months, a baby cries, makes cooing sounds and begins to smile when she is happy. Babies also start to learn what your smile and tone of voice mean. From four to six months babies begin to babble more and make the sounds "b", "m" and "p". Between six and 12 months babies start to string sounds and vowels together to make sounds like "mamama" and "dadada". They also enjoy playing games like peekaboo. They recognise common household words like "milk", "water", "cup", "shoe", etc. They will also respond to requests and questions such as "come here" or "want more?"

The months between a baby’s first and second birthday are a time of rapid language development. Around her first birthday, a baby begins to use one or two recognisable words as well as other unrecognisable words. With each passing month babies say more words and may put some words together such as "all done" and "go bye-bye". They also begin to pay attention to simple (and brief) songs and stories. They will begin to follow simple directions like "hug the baby" and respond to simple questions such as "Where is your shoe?" During this time, a baby is making more attempts at naming objects and actions and generally beginning to sound more like you.

From 24 to 36 months, a child rapidly leans to say and understand more words. By 36 months, children will use a word for almost everything in their world. They use the sounds "k", "g", "f", "t" and "n". They generally use two to three words to talk about and ask for things. Their sentence may also contain a few pronouns such as "I" and "me" or "my" to indicate that something belongs to them. They also understand new concepts like opposites and follow two-step directions. They answer simple questions containing "who" and "what". This is the time when children begin to pay more attention to and enjoy stories for a longer period of time.

At this point, you may enjoy communicating with your child but notice that others aren’t always sure what your child is talking about. Somewhere between three and four years of age, a child becomes mostly intelligible to both familiar and unfamiliar listeners. By ages four and five, children are speaking in increasingly complex sentences that contain up four or more words. Most of their speech sounds are clear though they may be working on a few such as "l", "s", "r", "v", "z", "j", "ch", "sh" and "th". They are able to respond to most simple questions beginning with "who", "what", "where" and "why". They become individuals that are ready to communicate effectively both in the home and at school.

Learning at their own pace

It is important to first note that each individual comes into the world with his or her own traits and abilities. The information provided in this article is intended to outline general developmental patterns and not be a set of firm speech and language expectations. Furthermore, a child that is exposed to more than one language in the home or school will likely learn different speech and language skills at different times. If you notice your child does not seem to meet many of the described milestones (regardless of language/s spoken), make sure to have your child’s hearing tested, consult with your paediatrician and seek an opinion from a speech pathologist. Trust your instincts, you are the expert when it comes to your child!

To see this information in easy-to-read charts, see the American Speech-Langauge-Hearing Association’s How Does Your Child Hear and Talk?

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