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Suffolk Center for Speech


Normal Language Development for Young Children

Language can be defined as a form of social behavior that is shaped and maintained by a verbal community. It is described as a code in which specific symbols that convey meaning. Language is broken down into five major components, morphology, syntax, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics.

  • Morphology is the study of word structure and the construction of word forms.
  • Syntax refers to the study of sentence structure which involves the arrangements of words to form meaningful sentences, the overall word order, and a collection of rules that specify the way and order in which words may be combined to create a sentence.
  • Phonology is the study of the underlying knowledge of rules of a sound system in language. This component of language describes the rules of sounds and sound systems. Meaning, how sounds come together to form meaningful words (phoneme) and the rules of which sounds do not form meaningful words. For an example, p-l-a-y becomes play, z-w-e-d would not be a word due to the rule that /z/ and /w/ are not two sounds that come together to form a meaningful word.
  • Semantics is the meaning conveyed by words, phrases and sentences. This component includes areas such as word knowledge and world knowledge, and vocabulary.
  • Pragmatics is the understanding and use of language in a social context. This includes the ability to use appropriate language in a communicative and social setting and understanding the social rules. Examples of pragmatics are turn taking, eye contact, topic maintenance, and sequencing sentences logically.

Normal language development relies on the child’s ability to bring innate characteristics to the situation, the child’s environment, and cultural expectations. The language that is spoken at home and cultural forms may influence the way we communicate. caregiver plays a very important role that contributes to

*REMEMBER: every child is unique, and no individual that will develop the in the same ways and at the same times. Use this information as a guide to understand what you should expect your child’s language to be.

Birth – 3 months

  • Displays startle response to loud sound
  • Visually tracks, or moves eyes, to source of sound
  • Attends to and turns head toward voice; turns toward sound source
  • Smiles reflexively
  • Cries for assistance
  • Quiets when picked up
  • Ceases activity or coos back when person talks (by 2 months)
  • Produces predominantly vowels

4 – 6 months

  • responds by raising arms when mother says ‘come here’, and reaches toward child (by 6 months)
  • moves or looks toward family members when they are named (‘where’s daddy’)
  • explores the vocal mechanism through vocal play such as growling, squealing, yelling, making ‘raspberries’
  • begins to produce adult-like vowels
  • beings marginal babbling; produces double syllables (‘baba’), puts lips together for /m/
  • varies pitch of vocalizations
  • responds to name (5 months)
  • vocalizes pleasure and displeasure
  • varies volume, pitch, and rate of vocalizations

7 – 9 months

  • looks at come common objects when the object’s names are spoken
  • comprehends ‘no’
  • begins to use some gestural language; plays pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo, shakes head for ‘no’
  • uses a wide variety of sound combinations
  • uses inflected vocal play, intonation patterns
  • imitates intonation and speech sound of others (by 9 months)
  • uses variegated babbling (‘mabamaba’ – at approximately 9 months)
  • uncovers hidden toy (beginning of object permanence)

10 – 12 months

  • understands up to 10 words, such as, no, bye-bye, pat-a-cake, hot; understands on simple direction like ‘sit down’, especially when command is accompanied by gesture.
  • Begins to relate symbol and object; uses first true word
  • Gives block, toy, or object upon request
  • Obeys some commands
  • Understands and follows simple directions regarding body action
  • Looks in correct place for hidden toys (object permanence)
  • Turns head instantly to own name
  • Gestures or vocalizes to indicate wants and needs
  • Jabbers loudly; uses wide variety of sounds and intonations; varies pitch when vocalizing
  • Uses all consonant and vowel sounds in vocal play
  • Establishes joint reference – the ability to focus attention on an even or object as directed by another person.

1 – 2 Years

  • Syntax:
    • The child uses one-word sentences
    • Average MLU = 1.0 – 2.0
    • The child uses sentence-like words; communicates relationships by using one word plus vocal and bodily cues. The sentence-like word can serve several functions:
    • Between approximately 18-24 months of age, children begin to put two words together.
    • The child may use 3- or 4-word responses at two years
    • A child combines 3- and 4-word utterances about 50% of the time; the other 50% of the time, the child uses 2-word utterances (at 24 months)
    • Near 24 months of age, the child uses ‘and’ to form a conjoined sentence.
    • Approximately 51% of the child’s utterances consist of nouns.
  • Semantics:
    • The child uses 3-20 words and uses gestures; around 18 months, the child produces 10-50 words.
    • The child shows understanding of some words and simple commands; understand ‘no’; around 18 months, child understands about 200 words.
    • The child uses cause-effect relationships
    • The child also exhibits the following during this period:
      • Uses overextension
      • Answers the question “what is this?”; responds to yes/no questions by nodding or shaking head
      • Says “all gone” (emerging negation)
      • Follows one-step commands or simple directions accompanied by gestures (give mommy the spoon)
      • Follows directions using one or two spatial concepts such as in or on (19-24 months)
      • Points to one to five body parts on command; points to recognized objects (emerging nomination)
    • Pragmatics
      • The child uses verbal and nonverbal communication to control the behaviors of others, satisfy needs and wants, interact with others, express emotions or interest, imagine, inform, and explore and categorize.
      • Presuppositions emerge; between 1 and 2 years of age, the child uses expressions that have shared meaning for the listener and speaker.
      • The child begins to understand some rules of dialogue, ‘when someone talks, you need to listen’ – the child is able to take the role of both speaker and listener.
      • The child uses nonverbal as well as verbal communication to signal intent.
      • Dore (1975) focused on the 12-24 month period in which children use early words to signal communicative intent, focusing more on the children’s intentions and less on listeners’ reactions:
        • Practicing (language)
        • Protesting (‘no’ and resisting)
        • Greeting (‘hi grandma!’ as grandma comes in the door)
        • Calling/addressing (‘mommy’)
        • Requesting actions (says ‘juice’ to get juice)
        • Requesting an answer (‘Cow?’)
        • Labeling
        • Repeating/imitating
        • Answering (adult: ‘what is this?’ child: ‘bottle’)

