Speech and language development (2-6 years)

Why is it important?

Speech and language are fundamental to children’s cognitive and behavioral development. It provides them an important tool to learn and communicate. It is also fundamental to their personality and sense of identity.

As they grow, their language skills become more complex, and their memory for facts increases, through their knowledge of words and language.

How do they learn?

Children absorb information “like a sponge”. They learn by remembering words they hear from adults, other children, tv, multimedia. They also develop a visual memory from words seen in books and multimedia. They associate words with people and objects, and this is how they develop memory skills. They also mimic what adults say and use role play. Speech stimulates complex processes in specific areas of the brain.

As they become more interactive and engaged, children use speech to question about the world around them, to help them remember people and objects, to make conversations, and to express their wants, needs, and feelings.

Children actually retain much more in their memory than what they use. From toddler age, they are able to understand about 3 times as many words as they speak [1], and this gap continues, but their vocabulary (number of words they know) increases by ten times every year.

When is the best time for language development?

Word understanding begins to increase after about 1.5-2 years. From as early as 3-6 months kids respond to language and begin to “babble” in syllables, using their voices, even though they might not be able make full words or sentences yet. These form part of a positive memory pattern and encourages them to learn in later years.

Kids can also pick up very complex sounds and vocal changes from 2-5 years, such as being able to tell the difference between mum or dad, or other kids. In general, the period from 3 to 6 years is the most critical time for children to learn a spoken language [2].

Language development at different stages of the first 6 years

2-3 years:

During this age, children know and understand about 200 words, but speak about 50 of them [4]. They are able to respond to questions and understand simple instructions, including “yes”, “no”, “mine”, etc. and towards 3 years start to make simple sentences from single words. From 2 ½ years, they  2.5 years is when kids begin to make proper sentences that make sense [ii].

3-5 years:

At this age, children’s knowledge of words increases to about 1000-2000 words, and they start to make more complex sentences. They are able to learn and recall new words much more quickly, and know the names of most common objects. They understand differences between males and females, and can recall their own name.

5-6 years

By now, children’s understanding of words has increased to about 20,000 words, and they can speak about 2000-2500 words. They can communicate using longer and more complex sentences, understand events in past and present tense, tell simple stories, pronounce words more clearly, and recite numbers, the alphabet and their home address [1].

Tips for parents to encourage speech and language development

Language expression is a sign of healthy mind and stable behavioral development. It is important to remember that children are just small people, so it is important to talk to them as people, and not down to them. Speaking to kids in complete sentences, using adult words and helping them to pronounce them correctly is a good way to help them learn.

Some kids naturally talk more than others depending on their personality, so if they are quiet, it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t talk. So don’t force them. There is strong evidence between speech and language problems, and stressful experiences [5]. These can lead to cognitive issues later in life. Problems include verbal or physical abuse or bullying, family violence, lack of encouragement or affection and mental stress of the parents.

Also, some children learn more slowly than others, due to problems such as speech impediments, dyslexia, or behavioural problems. Rather than more discipline, children like these require more specialized learning conditions.