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Language Development Milestones: The First 3 Years - What to Expect and When to Worry?

Language Development Milestones: The First 3 Years - What to Expect and When to Worry?

Posted May 12th, 2023.

(Updated Oct 26th, 2023.)

Welcome to Tryumph Speech Therapy, your trusted provider of specialized speech-language pathology services in Texas & Kansas.

In this blog post, we'll explore an important topic for parents and caregivers: language development milestones in children one to three years of age. Understanding these milestones can help you track your child's progress and identify potential concerns.

So, let's dive in and discover what to expect during this crucial stage of language development.

Early Language Skills (12-18 Months)

During the first year, your little one makes remarkable strides in their language development. Here are the key milestones you can expect:

1. Basic Comprehension

At this stage, your child will demonstrate basic comprehension skills. They can follow simple, routine instructions like "give me the toy" or "wave bye-bye." They may also understand familiar, everyday words like "no" or "bye." Their ability to comprehend language is a crucial foundation for future expressive language development.

You can support their auditory comprehension skills, also known as receptive language development, by using consistent and simple language when speaking to them. Provide clear instructions and engage in activities that require them to follow directions. Encouraging participation during simple fingerplay songs, such as "Wheels on the Bus," is an easy and interactive way to target understanding of basic concepts like open/shut, up/down, etc. Reading books together and pointing out objects or characters can also enhance their understanding of language.

2. Babbling and Gestures

Around 12 months, your child's babbling becomes more sophisticated. The babbling has evolved from an infant's cooing and repetition of simple sounds or syllables to more complex productions. They will produce a variety of sound combinations, experimenting with different intonations, rhythms, and speech-like patterns. This babbling serves as their practice ground for developing the fine motor muscle control necessary for speech production. It's at this stage that the jargon begins to decrease and the baby's first real words start to appear!

Additionally, your child will begin using gestures to communicate. They may shake their head "no," reach for or point to objects they want, raise their arms to be picked up, clap when they are excited, or wave goodbye. By around 16 months, your child should consistently use a variety of gestures. These gestures are an important stepping stone towards verbal communication and show their growing ability to express their needs and wants nonverbally.

Encourage their growth in speech development by imitating their sounds and engaging in back-and-forth "conversations." Respond to their gestures and reinforce their attempts at communication. This interactive play supports their language development and fosters a positive communication environment.

3. First Words

Around 12-18 months, your child will start using their first true words, usually simple and highly familiar nouns. They may be able to say "mama," "dada," and a few other familiar words. This period is an exciting time as your child begins to understand that words have meaning and can be used to communicate their needs and desires. They may point to objects and attempt to say their names or request specific items.

It's important to encourage and reinforce their budding vocabulary by labeling objects, engaging in simple conversations, and responding to their attempts at communication. This will foster their language development and help them expand their vocabulary further.

Vocabulary and Early Sentences (18-24 Months)

Between 18 and 24 months, your child's language skills will continue to blossom. Here's what you can expect during this stage:

1. Language Burst

Your child's vocabulary will undergo rapid growth during this period. They will acquire new words at an impressive rate, adding to their repertoire of language. They will begin to label familiar objects, animals, body parts, and actions. You may hear them say words like "ball," "dog," "eat," and "up."

Encourage their vocabulary development by engaging in conversations, describing objects and actions, and reading books with rich and varied vocabulary. Expand on their words by introducing related concepts and using descriptive language. This will support their vocabulary expansion and help them make connections between words and their meanings.

Related: Fluency Disorder: What is it & How to Treat It?

2. Word Combinations

As their vocabulary expands, your child will become more expressive in their communication. Once your child has a spoken vocabulary of about 50 words, they will begin combining words into 2-word phrases and simple sentences to convey their thoughts and desires. They may say phrases like "more juice," "big dog," or "mommy book."

Celebrate their progress and respond to their attempts at forming sentences. Provide positive reinforcement and model correct sentence structure when speaking with them. Engage in back-and-forth conversations, allowing them to express themselves and practicing turn-taking. This interactive communication fosters their expressive language skills and encourages their growing linguistic abilities.

3. Emergence of Pronouns

Around 2 years old, your child will begin using pronouns like "I," "you," and "me" correctly. They will start to understand and use basic personal pronouns in their conversations. This development demonstrates their growing understanding of self-identity and the ability to refer to themselves and others.

Encourage their use of pronouns by modeling appropriate pronoun usage in your own speech. Reinforce their correct usage when they use pronouns and provide gentle correction if they make errors. Engage in activities that promote pronoun understanding, such as pointing to family members and using pronouns to describe them.