2-3 years

  • Syntax
    • Uses word combinations; has beginning phrase and sentence structure
    • Has an average MLU of 2.0 – 4.0; at 36 months, sentences often average 3-4 words.
    • Combines 3-4 words in subject-verb-object format (‘daddy throw ball’)
    • Uses incomplete sentences; word order is often object-verb (‘doggy sit’), verb-object (‘push Barbie’), subject-verb.
    • Asks wh-questions and yes/no questions
    • Expresses negation by adding ‘no’ or ‘not’ in front of verbs (me not do it; he no bite)
  • Semantics
    • Comprehension usually precedes production – at 30 months the child comprehends up to 2,400 words
    • At 36 months, the child comprehends up to 3,600 words
    • Expressive vocabulary is 200-600 words; average is 425 words at 30 months.
    • Meanings seem to be learned in sequence: objects, events, actions, adjectives, adverbs, spatial concepts, temporal (time) concepts.
    • First pronouns used are self-referents such as I and me.
    • Answers simple wh-questions; understands questions; begins asking wh-questions of adults (30 months)
    • Can identify simple body parts
    • Understands plurals
  • Morphology
    • Develops inflections such as –ing, spatial prepositions in and on, plurals, possessives, articles, and pronouns.
    • Develops simple, irregular past tense (went)
    • Develops is plus adjective (that is pretty)
    • Develops regular past tense verbs (walked)
    • Over-regularizes past tense inflections (goed, throwed, falled)
    • Over-regularizes plural morphemes (feets, mouses)
    • Uses some memorized contractions such as don’t, can’t, it’s, that’s
  • Pragmatics
    • The child’s utterances, although occasionally egocentric, generally have a communicative intent.
    • The child demonstrates rapid topic shifts; a 3-year-old can sustain a topic of conversation only about 20% of the time.
    • Communication includes criticism, commands, requests, threats, questions, and answers
    • Interpersonal communication expands; the child learns to adopt a role to express his own opinions and personality.

3-4 years

  • Syntax
    • Learns set of clause-connecting devices, including coordination (‘and’) and subordination (‘because’), and uses then in sentences.
    • Begins using tag questions (‘you want to go, don’t you?’)
    • Begins using passive voice (‘she’s been bitten by a dog’)
    • Uses mostly complete sentences; at 48 months (4 years), sentences average 5 – 5.5 words per utterance; MLU is approximately 3.0 – 5.0
    • Uses mostly nouns, verbs, and personal pronouns
    • Acquires do insertions and ability to make transformations (‘does the kitty run around?’)
    • Uses negation in speech (‘Timmy can’t swim.’)
    • Begins using complex and compound sentences (‘I can sing and dance.’)
      • 7% of sentences are compound or complex
    • Semantics
      • Comprehends up to 4,200 words by 42 months (3.5 years); at 48 months, comprehends up to 5,600 words.
      • Uses 900-1000 words expressively
      • Asks how, why, and when questions
      • Understands some common opposites (day, night; little, big; fast, slow)
      • Labels most things in the environment
      • Relates experiences and tells about activities in sequential order
      • Can recite a poem from memory or sing a song (48 months)
      • Uses pronouns you, they, us, and them, as well as others such as I and me.
      • Understands concepts such as heavy, light; empty, full; more, less; around, in front of
      • Supplies last word of sentence (the apple is on the ____) (closure)
      • Appropriately answers ‘what if’ questions (by 43-48 months) (what would you do if you fell down?)
    • Morphology
      • Uses irregular plural forms (children, mice, feet)
      • Uses third person singular, present tense (he runs)
      • Consistently uses simple (regular) past and present progressives (is running) and negatives (not)
      • Uses simple (regular) plural forms correctly (boys, houses, lights)
      • Begins to use is at the beginning of questions
      • Uses and as a conjunction
      • Uses is, are, and am in sentences
      • Uses possessive markers consistently (by 43-48 months)
      • Begins to use reflexive pronoun myself (by 43-48 months)
      • Begins to use conjunction because (by 43-48 months)
    • Pragmatics
      • Can maintain conversation without losing track of topic
      • Begins to modify speech to age of listener
      • Uses requesting (yes/no questions, wh-questions)
      • Responds with structures such as yes, no, because; expresses agreement or denial (‘that’s not really her dress’), compliance or refusal (“I won’t take a bath’)
      • Uses conversational devices
        • Boundary markers such as hi, bye – indicate beginning, end of communication
        • Calls such as “Hey mommy!”
        • Accompaniments such as “here you are”
        • Politeness markers such as please, thanks
      • Uses communicative functions
        • Role playing, fantasies
        • Protests/objections such as ‘Don’t touch that!’
        • Jokes such as ‘I threw the juice in the ceiling!’
        • Game markers such as ‘You have to catch me!’
        • Claims such as ‘I’m first!’
        • Warnings such as ‘look out or you’ll fall!’
        • Teases such as ‘You can’t have this!’


Source: Roseberry-McKibbin, C., & Hegde, M. (2016). An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology. Austin, TX: Pro-ed.


-Lauren LaGreca, M.A, CF-SLP







by Suffolk Center for Speech | with 0 Comments

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