Every parent knows that all children develop at a different pace. While some kids seem to arrive at every growth milestone at lightning speed, others simply need a bit more time to get there. This is perhaps especially true in regard to language skills.
While a slower timeline in the development of language skills is not necessarily a cause for concern, some delays in language can signify underlying issues that will need to be addressed, like hearing loss, developmental speech and language disorder, or autism. Knowing what's "normal" in terms of language development for the average child can help you know when to relax a bit and stop worrying, or help you identify real problems as soon as they arise. The sooner you can identify a language delay with your child, the sooner you can meet with a medical professional and proceed with treatment if necessary.
A General Timeline for Language Development
You can refer to the timeline below to help you assess if your child seems to be developing language more slowly than the average child, but keep in mind that these are general guidelines only. If you have any concerns about your child's rate of language development, you should consult your pediatrician, who will be able to provide guidance or recommendations in relation to your child's individual development.
Before 12 Months
While your baby is developing, it's important to determine that he or she is learning to use crying and cooing as forms of expression, with different sounds representing different needs. Crying will typically transition into cooing and babbling in response to your child's environment. At around nine months, your baby should begin to link different sounds and tones together and may be able to say simple words, like "mama." Even if your baby doesn't yet know the meaning of the words he or she is beginning to form, this babbling is an early marker of language development.
During this stage, babies usually have a wider range of sounds they utilize while babbling. It is around this stage of development that they typically begin to imitate the words they regularly hear around them. A child at this age may be able to say a couple more words than "mama" and "papa." Nouns are usually the new words added at this stage--words like "ball" or "baby." Your child may also be able to understand simple directives at this age, such as "Please give me the toy."
Many toddlers can say somewhere around 20 words at 18 months and as many as 50 words by the time they turn two. It is around age two that children should begin stringing different words together to form their first sentences, like "puppy play" or "mommy sick." A child at this stage should also be able to identify common objects, both in photos and in person, and perhaps identify their own body parts when asked. By age two, a child will likely be able to follow two-step directives, like "Bring me the ball and sit down."
2 to 3 Years
It is during this stage that parents usually begin to see rapid development in a child's language skills. Vocabulary should be increasing quickly, as well as comprehension. Your child should begin to understand descriptive words at this point, like the color or size of an object.
When to Seek Medical Advice
Again, the above timeline is a general guideline or "map" to follow in determining if your child's language development is basically on track. Most experts recommend that you see a medical professional to discuss your child's language delays if you notice that your child:
isn't using gestures by 12 months
prefers gestures over vocalization at 18 months
is having difficulty imitating sounds at 18 months
doesn't understand simple verbal requests between 12 and 24 months
doesn't produce phrases or words on his or her own by age two
has a very limited vocabulary and only communicates basic needs at age two
has an especially nasally or raspy sounding voice by age two
Language Delays in Children
Language delays in children can manifest in different ways. Additionally, there can be many different reasons for delays in language development in children, ranging from environmental to health issues. Some of the causes of language delays in children include:
Developmental Speech and Language Disorder
Auditory Processing Disorder
Cleft Lip or Cleft Palate
Apraxia of Speech