Language Development in the First Five Years
Language development happens during the first five years of life and begins with more than the treasured first word your baby proudly surprises you with during a game of peek-a-boo on the living room floor. Language development starts while you are pregnant, when your sweet bundle of joy recognizes your voice and his heart rate speeds up at the sound of it. His physiological response signals captivation with you and sets him up for healthy attachment and language development after birth.
During the first two years of life, babies are busy doing more than simply learning to talk. Healthy language development blossoms within the context of important relationships. Your princess learns that you are crazy about her as you respond to her cries, feed her, change her, talk to her and play with her. In this context of loving safety, babies are free to explore the world; they copy sounds, words and actions and communicate their likes and dislikes. Within the first few months of life, your baby calms when you speak to her, smiles when she sees you, follows you with her eyes as you speak and laughs with you. Your baby might seem distressed when you drop her off at daycare, but she calms easily after you leave and seems happy to see you when you return. These are all signs of healthy attachment and a good environment for language development.
Before babies' first words, they vocalize a symphony of adorable and often amusing baby sounds. Their first coos sound something like an owl softly singing, while babbles are melodic and sound like joyful singing. Angry babbles sound purposeful and determined, while gurgling sounds a little like opera practice. As babies get closer to speaking actual words and sentences, their language sounds more and more like real talking, complete with rhythmic hard consonant and short and long vowel sounds.
Real words provide an exciting window into what is actually happening inside babies' minds as they interact with the world around them, savor sweet potatoes or pull the cat's tail. Most babies speak their first words sometime between 7 months old and 1 year old. "Hi," "Mama" and "Dada" are common first words by the time they get their first birthday candle. By 18 to 20 months, babies typically rattle off around 10 words, and by their third birthday, they have upward of 50 words in their vocabulary and are likely chatting your ears off during your workday commute and at the dinner table.
Between their first and second birthdays, babies learn to string together two-word phrases like "pet kitty" or "want that." By age 3, their rapidly expanding vocabulary has them asking three-word questions or making statements about pretty much everything from the blue sky to the open pack of cookies on the kitchen counter. Before they are 4 years old, others outside of the family clearly understand their sentences of four or more words, and they begin asking "why" questions. By 5 years old, children can recite entire stories in their own words, with nearly perfect pronunciation and adult grammar.
Children often develop in ways that differ from textbook guidelines. This does not always mean there is anything wrong, but it never hurts to bring up concerns with your child's pediatrician as you notice them. She will check developmental milestones at each appointment and refer you to a specialist if your baby is having trouble with speech. Specialists help determine if a baby has hearing problems, chronic ear infections, attachment concerns or language, speech or other issues. Sometimes all assessments come back normal, and the baby simply needs more time. Other times, speech therapy, hearing aides, ear tubes, play therapy or other modalities empower a baby's language development to soar.