Before a child can express herself, she needs to learn the sounds of the language, the categorization of the language’s words and the sentence structure of the language. Language development is a process that lasts almost two decades for humans. Parents -- especially parents of younger children -- would benefit from knowing where their children are in their language development.
Learning the Sounds
Human development experts use the word “phonology” to describe the understanding of a language’s sounds. Although a child typically does not speak his first words until his second year, he is learning about the sounds of his language almost as soon as he leaves the womb. As a child is exposed to more sounds in the language, he integrates it into his mental picture of the range of the language’s sounds. By the age of 5, a child can correctly pronounce most of the sounds in his native language and will often sound “fluent” to the adult ear. But ask them to say “thirst” and “first” and you’ll find their flaw. The process of phonology development actually continues up to the teen years, at which time children are typically masters of pronouncing every sound and understanding every sound, even in a noisy environment.
Children create mental maps of concepts and sounds as they develop their language skills. Part of this mind mapping is dividing words into categories. Your child will begin to develop a sense of word categories around the age of 3. "Dog,” “cat” and “bunny” will all fit into the mental category of “animals” for your child. As the director of Florida Atlantic University’s Language Development Lab, Erika Hoff states in her book, “Language Development,” the particular language also influences how children catalog their words, with Western languages usually emphasizing noun categories and Asian languages typically emphasizing verb categories. As your child reaches middle childhood, his vocabulary will differ in terms of the amount of nouns or verbs he knows, compared to children from others cultures. This mind-mapping process continues throughout adulthood, as a parent with a word-a-day calendar is likely to know.
Most parents know from experience that a child's grammar ability is spotty. While you might understand your child’s command to “throw it me,” many others will not. However, grammar is one of the faster processes of language development. Children learn the fundamentals of grammar by the age of 5, at which time they can form most simple sentence patterns without problems. Because grammar recognition is built into the brain, your child will learn new grammar patterns as he is exposed to new types of sentence patterns. Generally, the last style of sentence pattern to develop is passive voice, such as “I was bit by the cat.” When your child begins speaking in passive voice, you will know that further improvements in grammar will probably come from grammar school, not from pure exposure.
Speech is all the other aspects of language development put together: sounds placed in a grammatically correct form, with the right categories of words in place. But speech starts early -- only a matter of months after basic phonological development. Even a 1-year-old infant can use sounds to express some basic needs. Young children will often make word-like sounds. For example, a child nearing age 2 might point to a dog and say “pob.” While technically not a word, “pob” means something to your child. The frequent use of this concept becomes apparent to parents when a child reaches the age of 2. From 2 onward, speech improves at an exponential speed, partly due to the benefits of the other parts of language development becoming available to the child.