By supporting their pronoun development, you are helping them refine their language skills and communicate more effectively with others. As their language continues to evolve, they will gain confidence in expressing their thoughts, needs, and emotions.

Language Expansion and Social Interaction (24-36 Months)

As your child reaches the age of 2-3 years, their language skills become more sophisticated. Let's explore the key milestones during this stage:

1. Sentence Complexity

Your child's sentences become more complex as they gain confidence in expressing themselves. They will use three or more words to form longer phrases and sentences. They will expand their sentence structure and vocabulary, allowing them to convey more detailed thoughts and ideas.

Encourage their language expansion by providing opportunities for storytelling and engaging in conversations that require more detailed responses. Ask open-ended questions such as "who," "what," or "where" as opposed to close-ended questions that only require a simple "yes" or "no" response. In addition, listen actively, and provide meaningful feedback. This helps nurture their ability to express themselves effectively and develop their language skills further.

2. Storytelling and Imaginative Play

Around this age, children's language skills allow them to engage in storytelling and imaginative play. They may create narratives, imitate different characters, and engage in more interactive and imaginative conversations. This imaginative play provides a platform for them to experiment with language, expand their vocabulary, and enhance their overall communication and social skills.

Encourage their storytelling and imaginative play by providing props, books, and opportunities for pretend play. Engage in their narratives, ask questions, and show interest in their imaginative world. This supports their language development, creativity, and cognitive growth.

3. Understanding Basic Grammar

By the age of 3, your child will start using basic grammar rules more consistently. They will begin using plurals (e.g., "dogs," "cats") and verb tenses (e.g., "jumped," "running") correctly in their speech. They will also have a growing understanding of pronouns and use them appropriately in various contexts.

Support their understanding of grammar by providing models of correct grammar usage in your own speech. Engage in activities that reinforce grammar concepts, such as pointing out plurals or talking about actions in different verb tenses (present tense, past tense, etc.). Celebrate their correct usage and gently correct any errors to help refine their grammar skills.

As your child's language expands, they will become more adept at engaging in social interactions. They will initiate conversations, maintain eye contact, and demonstrate basic conversational skills like greeting and responding to others. Encourage these social interactions by providing opportunities for playdates, group activities, and conversations with peers and family members.

When to Seek Professional Guidance

While every child develops at their own pace, it's essential to be aware of potential red flags that may indicate a need for professional intervention. Consider consulting a speech-language pathologist if you notice:

1. Lack of Progress: If your child shows little or no progress in their language skills over an extended period, it's important to seek guidance. Delayed language development could be indicative of underlying issues that require professional attention. Furthermore, regression of skills is a red flag. A child should be gaining new language skills and maintaining them, not losing them. Any regression should always be communicated to your child's pediatrician so that your child can be monitored and referred to appropriate specialists as needed.

2. Limited Vocabulary: Most children start saying their first words around their 1st birthday. By the time a child is 2 years of age, they should have an expressive vocabulary of at least 50 words and start to combine 2-word utterances. If your child has a significantly limited vocabulary and struggles to learn new words or understand simple instructions, it may be a cause for concern. A speech-language pathologist can assess their language abilities and provide appropriate interventions. 

3. Difficulty with Social Interaction: If your child struggles with engaging in basic conversations, maintaining eye contact, or understanding social cues, it may be beneficial to consult a professional. Social communication skills, also known as pragmatic language skills, are essential for overall language development and interaction with peers.

Remember, early intervention is key. If you have concerns about your child's language development or if they exhibit any of these signs, reach out to a qualified speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. They can provide guidance, support, and targeted interventions to help your child overcome any challenges they may be facing.

Related: How Does Tryumph Speech Therapy Evaluate and Treat Speech Delay?

Trust Tryumph Speech Therapy for Language Development Support

At Tryumph Speech Therapy, we understand the significance of language development milestones in children. Our experienced speech-language pathologist specializes in supporting children ages 1-3 years through personalized therapy services.

With expertise in areas such as Articulation, Stuttering, Expressive Language, and more, we offer comprehensive assessments and evidence-based interventions tailored to your child's unique needs.

If you have concerns about your child's language development or want to ensure they are meeting the expected milestones, we're here to help. Contact Tryumph Speech Therapy today at (512) 898-9858 or [email protected] to schedule an appointment or learn more about our services.

Remember, we're here to transform 'try' into TRYUMPH! Let us support your child's language development journey and empower them with effective communication skills for a brighter future.

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