Universal Speech and Language Developmental Milestones (Including Bilingual Children)
Are you worried about your child’s speech and language development? Or just curious to know which type language developmental milestones your child should be hitting at a certain age?
This article explains the language development milestones for kids who speak one or multiple languages.
Special guest expert Ana Paula G Mumy. Ana Paula is a trilingual speech-language pathologist and a clinical assistant professor in the field of speech-language pathology.
Speech & Language Developmental Milestones
I summarize below what I will call “universal” milestones regardless of the native language. This information is based on the information from the Multilingual Children’s Association concerning multilingual milestones which you can find here, as well as from my own experience as a trilingual speech-language pathologist and mother of bilingual children.
As you read about these language developmental milestones, however, bear in mind that there is a range of variability among children that is completely normal.
Speech & Language Developmental Milestones Birth – 12 months
In general, the first year of a child’s life, regardless of the native language, revolves around sounds.
Children begin recognizing the speech sounds in their native language and paying attention to the intonation patterns of their native language, which is the melody and rhythm of the language.
They also begin to connect specific objects and people to specific sounds. In the first year, children progress from making environmental sounds (e.g. crying, burping) to cooing (e.g. ooh, ahh) to babbling (e.g. mama, bada).
Their babble reflects the rhythm of their native language, and any unused sounds not present in their native language will no longer be recognized.
Speech & Language Developmental Milestones 12 – 24 months
The period from 12 to 24 months of age is generally about words and connecting specific words to objects and people as well as actions and concepts.
Children begin to perceive word boundaries (i.e. individual words within phrases), to understand words in context, and to understand sentences.
They also move from producing word approximations to jargon (i.e. conversational babbling characterized by longer strings of consonants and vowels with adult-like stress and intonation) to producing and combining words to form 2-word phrases (e.g. want juice).
You’ll see the imitation of new words as well as the production of nouns first (e.g. cup, ball, dada) followed by verbs (e.g. eat, jump) and common expressions (e.g. uh-oh, bye-bye).
Common first words in all languages include words associated with the important people and routine activities of daily living in the child’s life (e.g. eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing), as well as household objects, animal words and sounds, and social expressions.
Speech & Language Developmental Milestones 24 – 36 months
The period from 24 to 36 months of age is characterized by vocabulary growth and language refinement.
Children begin to understand hundreds of words, word categories, question forms, and the grammatical rules of their native language.
You often see a rapid increase in words, the ability to use question forms, and the production of 3- to 5-word sentences. E.g. Where mommy go?
The general rule of thumb is that children need an expressive vocabulary of approximately 50 words in order to begin combining words to form phrases and sentences.
This can be a combined expressive vocabulary in one or more languages.
Language Development in Bilingual Kids
Children’s Speech Skills
When looking at the speech skills of young children (i.e. their ability to clearly produce the specific sounds of their native language), the general rule of thumb is that children are able to be understood:
- 25% of the time by 18 months
- 50-75% of the time by 24 months
- 75-100% of the time by 36 months
Children tend to simplify speech sounds in the learning process, so speech sound errors are normal and developmentally appropriate early on.
Most children outgrow speech sound errors, and the clarity of their speech normalizes over time.
If there are significant errors or patterns of error that persist and make it very difficult for them to be understood, professional help may be necessary and important.
Children’s Play Skills
In terms of play skills within the first years of a child’s life, you will see children move from solitary play to parallel play to associative play to cooperative play (based on Mildred Parten’s stages of play).
This means children generally go from:
1) playing alone as they explore their environments
2) playing side by side without social interaction
3) loosely playing together and interacting
4) playing together with structure, cooperation, and shared goals.
Another way to summarize play skills is described by J.P. Isenberg and M.R. Jalongo as a progression from:
1) object play (exploration of objects)
2) functional play (repetitive movements as new skills are learned)
3) symbolic/pretend play (imagination and role play to change self and objects for specific purposes, for example, using a toy banana as a telephone)
4) constructive play (manipulation of objects or materials to create things)
5) games with rules (activities with rules, often goal-oriented and competitive).
Speech and Language Developmental Milestones Infographic
One nice and concise visual chart for milestones expected of all children regardless of home language is available at the Bilinguistics. They also offer many other free resources in the area of bilingualism for both parents and professionals.
Other Resources for Children’s Speech and Language Milestones
In addition, I offer multiple tip sheets for parents on building language skills through play and common everyday activities on my website.
One recent and popular tip sheet I developed is on language facilitation strategies that parents can use to promote their child’s language growth.
I call them NERCh Strategies which stands for narration, expansions, recasts, and choices. These strategies are explained clearly on this tip sheet. (Download here)
One more available resource is my parent guide entitled “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children.” (Download Here)
In summary, as a parent, if you see any marked delays in any of the areas of your child’s speech and language development milestones as discussed, (understanding language, producing language, speaking with clarity, and appropriate play and/or social skills), seek professional advice, preferably from a speech-language specialist who has experience working with bilingual / multilingual children and families.
If you would like to read more about language development in bilingual children you may be interested in other posts such as:
Author: Ana Paula, speech-language pathologist who has extensive experience working with individuals with communication disorders, particularly bilingual children. You can find her resources on my website The Speech Stop.