Language and Communication: The First Five Years

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Making Connections

In the first year of life wonderful and dramatic things happen. The baby usually triples her birth weight; she moves from being totally dependent to crawling or walking. Well before they use spoken language, infants let us know how they feel and what they mean. They are soon able to communicate and to understand language, and by six months they know their name and understand that they are an individual. With the further expansion of language abilities, comes the expansion of social relationships. Brains are wired for language, and children of all countries acquire language on the same general schedule. Each area of growth occurs in tandem with others - e.g. social and emotional with motor, communication with thinking.

Milestones are flexible; they are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no strict timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range for what's considered normal. Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. This article outlines the acquisition of language abilities and its interaction with other aspects of development.

First Year Milestones

The base for language is set in infancy and then expands rapidly, as children progress from simple cooing to complex conversing.

Children develop language skills at an astounding rate. Amazingly, all these skills begin to develop in the newborn/infant stage, and rapidly progress in the first few years of life. A child of one month can respond to voices, at three months can coo in response to pleasant sounds, and at four months can turn to find the sound source in a room. He will use pointing and reaching to indicate needs, use facial expressions to show happiness, defiance, and confusion, and he will imitate and emulate his parent's actions/speech patterns.

Between birth and 4 months the child

  • coos and then babbles, the first sounds besides crying, intentionally produced
  • then makes a vowel sound; other sounds may include ah, oh, uh, etc; he is not yet making sense of language, but increasing control of the speech muscles and a system called auditory feedback allows him to become familiar with the sounds of language
  • laughs out loud, either in response to another or on his own
  • responds to a voice by quieting, listening, turning his head, opening his eyes, or awakening to the sound of a familiar voice in a quiet room
  • by 3 months can distinguish between the voices of his mother and other females
  • makes sounds for attention - clicking his tongue, cooing, babbling or gurgling, in addition to crying
  • by 4 months he can start fitting his responses to the rhythm of the speech of his caregivers

Between 5 and 8 months the child

  • makes three or more sounds in one breath, such as bababa or dabaka
  • responds to his own name by looking, listening, smiling and quieting
  • vocalizes for attention
  • can locate the source of a bell rung out of sight
  • laughs, gurgles, coos with familiar people, especially in play
  • turns to look for new and unfamiliar sounds

Between 9 and 12 months the child

  • imitates sounds
  • listens to familiar words
  • says "no" and shakes his head
  • says two or more words clearly to a parent, although others may not understand
  • uses Mama or Dada as name
  • uses jargon; babbling combinations that sound more like real speech with inflection changes
  • waves bye-bye or patty-cake to verbal requests
  • enjoys interactive games such as peek-a-boo
  • links meaning to words; is able to recognize objects/pictures by name; points to the car
  • responds to simple instructions such as give me your hand, where is your nose
  • has a receptive vocabulary of about 100 words
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