Language Development: The First Three Years

When parents think about their babies’ language development, they may focus on the first time Baby says “Mama” or “Dada.” But language development includes much more than learning words.

In the first three years, babies go from no language at all to saying complete sentences, from crying to cooing to conversations.

Year 1

Babies start by learning which sounds belong to the language or languages they hear around them. The sounds babies make vary a lot at first, but then they settle into sounds from their native language or languages. Infants learn to smile and coo during their early weeks and months.They listen when people talk to them. By three months, babies can tell the difference between talking and other sounds.

Babies also get the concept of communication, and understand that people look at one another and make sounds and meaningful gestures. Babies want to join in before they know any words, so they babble — making sounds like “bababa” or “zis” which aren’t words but are like words. They learn to wave “bye bye” and to nod. They may clap when they’ve accomplished something or raise their arms when they want to be picked up.

Babies begin to recognize and understand words during their first year. They will turn their heads when they hear their name. They can also understand words they hear often and will respond to offers and requests. For example, a one year old can hear, “Do you want more sweet potato?” and turn to accept a spoonful.

By the end of their first year, babies may be saying words. “Mama” and “Dada” are common first words, and a one year old might say these words when asking for attention from parents. One year olds may also be making sounds that are similar to words, and putting these sounds together in ways that remind us of sentences.

Year 2

During this year, babies begin to say recognizable words with settled meanings. They may say, “Dada,” “Mama,” names of siblings or pets, and other words for things that are important to them.

Babies begin to understand many words at this age. They can point to pictures or body parts when asked, “Where’s your nose?” or “Where’s the bear?” They enjoy playing language games like this, hearing stories and rhymes, and having conversations even though they may still be babbling.

As the year progresses, babies learn many more words. By the age of two, most babies can say words in a way their families can understand. The next stage is making two word sentences like, “more juice” or “no nap.” While babies generally follow the same path toward language development, they reach the milestones at different ages.

If your baby isn’t using some words by age two, talk with your pediatrician.

Year 3

Between two and three years of age, babies continue to learn more words, and to understand words better. For example, a two year old may say “doggie” for all animals. By age three, the same child will have learned “horse,” “cat,” “cow” and other specific animal names.

During this year, babies come up with names for most of the objects in their lives. They can be understood by strangers and they may use three word sentences like, “Where dog go?” or “Mama carry me.” They might call themselves “you” or “her” or “Baby,” but they start to understand different ways to refer to people and things. Three year olds can usually understand and follow two-step requests like, “Get your book and bring it to me.”

An average three year old will know about 200 words, and will say three or four word sentences. Family will usually understand a three year old, and strangers often can.

If your baby isn’t talking by age three, talk with your pediatrician.

Encouraging language development

The most important thing to do to encourage language development is to talk to your baby. Read books, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, and hold conversations with your baby. Children don’t need to be taught their native language or languages, but they need to hear lots of sentences and conversations.

The language kids hear provides the data which the human brain naturally uses to learn language. Involve your baby in as much natural language as possible. Let him listen quietly to adult conversations or conversations among older kids. Don’t feel that you have to respond to her with “baby talk” or to read books with just a few words. Your child will develop preferences among books and songs and stories, but don’t feel that you need to limit exposure to things you think your baby will understand. Remember that early language development involves learning the sounds and grammar of the language, not just the words.

If you have concerns or questions about your child’s language development, ask your pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician is your partner in learning about and encouraging your baby’s growth and development.