Important Factors in the Development of Early Language Skills for 0-3 Year Olds

Early language development is the time from birth until 3 years of age in which children learn and acquire a significant amount of core language skills and is seen as the optimal age period for language acquisition.

This article outlines and discusses skills and milestones involved effective language acquisition up to 3 years, how those in the child’s environment can facilitate children in language development, and how to identify when a child may require language intervention.

Important Skills and Milestones in Language Acquisition

Hearing and Auditory Processing


Hearing is a vital skill in the development of spoken language acquisition. Without functional hearing abilities a child cannot be exposed to and acquire verbal language. Auditory processing is an important part of listening to, retaining, and learning from spoken language and involves the ability to hear a sound and process it within the brain to make sense of it.

Babies with intact hearing begin to perceive speech in the womb, but they only begin to make sense of it and attach meaning to sounds within the first year of life. This occurs initially by children listening for speakers’ emphasis or pauses after words, but as children’s understanding of words develops they are better able to listen out for and learn specific words.

Attention Skills

Attention skills are important for learning and the development of listening skills.

They can be divided into the following stages:


0-1 Years  


  • Attention is fleeting and highly distractible.
  • At around 6 months joint attention begins to emerge. This involves the ability to focus on a mutual object with an adult.
  •  Joint attention indicates the beginning of intentional communication as the child now understands they can share focus and attention with someone.



1-2 Years  

  • A child can concentrate for some time on an activity which they have chosen. This is referred to single-channelled attention and is associated with the ‘terrible-twos’ stage of behaviour.


2-3 Years  

  •  Attention is still single-channelled, but the child is beginning to be able to shift their attention with adult help.


3-4 Years  


  • Attention is still single-channelled, but the child requires less adult help to shift their attention and they are beginning to be able to multi-task listening to a speaker and engaging in a task.






Through play children learn how to interact in their environment, discover their interests, and develop cognitive, motor, speech, language and social-emotional skills (American Academy of Pediatrics 2007). Play enables children to discover, create and problem-solve in a safe environment and is an ideal opportunity to expose children to language in a naturalistic manner.


0-6 Months
  • Consists of hand movements with arms, feet, legs etc. as babies are learning and discovering about how their bodies move.
  • Children demonstrate reaching and banging behaviours for toys.
6-12 Months ·

  • Children begin to participate in adult led routines and learnt anticipation games such as peek-a-boo.
  • Functional play skills are emerging e.g. rolling a car, eating from a spoon


12-18 Months  

  • There is some emergence of symbolic play skills (i.e. the use of an object to represent something else) e.g. pretending a banana is a telephone.
  • Children will now ask for help from an adult if their toy is not working.


18-24 Months  

  • Pretend and symbolic play become more advanced and children will begin to manipulate toys more e.g. playing kitchen or house.
  • Children become more independent in repairing toys and tidying up.


24- 30 Months  

  • Children begin to demonstrate parallel play i.e. they will play in the presence of other children but will play alongside them rather than jointly in the same game.
  • Children begin to verbalise more around other children and are sharing more toys


30-36 Months  

  • Longer play sequences are being carried out which may include dolls or animals as active participants.
  • Children play out familiar routines such as dinner time or going to bed.


Rossetti, L. (2006)

Linguistic Development

Linguistics refers to the ability to understand and use language to communicate. This can be done verbally, through sounds and words, and nonverbally through body language.

The following milestones are a guide to babies’ and toddlers’ language development:


Social Interaction

Before babies use sounds to communicate, they send most of their messages through body language.



6 Weeks


  • Smiles at faces and makes eye contact.

3 Months


  • Generally are more sociable and interested in people.

5 Months


  • Beginning to copy facial expressions.

6 Months


  • Beginning to ‘make strange’ with unfamiliar people.





1-8 Months: Vocalisations



  • Consists of mostly cooing, raspberries/trill sounds or squeals.
5 Months +: Basic Babbling  


  • Begins with basic babbles (e.g. ba ba, da ba) and develops into jargon babble which sounds more like words.
  • Attempts at real words typically begin about 6 months after babbling.






Children will understand more words than they can use in the early stages of language development.


9-12 Months:  

  • At 12 months children usually only have around 10 words in their vocabulary.
  • Words may begin with begin with sounds such as symbolic noises (i.e. moo for cow) and are initially only used for one situation or one object.
  • When children begin to use a word spontaneously, consistently and correctly for different situations or objects, then we refer to these words as ‘True First Words’.


18-24 Months:  

  • Once children begin to produce 50 words, an explosive growth of words is triggered between 18-24 months. During this time children may learn up to 9 new words a day.
  • At 24 months children usually have around 2/300 words.
  • Children will begin to combine two words together, but they aren’t yet using the ‘little’ words e.g. ‘is’ ‘a’ ‘the’.


36 + Months:  

  • By 3 years language use is more complex.
  • Children are now beginning to understand concepts such as size, colour and basic positions (in, on, under).
  • They are producing 3-part sentences and are beginning to join sentences together using words like ‘and’ ‘but’ and ‘because’.


Law (2004)


What You Can Do to Help Language Development

Those around children in their daily environment can do a significant amount to help children in their language development in a natural way. Research shows that the more parents talk to their child, the faster their vocabulary grows and the better they do on cognitive and verbal tests by 3 years of age (Hart and Risley 1999).

Daily routines allow for the repetition of familiar vocabulary over and over again within the environment in which these words would be regularly used. This is seen to be crucial for language learning.

The following points are effective ways of helping children acquire language:

  • Wait for the child to initiate and then listen to the child.
  • Follow the child’s lead.
  • Join in and play their games.
  • Be at the same level as the child and be face-to-face.
  • Use sentences that allow the child to use more words in their response e.g. reduce yes/no questions and focus on statements or WH- questions.
  • Encourage turn taking.
  • Summarise and expand on what the child has said e.g. child: ‘ball!’ adult: ‘Yes, it’s a ball. A big blue ball. Let’s kick the ball.’
  • Always respond to vocalisations or sounds.
  • Focus on the concrete here and now.


Indicators your Child May Need Speech and Language Therapy Intervention

According to Law (2004) your child may have an early language delay if they demonstrate the following by 2 years of age:

  • Poor communicative/interactive skills.
  • Limited understanding of what is said.
  • Reduced vocabulary use (less than 50).
  • Lack of combining words.
  • Inability to identify two objects on request.


Of all 2 year olds, 10-15% have a delay in early language development, but 35-79% of these children recover spontaneously (Eadie 2004). There are certain predictors that your child’s difficulties may not spontaneously resolve:

  • If your child has hearing loss.
  • There is a family history of speech and language difficulties.
  • Both understanding and use of language are delayed.
  • If your child does not use many verbs in their expressive language.
  • If your child does not use gesture alongside their speech.

For those children who do not spontaneously recover, language delay may have long term consequences for: the development of social interactional skills, educational achievement, and future life opportunities (Snowling, Adams et al. 2001).

If you have concerns regarding your child’s speech and language development, it is important to consult a Speech and Language Therapist for advice and focused intervention.


Written By


Sarah Mc Nally, Speech & Language Therapy, Sensational Kids, Kildare


Copyright Sensational Kids CLG 2018