Speech & Language Development: Early Milestones

Parents often come to our preschool with concerns about their child’s speech and language skills. We began addressing those questions by exploring the difference between speech and language; it's also helpful to understand what we can reasonably expect of a child's communication skills in their early years. Milestones like those outlined below help determine whether a child is developing at a typical pace. Keep in mind that the milestones outlined below are only general guidelines. A child may develop speech and language skills more slowly than what’s described here without having any significant effect on their long term development or academic success. 

When does speech and language learning begin?

Language development begins in the womb. Scientists have evidence that before a child is even born, she’s listening to her mother and processing the sounds that will become her native language. By the time a child is born they can tell the difference between their native and foreign languages.

What facilitates speech and language development, and what causes developmental delays?

Exposure to language is crucial to speech and language development. The more exposure a child has to adults who are speaking and reading to him, the faster they will learn. Language development can be delayed if a child has a developmental disorder like autism, and speech delays can be the result of physical impairments like hearing loss. Early intervention is the best way to address developmental delays. 

Milestones: Within the First Year

Hearing & Language Comprehension

  • Startles to loud noises
  • Recognizes the sound of your voice
  • Eyes move in the direct of sounds
  • Attentive to music
  • Enjoys simple games like peek-a-boo

  • Recognizes words for simple objects

  • Begins responding to simple requests


  • Makes different sounds for different needs with an increasing range of sounds and syllables
  • Makes sounds to express pleasure, including laughter
  • Responds vocally to environmental stimuli

  • Communicates with Gestures

  • Imitates speech sounds

  • May have one or two very simple words like “dog” or “mama”

During the first year, you can help your child’s speech and language development by imitating his actions and vocalizations. When you imitate your baby’s actions like clapping or waving, you introduce the turn-taking pattern necessary for conversation. You can also narrate your everyday activities for your child. For example, when you’re driving to the store, you can talk about where you’re going and what you’re doing. These small opportunities to expose your child to as much language as possible have a proven, positive impact on their success in later years.

Milestones: 12 to 24 Months

Hearing & Language Comprehension

  • Understands simple questions and commands

  • Points to objects or pictures in books when asked

  • Understands and follows simple requests


  • Expanding vocabulary

  • Begins combining words

  • Begins asking very simple questions

During year two, you can facilitate your child’s language development by expanding on their words. If a child says “big dog”, you can acknowledge and encourage their efforts with “You’re right! We both see a big dog in the yard.” You can also take time to read to your child each day, making sure to discuss the pictures and words introduced on each page.

Milestones: 24 to 36 Months

Hearing & Language Comprehension

  • Able to understand two-part requests
  • Attentive to stories for longer periods of time


  • Communicates using two or three words.
  • Names objects
  • Asks “Why?”

During year three, you can encourage your child’s speech and language development through activities like counting fingers and toes, identifying and talking about the colors of objects around you, and singing songs to develop a deeper understanding of the rhythms of language.

You can start today.

The good news is that parents already have much of what they need to help their children.


Some kids will need professional help to improve their learning, but in the first years parents can do a great deal to encourage language development by just making an effort to speak and read to their children as much as possible.

Learn more about JFTN's Speech and Language intervention services