Language development varies widely in children but here are some broad milestones you can expect from your child in her first 5 years.
3-12 months Babbling is an important language developmental stage during the first year. It is the first step to speech as your baby experiments with making different sounds with her mouth and tries to mimic your speech. The sounds, like ‘ooh’, ‘aah’ and ‘ng’, do not mean anything at this point.
First words emerge at this stage. Now you will find that your toddler’s first words have meaning, and she probably understands more than she can speak. She will also be able to follow simple instructions like ‘Wave’ or ‘Eat’.
18-24 months By the second year, your toddler’s vocabulary increases, and she is putting two or more object and action words together into short sentences like ‘mummy come’ or ‘ball drop’. She can understand most of what you say. However, at this stage, it is normal for her not to be able to pronounce the words accurately as her tongue muscles are not well developed yet. She might say ‘dor’ instead of ‘dog’ or ‘mile’ instead of ‘smile’. Nonetheless, you (the people within the immediate family, unfamiliar people might be able to understand the child a lot less) will still be able to understand most of what she says.
2-3 years By the third year, with her word bank expanding rapidly, your child can make longer and more complex sentences with three or more words. For example, ‘no more milk’ or ‘I want mummy carry’. Her articulation is also clearer, and she starts to speak to herself while playing. You will hear more descriptive words like ‘big’, ‘scary’, ‘wet’. Pronouns, ‘I’ and ‘you’, as well as question words like ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘why’ begin to populate her speech. She also starts understanding and using words like 'me', 'mine' and 'yours', and figuring out past tense and plural words.
3-5 years Beyond the third year, you can expect her to hold long and complex conversations with you using words like ‘if’, ‘because’, ‘so’ and you can be sure there will be many questions coming your way. She speaks in different voices during pretend play and she can be a great storyteller! She will also master most of the letter sounds but she might still have difficulty putting two consonant sounds together like /bl/ in blue or difficult sounds like /ch/, /sh/ and /th/.
Speech and language development is a significant part of child development and forms a critical foundation for literacy – the ability to read and write. It allows your child to communicate and express her thoughts and feelings. It supports relationship-building, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Common causes of speech and language delay
Children grow and develop at different rates and there is a wide spectrum of what is “normal” in language development. Often the kind of environment the child grows up in makes a difference in the speed of language development. It can be tricky to spot speech or language development delay. Some of the common questions that most parents have especially if the child is particularly slow in verbal communication are:
“Should I be worried if my child is not speaking at the age of two?”
“How do I spot a speech or language development delay in my child?”
“Is it speech delay or autism?”
“How can I help to correct a speech problem?”
Speech disorder is not the same as language delay. Children with speech problems can comprehend what you or others say but you might find it difficult to understand them because they do not produce sounds or pronounce words that is expected for their age. Some articulation issues include lisping and stuttering. Children with language delay, on the other hand, may not understand your instructions and they use very few or no words for their age.
Below are some common causes for either speech or language delay. The same problem can sometimes cause both speech and language disorders.
Learning disabilities – children suffering from defects in brain development will present speech and language delay.
Neurological disorders – children with birth-defects like cerebral palsy, brain injury or muscular dystrophy are unable to control their oral muscles for speech and would require therapeutic interventions.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – speech and language delay could be an early warning sign for autism.
Psychological conditions – an example is selective mutism whereby children who are capable of normal speech is unable to do so in a specific environment or condition due to anxiety.
Hearing loss – children with hearing impairment is deprived of the input signals critical for imitating speech.
Chronic ear infections – this, if it goes unnoticed, can lead to auditory processing disorders (APD).
Oral-motor impairment – a breakdown in the signal transmission from the brain to the oral muscles coordinating speech resulting in speech disorder. It can also be associated with atypical muscle tone or sensitivity of the jaw, lips, cheeks and tongue.
Oral abnormalities – children with a defect in their palate/lip (cleft-palate/lip) or tongue (tongue-tie) may have difficulty producing sounds accurately.
Last but not least, sometimes it’s simply due to the lack of a stimulating and interactive environment that is causing a delay in the child’s speech and language development!
Is lisping normal? A young toddler may speak with a lisp – the inability to pronounce /s/ and /z/ sounds correctly, because of the wrong placement of the tongue, and it is often thought of as cute but when it persists into her early primary school years you start wondering if it will ever go away.
There are two different types of lisps. A frontal lisp is when the tongue sticks out between the front teeth making the /s/ and /z/ sound like /th/. As in “thix” instead of “six” and “prithe” instead of “prize”. A lateral lisp is when air escapes at the side of the mouth and speech sounds slushy. Imagine hearing “Daffy Duck” speak.
Should I try to correct my child with a lisp? When is the right age to correct her? We need to allow the child time to mature and opportunities to self-correct her speech as her oral motor muscles develop with age. At around 4-5 years old, majority of the children can pronounce /s/ and /z/ correctly. However, children with a lisp usually do not outgrow it until they are corrected, with a few exceptions. It is always better to correct a lisp as early as possible.
Get the child to look at your mouth and model the right placement of the tongue for her as you say the words with /s/ and /z/ sounds. Mirror what she is doing wrong and emphasize that she must put her front teeth together and keep the tongue just behind the teeth as she sounds out /s/ or /z/. Keep reminding her to place the tongue correctly whenever she lapses back into her lisp. Over time, the new habit is learned, and the lisp is corrected.
When to seek help?
If your baby is not babbling or gesturing by 10 months, does not have any words by 18 months, or if you find it difficult to understand your child at the age of 3 years or older, talk to your GP, paediatrician or a speech therapist.
If you have more questions, please pose them in the comments section of this post. We will be inviting Dr Emilie Lam, senior speech and language therapist at Gumdrops Services Pte Ltd, to share more on the topic and to answer some of your questions in a few weeks’ time.
Ways to stimulate speech and language development Here are a couple of useful links to a list of activities you can do with your child to encourage speech and language development.