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Language and Communication - The First Five Years

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Making Connections

In the first year of life wonderful and dramatic things happen. The baby usually triples her birth weight; she moves from being totally dependent to crawling or walking. Well before they use spoken language, infants let us know how they feel and what they mean. They are soon able to communicate and to understand language, and by six months they know their name and understand that they are an individual. With the further expansion of language abilities, comes the expansion of social relationships. Brains are wired for language, and children of all countries acquire language on the same general schedule. Each area of growth occurs in tandem with others - e.g. social and emotional with motor, communication with thinking.

Milestones are flexible; they are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no strict timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range for what's considered normal. Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. This article outlines the acquisition of language abilities and its interaction with other aspects of development.

First Year Milestones

The base for language is set in infancy and then expands rapidly, as children progress from simple cooing to complex conversing.

Children develop language skills at an astounding rate. Amazingly, all these skills begin to develop in the newborn/infant stage, and rapidly progress in the first few years of life. A child of one month can respond to voices, at three months can coo in response to pleasant sounds, and at four months can turn to find the sound source in a room. He will use pointing and reaching to indicate needs, use facial expressions to show happiness, defiance, and confusion, and he will imitate and emulate his parent's actions/speech patterns.

Between birth and 4 months the child

  • coos and then babbles, the first sounds besides crying, intentionally produced
  • then makes a vowel sound; other sounds may include ah, oh, uh, etc; he is not yet making sense of language, but increasing control of the speech muscles and a system called auditory feedback allows him to become familiar with the sounds of language
  • laughs out loud, either in response to another or on his own
  • responds to a voice by quieting, listening, turning his head, opening his eyes, or awakening to the sound of a familiar voice in a quiet room
  • by 3 months can distinguish between the voices of his mother and other females
  • makes sounds for attention - clicking his tongue, cooing, babbling or gurgling, in addition to crying
  • by 4 months he can start fitting his responses to the rhythm of the speech of his caregivers
Between 5 and 8 months the child
  • makes three or more sounds in one breath, such as bababa or dabaka
  • says at least two different sounds like da and ba. These may not be successive or in the same breath, just any two different syllables. Ka, ma, mu are common sounds made at this age
  • responds to his own name by looking, listening, smiling and quieting
  • vocalizes for attention
  • can locate the source of a bell rung out of sight
  • laughs, gurgles, coos with familiar people, especially in play
  • turns to look for new and unfamiliar sounds

Between 9 and 12 months the child

  • imitates sounds
  • listens to familiar words
  • says "no" and shakes his head
  • says two or more words clearly to a parent, although others may not understand
  • uses Mama or Dada as name
  • uses jargon; babbling combinations that sound more like real speech with inflection changes
  • waves bye-bye or patty-cake to verbal requests
  • enjoys interactive games such as peek-a-boo
  • links meaning to words; is able to recognize objects/pictures by name; points to the car
  • responds to simple instructions such as give me your hand, where is your nose
  • has a receptive vocabulary of about 100 words

Second Year Milestones

Between 14 and 18 months the child
  • says four or more words clearly
  • names a few objects if someone points
  • labels pictures of common animals and objects
  • uses at least one word to express an idea. For example, she may say "eat"
  • asks for things by name
  • makes up own meaningful words
  • babbles or talks into a play phone and makes pretend conversations
  • follows simple commands
Between 18 and 20 months the child
  • listens to short stories or music
  • discriminates sounds; imitates words and sounds more frequently
  • uses l0-15 or more different words
  • follows verbal instructions, such as put the pencil on the table
  • may begin to "sing" simple tunes

Two-to-Three Year Milestones

At 2 years the child
  • uses simple sentences
  • refers to self by name
  • puts words together into noun-verb sentences (want cookie, see car)
  • refers to self by name
  • listens to short stories and identifies actions/characters in the book
  • asks "what's this?" or "where's my---?"
  • identifies body parts, clothing items, common objects and actions
  • follows simple two-step commands
  • comprehends terms that are opposites
  • has a spoken vocabulary of up to 300 words
  • uses the word 'no,' which signals a shift in the child's sense of self in relation to others and in his desire for independence
By 3 years the child
  • has an understanding of close to 50,000 words, and most of the communicative skills needed to function in society
  • takes part in conversations
  • answers who, where, and when questions
  • adds many new words each month
  • uses sentences of at least 3-4 words
  • uses words to relate observations, concepts, ideas
  • understands simple time concepts: yesterday, lunchtime, tonight
  • matches and names colors
  • knows name and address
  • can recite some nursery rhymes and sing songs
  • can tell a story, although sequence may not be right
  • frequently asks questions
  • can produce m, n, p, b, t, d, w, without difficulty
  • may count but may still not understand quantity

As toddlers develop a sense of themselves as individuals, they learn to use words in addition to, or instead of, action to express their needs and reactions. By the end of toddlerhood the child uses language to express his needs and feelings and to interact with others in more diverse ways. Whereas behavior and crying were the main avenue for communication in infancy, the toddler is now able to use words that have universal meaning.

Four-and-five year Milestones

By 4, the child
  • uses connected sentences
  • tells experiences or simple events in sequence
  • reproduces short verses, rhymes, songs from memory speak clearly
  • argues with words
  • uses jokes and silly language
  • uses sentences of at least five words
  • acts out simple stories
  • in conversation, can answer questions, give information, repeat, convey ideas
  • asks why, when, how, where questions
  • understands implications of key words such as because
  • follows three unrelated commands
  • understands comparatives such as pretty, prettier, and prettiest
  • listens to long stories, but may misinterpret the facts
  • understands sequencing of events
By 5 the child
  • refines these skills
  • uses an expanded range of language and shows more variability in speech
  • uses words more precisely
  • uses more complex grammar and uses plurals and tense correctly
  • expresses herself in a varied tone of voice and inflection

From birth to five years of age, development proceeds at a pace more rapid than any other phase of life. During this time children quickly develop the abilities that help them to use language to communicate and to become competent in their social relationships.