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Communication Development



Birth -3 Months

From the very start, infants pay close attention to language. In the first year, they can distinguish all of the speech sounds that occur in natural language; then they begin to specialize in the sounds of their home language. Most infants will:

  • Respond to speech by looking at the speaker
  • Respond differently to the voice of a parent than to other voices
  • React to changes in a speaker's tone, pitch, volume, and intonation
  • Respond differently to their home language and another language
  • Communicate with bodily movements, by crying, babbling, and laughing
  • Attempt to imitate sounds

  • Exchange sounds, facial expressions, or gestures with a parent or caregiver
  • Listen to conversations
  • Repeat some vowel and consonant sounds

3-6 Months

Even small babies love to have "conversations". Most children will:

  • Begin repetitive babbling (deaf children also start to babble with their hands)
  • Associate gestures with simple words and two-word phrases, like "hi" and "bye-bye"
  • Use vocal and non-vocal communication to express interest and influence others​

Children's vocalizations increase. Most babies of this age:

6-9 Months

Children are getting ready to talk. Around this first birthday, language production doubles. Many babies of this age:

9-12 Months

  • Understand the names of familiar people and objects
  • Show their understanding with responsive body language and facial expressions
  • Say a few words
  • Respond to a firm "no" by stopping what they are doing

1-2 Years

Children begin to learn many new words and begin to use simple phrases. Many children can:

  • Understand many words, as well as simple phrases and directions ("Drink your juice")
  • Follow a series of two simple but related directions
  • Respond correctly when asked "where?"
  • Say a few words clearly, and a few dozen additional words so that family members can understand. The words denote important people and common objects, and a few prepositions such as "on", "in", or "under". Many can say "more" and "all gone".
  • Say successive single words to describe an event
  • From about 18 months, begin learning about 9 new words a day
  • Use "my" or "mine" to indicate possession; begin to use "me", "I", and "you"​
  • Join familiar words into phrases
  • Begin to use modifiers (adverbs and adjectives)
  • Point to common objects when they are named
  • Name objects based on their description
  • Respond to "what?" and "where?" questions
  • Enjoy listening to stories and asking for favorite stories
  • Recount events that happened that day​

Both understanding of language and speaking develop more rapidly at this stage. Most 2-year-olds can:

2-3 Years

  • Make themselves understood to strangers, despite some sound errors
  • Use and understand sentences
  • Use more complex grammar, such as plurals and past tense
  • Understand sentences involving time concepts (for example, "Grandma is coming tomorrow") and narrate  past experiences
  • Understand size comparisons such as big and bigger
  • Understand relationships expressed by "if... then" or "because" sentences
  • Follow a series of two to four related directions
  • Sing a song and repeat at least one nursery rhyme​

Language usage becomes more complex. Most 3-year-olds can:

3-4 Years

  • Retell a story (but may confuse facts)
  • Combine thoughts into one sentence
  • Ask "when?", "how?" and "why?" questions
  • Use words like "can", "will", "shall", "should", and "might"
  • Refer to causality by using "because" and "so"
  • Follow three unrelated commands appropriately
  • Understand comparatives like loud, louder, loudest
  • Listen to long stories (but may misinterpret the facts)
  • Understand sequencing of events when clearly explained (for example, "First we plug the drain, then we run the water, and finally we take a bath")​

4-year-olds use language not only to converse, but also to exchange information. Most can:

4-5 Years

Long before children can say words or join them into sentences, they are active language learners. Within a few short years, young children go from newborns without language to excellent communicators and lively inventors and tellers of stories. Language-learning can be a life-long journey, but the bulk of that journey takes place in our earliest years. In the first five years of life, when brain development is most rapid, children are more open to learning and more receptive to enriching experiences than they will ever be. Studies have shown that during this critical period, children learn language by participating in back-and-forth interactions with the important adults in their lives. When a child sends a message, whether it be with a gesture, a sound, or a word, his parents' responses serve as helpful feedback that reinforce and encourage his learning. This responsive feedback is an essential ingredient in the language-learning process for every child.

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