Language Skills in Children: Development, Definition & Types

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  • 0:01 What Is Language Development?
  • 0:55 The Process of…
  • 2:14 Language Milestones
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

The development of language skills in young children is a multi-step process that is both fascinating and complex. Learn how language skills are formed, important milestones for language development and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

What Is Language Development?

The development of language skills in young children, or how we communicate with others, is a three-step process. First, children must hear the words repeatedly and become familiar with these particular sounds. Second, they must make an association between the familiar words and what these words represent. Finally, once they are able to recognize the sounds and the people or objects those sounds represent, children can begin to experiment with trying to say those same words.

For example, when a parent points to herself and says 'mommy' doesn't mean anything to the child initially, but over time the child will learn that the word 'mommy' is used for one particular person, just as the word 'shoe,' 'dog,' and 'car' identify other distinct objects. By the time a child is 12 months of age, he can identify a handful of people or objects by recognizing their name.

The Process of Language Development

The development of language skills in children is a process that starts at birth and continues for several years but is most concentrated during the first five years of a child's life. In these early years, the brain is rapidly developing as it takes in and attempts to make sense of many sights and sounds. These sounds, which include listening to the speech and language patterns of caregivers and others, are especially important in the development of the child's language skills.

A child begins his own form of language within the first few months of life. A child begins his own form of language within the first few months of life. An infant making cooing sounds as early as three months of age is an example of early speech. Gurgling and babbling by six months is yet another example. By nine months, most children can typically identify objects or people when the identifying word is used, but they can't yet say them. Their brains have not yet developed to the point that they are able to actually pronounce these words.

It isn't until about 12 months that the child begins to utter actual words, such as 'mama' or 'dada.' Once identifiable words begin, speech tends to develop rapidly. By 18 months, a child typically can say more than 10 words, and by two years of age, his verbal vocabulary has increased to over 50 words. By their third birthdays, most children have the ability to speak in short sentences and have vocabularies of about 450 words.

Language Milestones

Language milestones act as checkpoints in a child's ability to communicate to others. They determine what the average child is able to do at a particular age. Knowing the language milestones for different ages helps parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals understand normal child language acquisition and also aids in identifying potential problems with delayed language development. For example, a child who is 18 months old should be able to say at least 10 words. If a child reaches 18 months of age but still is not attempting to form words, it might indicate a problem that needs further investigation.

Here are some of the more important language development milestones from three months of age to five years.

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Additional Activities

Become an Expert

This lesson has introduced you to the most important language acquisition milestones that children pass in their first five years. Now it's time to do your own research into one of the topics below in order to deepen your understanding. Write up your findings in a paragraph or essay. If you have classmates, try splitting up the topics below so that you can each become an expert in a different aspect of the lesson, and then share your findings with the group.

  1. Although the most important milestones for language acquisition start after a baby is born, there is strong evidence that there is some linguistic development that occurs in utero! Check out Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl's research. What kinds of language learning happens in the womb?
  2. In their earliest months, babies learn to pay attention to the phonemes of the language that they are most often exposed to, and to ignore other phonemes. How does this apply to babies raised in bilingual environments?
  3. Babies start to babble at around six months of age. This is an important part of early speech production. Do your own research to answer the following question: how do hearing or Deaf children raised in sign language communities babble as babies?
  4. As young children's vocabularies grow, they go through a process called "u-shaped language development." What is this concept and how does it apply to the milestones listed in this lesson?
  5. Are there any important milestones in language that happen after the age of five? Check out the concept of the "critical period" for more information.

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