Typical Language Development, Birth-to-Three

Gini Schulist, M.S., CCC-SLP and Vladimir Bjelic, M.S., CCC-SLP

As early as infancy, your child begins to make noises and respond to sounds in his environment. The first three years of life, when your child’s brain is experiencing rapid growth, is an especially intensive time for speech and language development. The following list highlights specific signs of typical language development from 0-3 years of age.

0-6 Months            

  •  Frequently coos and gurgles
  • Uses different cries to express various needs (hunger, diaper change, pleasure, etc.) and later different sounds/gestures
  • Smiles when spoken to
  • Recognizes voices
  • Turns to sounds
  • Uses the sounds “p”, “b,” “m” when babbling (papa, baba, mama)

7-12 Months

  • Understands “no.”
  • Follows simple directions (come, give me, sit down, etc)
  • Understands and responds to own name
  • Uses a variety of sounds when babbling
  • Imitates some adult speech sounds
  • Uses gestures or vocalizations to express wants and gain attention
  • Has a vocabulary of one to three words

13-18 Months

  • Imitates one word phrases
  • Repeats words and phrases overheard in conversation
  • Puts together sounds that resemble speech but make little sense
  • Follows new simple commands (ex: “Pick up the ball”)
  • Identifies 1-3 body parts
  • Has an expressive vocabulary of 3-20+ words (mostly nouns)
  • Makes requests verbally for most desired items

19-24 Months

  • Uses real words more frequently than made up words
  • Knows body parts
  • Identifies photos in a book when named
  • Labels a few familiar objects
  • Goes from using about 20 words to using 50-100 words

2-3 Years

  • Uses words to request items
  • Follows two-step directions (ex: “Go get the ball and give it to daddy.”)
  • Asks simple questions
  • Uses 2 to 4 word phrases
  • Has a vocabulary of 50-250 (or more) words- rapid vocabulary growth

When language development is evaluated for children less than three years of age, focus is typically put on two specific areas: Receptive Language and Expressive Language. A Receptive Language Delay is characterized by difficulty understanding spoken language. An Expressive Language Delay is characterized by problems using language to express wants, needs and ideas.

Some common language disorder “red flags” are:

  • Birth-3 months: Doesn’t smile or interact with others
  • 4-7 months: Doesn’t babble (ex: “mamama,” “dadada,” “bababa” etc)
  • 7-12 months: Makes few sounds and doesn’t use gestures (ex: waving, pointing)
  • 12-18 months: Only says a few words
  • 2-3 years: Doesn’t put words together to make simple phrases, has trouble playing and talking with other children

Most children make some mistakes with sounds as they learn new words. Speech sound disorder (or articulation disorder) occurs when children have difficulty making specific sounds past a certain age. If the following typical speech sound development is not happening with your child by specific ages, it could be a sign of a speech sound disorder:

1-2 Years

  • Says “p,” “b,” “m,” “h,” and “w” correctly in words (Child is approximately 25-50% intelligible)

2-3 Years

  • Says “k,” “g,” “f,” “t,” “d,” and “n” correctly in words (Child is 50-75% intelligible)

*Please note that much of the speech used under age three is unclear, even to familiar people.

There are certain things you can do at home with your child that will stimulate speech and language development. Some activities, like reading to and playing with your child, can start as early as infancy. Here are suggestions of activities that support speech and language development:   

  • Read books and ask your child to point to or label specific objects.
  • Repeat words and phrases.
  • Play with your child and talk about what you are doing. Ask him to follow simple directions with his toys.
  • While interacting with your child, make sound effects to go along with your actions.
  • Introduce new signs, a few at a time, and work on them consistently until learned.
  • Take turns talking with your child. Give them an opportunity to respond.
  • Create opportunities for communication by offering your child choices.
  • When your child imitates or says a word, repeat it back to him and make it a big deal. This will give positive reinforcement to the use of words, which will help him build vocabulary.
  • Always say sounds correctly when you talk to provide your child with a good example.
  • Don’t correct your child if he makes sounds errors, instead provide a good model and repeat yourself often.

If a speech delay or speech sound disorder is suspected, it is important to take the steps to learn more and have your child evaluated. Early intervention therapy is essential for helping your child overcome speech delays. Here are some tips for ensuring your child has the help he needs:

  • Talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and ask for a referral for early intervention services.
  • Visit your state website and search for the office that manages early intervention services in your state.
  • Contact your local pediatric/children’s hospital and ask for information about early intervention services in your area.
  • Contact a local University with a speech graduate program.

Do you have an experience dealing with a child with a speech and language delay? If so, please share it here.

Vladimir Bjelic is a Speech Language Pathologist at Milwaukee Center for Independence in their Birth-to-Three Program.

Gini Schulist is a Speech-Language Pathologist and has worked at Penfield Children’s Center for more than five years. She works mostly with the Birth-to-Three population in Milwaukee County- both in the community and in center.

“Early Detection of Speech, Language, and Hearing Disorders.” ASHA. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Shipley, Kenneth G., Ph.D., and Julie G., M.A. McAfee. “Evaluating Preassessment Information.” Assessment in Speech-Language Pathology, A Resource Manual. 4th ed. Clifton Park: Delmar Cengage Learning, 2009. 92-96. Print.

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