What Every Parent Should Know About Language Acquisition Milestones and Speech Disorders

Parents marvel at their young children’s attempts to learn language by imitating and experimenting. An infant’s cooing and a toddler’s early words are signs of healthy language acquisition that every parent is delighted to hear. But when children fail to meet milestones, speech-language therapy and other forms of treatment may be necessary.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders program.

How speech and language disorders can be recognized and treated.

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Milestones in Language Acquisition

Young children naturally pick up sounds, words, and sentences as they learn how to speak. For parents, the process is full of excitement, surprise, and joy.

How Children Learn Language

People are born with the ability to produce 40 sounds, and human genetics enable the brain to make associations between sounds and ideas, objects, or actions. As such, young children are able to learn, practice, and learn. When it comes to language, people don’t learn it passively. Instead, language acquisition occurs through active, repetitive, and complex learning.

Children won’t learn how to speak by just hearing language from the TV or radio. Interaction is important, and adults help children learn language through tactics like baby talk, active listening, and repetitive instruction. Baby talk is helpful because it contains simpler vocabulary and sentence structure, exaggerated intonation and sounds, repetition, and questions. When it’s used by adults with infants and toddlers it’s always just a bit ahead of the child’s own language development, helping to advance the child’s skills.

Stages of Language Acquisition

Babies will coo and make sounds showing pleasure or displeasure from birth to 5 months. This shifts to babbling, saying “mama” or “dada” without understanding meaning, trying to repeat sounds, and saying their first word between 6 to 11 months. At 12 to 17 months, they’ll give nonverberal replies and say two to three words to name an object or person. They’ll start asking for common foods by name at 18 to 23 months, and they’ll also make animal sounds, speak short phrases, or begin using pronouns like “mine” during that time.

At 2 to 3 years, toddlers will start using pronouns, question inflections, and plurals. They’ll also start answering simple questions and they’ll know descriptive words and spatial concepts. When they reach 3 to 4 years, they’ll be able to identify colors, express feelings,  group objects, and use active action verbs. They’ll also use most speech sounds, although they may struggle with some sounds. At 4 to 5 years, they’ll begin to understand complicated questions, use some irregular past tense verbs, describe certain actions, and answer “why questions.” They’ll also struggle to pronounce long, complex, or difficult words.

Speech and Language Disorders: Symptoms and Causes

If a caregiver rarely spoke with the child, or if the child was born with biological problems, the child may struggle with hearing, making associations between sight and sound, or paying attention, leading to language delays that may develop into disorders.

What Are Cognitive-Communication Disorders?

An individual with a cognitive-communication disorder may struggle to properly speak, listen, read, write, and interact in social studies. Children may also struggle with memory, learning, attention, and executive functioning.

Speech and Language Disorders

One speech disorder category is articulation disorders, marked by difficulty pronouncing certain consonants or vowels correctly, like the letters “s” and “r.” In most cases, the cause is unknown. However, they may be caused by brain damage or disorders, physical disabilities, poor coordination of muscles in the mouth, or dental problems.

Another category, vocal disorders, is marked by issues with the quality, pitch, and/or volume of the voice. Causes may include overuse and strain, reflux, or brain injury.

A third category, fluency disorders or rhythm disorders, is marked by speaking in an uneven rhythm. For instance, they may repeat or add words or sounds when speaking, pause in the middle of phrases, frequently correct their pronunciation, or stutter.

How Language and Speech Disorders are Treated

Children with language delays may simply need extra attention to help them advance their language and speaking skills. Others, however, may be diagnosed with disorders and require personalized treatment.

How Language and Speech Disorders Are Screened and Diagnosed

There is a diagnostic process to determine the presence of a language or speech disorder. First, a physician performs a full medical examination to rule out other conditions like a hearing problem or a sensory impairment.

If the exam fails to reveal a particular health condition, then a speech-language professional conducts a screening that may include gathering information from parents and/or teachers to learn about the child’s speech/language difficulties, administering formal screening assessments, using informal measures, and conducting an articulation screening.

Depending on the screening’s results, the child may either be recommended for a complete audiologic assessment, a comprehensive language assessment, or a comprehensive speech sound assessment.

Treatments for Language and Speech Disorders

Language therapy may involve one-on-one treatment sessions with a speech-language therapist. Special education services may be provided for children ages 3 and older. This treatment addresses several metrics, including speech sounds, language, literacy, social communication, voice, fluency, and cognitive-communication.

Careers in Speech and Language

One key career in speech and language is the role of speech-language pathologist. Responsibilities include assessing levels of speech, language, or swallowing difficulty; recommending treatment options; helping children and adults improve their speaking and writing abilities; and providing counseling to individuals to help them cope with issues.

Another key career is the role of audiologist. Responsibilities for this role include examining patients with hearing, balance, or other ear problems; diagnosing issues after exam analysis; recommending and administering treatment; and evaluating and recording patient progress.

An Important Conversation to Have

Parents who notice speech or language abnormalities in their children’s attempts to communicate should seek professional treatment. With the help of qualified speech-language professionals, children can improve their language and speaking abilities.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, The Practice Portal

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Who Are Speech-Language Pathologists, and What Do They Do?

Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Cognitive Communication Disorders

Healthline, Language Disorder

Linguistic Society of America, FAQ: Language Acquisition

Scholastic, How Young Children Learn Language

Stanford Children’s Health, Age-Appropriate Speech and Language Milestones

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Audiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Speech Language Pathologists

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