4 stages of language development (definitions and tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 16 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The development of language is one of the most important elements of a child's early growth as it enables them to communicate their wants and needs to those around them. Adequate language development results in children being able to function as they age into adolescence and adulthood. We call the process of learning a language 'undergoing the stages of language development'. In this article, we define the stages and language development and outline the importance of proper language development.

What are the stages of language development?

The stages of language development refer to the acquisition of language as a toddler and child. There are many smaller milestones of linguistic development in children and four main stages. The four stages include:

Pre-linguistic stage

The first main stage of language acquisition in children follows their initial crying and fusing periods. The pre-linguistic stage typically occurs anywhere within the first two and four months of a child's life. This stage tends to last until the child is seven months old, though this varies depending on their individual development. Some of the sounds, such as crying, are non-reflexive. Others, such as cooing, are 'alleviation sounds' and are a result of the beginning of vocal tract development. Babies aged six to seven months may also engage in vocal play.

The pre-linguistic stage of language acquisition is characterised by the following:

  • grunts

  • sighs

  • coos

  • squeals

  • raspberries

  • snorts

  • growls

  • yells

Babbling stage

The second main stage of a child's language development is the babbling stage. The babbling stage typically occurs from around the 6-month mark following birth, depending on the child's development. It's at this point of their linguistic development that children begin to use their speech organs to create a series of non-coherent sounds, hence the name babbling. Alongside babbling, children also begin to make a series of extended sounds that resemble syllables in many instances. The sounds produced are random as opposed to meaningful or reflective of the child's needs.

Two-word stage

The third main stage of a child's language development is the two-word stage. The two-word stage most commonly begins at somewhere between the one year and one and a half year mark. This is the primary stage at which children begin to articulate actual words. Typically, this articulation is limited to either single words or two words at a time, which is where the name originates. This is largely due to the child developing their sound production capability.

During the two word stage, children begin to subconsciously apply grammatical rules when formulating basic phrases. This includes depicting events via grammatical functions and, in some instances, beginning to use inflections. By the end of the two-word stage, a child can produce many different sounds and syllables to formulate basic words and sentences. This enables them to communicate what they want or feel.

Related: 15 jobs in early childhood education (salary and duties)

Telegraphic stage

The fourth main stage of a child's language development is the telegraphic stage. The telegraphic stage occurs at around the 24-month mark, but can sometimes occur as late as the 30-month mark. During the telegraphic stage, children begin to verbalise more complex sentences.

One of the main identifiers of the telegraphic stage is that children begin to use 'substance' semantic words but don't yet use connective language such as 'is', 'can', 'too' and 'an'. The telegraphic stage is also the point at which children start to become more expressive when speaking. Here are some examples of sentences children could form via the use of only words and morphemes during the fourth stage of development:

  • 'What that?'

  • 'Cat on bed'

  • 'Me get drink'

  • 'Where mummy?'

  • 'No stay here'

Why is language development important?

Passing through the various stages of language development is critical for any child. This is because language is the primary way for children to communicate with those around them. Completing the four main stages of development allows children to progress into adulthood with the vital skill of verbal communication. Proper language development is also important due to the way that it impacts a child's PIES; their physical, intellectual, emotional and social development.

For example, a child is more emotionally satisfied if they can verbalise how they're feeling. Another example is that children can socialise easier once they can communicate with one another to play games, learn from one another or share. Language development also enables children to think for themselves and to more readily learn about the world around them by reading materials such as books.

Getting a job supporting language development

Getting a job working in language development requires qualifications in the majority of cases. For example, a degree in child development means that you have a better understanding of the ways that children communicate, whereas language sciences and linguistics provide greater insight into the function and mechanics of language itself. Add experience with teaching or working with children and you have an ideal set of skills for working in a language development position, supporting young children in expressing themselves.

Related: How to write a child care CV (and 10 skills to include)

Tips for supporting language development

There are several key things teachers, parents and other influential people in a young person's life can do to support their language development. Each of these further introduces the young person to the environment around them, how to describe it and ultimately how to express themselves. Key tips for supporting language development include:

Speak slowly

When developing a better understanding of language, children take more time when they process what someone says. This not only refers to the sounds that people make when talking but also the link between what someone says and its meaning. Speaking slowly means that you give the child more time to process the information and grasp the meaning of what you say. Talking to young children in a slow and enunciated manner is the foundation of fast understanding.

Use the right words

When talking to a baby, there can be a temptation to use 'baby talk' with them. Whether this is in the form of more fun pronunciations or far simpler wording, limiting your use of 'baby talk' has a range of different benefits. Children learn the adult versions of words over time anyway, and teaching them the right words as early as possible in the language development process saves time later on in life. Using the right words provides a solid foundation for better use of language.

Label the nearby environment

Another beneficial addition to your child's language development process is pointing out items in the world around you. For example, saying 'Look at that dog' when out for a walk or 'Here is your food' when it's time for dinner. The benefits of this are simple, with the level of vocabulary the young person has extending with each thing you point out. Be consistent when doing this, as repetition is one of the best ways of learning something new.

Listen when children talk

When children start to learn to speak, listening to them is paramount. Firstly, having adults listen to them is encouraging for a child, and ensures that they keep trying to express themselves verbally rather than through noise. Similarly, if you listen to the child you have a better chance of improving their vocabulary more quickly, offering corrections when a child uses the wrong words and praising them when they get it right. Childrens' learning works on feedback and listening as much as possible is the first step to providing it.

Related: How to improve your active listening skills

Adjust over time

As a child grows through the different language development stages, ensure that the way you support them adjusts with them. A good example of this is adding to what you say, so instead of 'Look at that dog' consider adding an adjective. Saying 'Look at that friendly dog' adds to the child's vocabulary and helps them to become more expressive as time goes on. A child's language becomes more complex as time goes on, so the way you work with them becomes more complex to keep challenging them.

Answer questions

Children are naturally inquisitive. After all, the majority of things in the world are new to them, so finding out more is a fundamental part of their development. At the telegraphic stage, children string complex sentences together and get better at asking questions, such as 'What that?'. Answering them in a slow and understandable voice adds more information to their existing understanding of the language. Pay close attention to the question itself, as deciphering some two-word questions requires strong listening skills.

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