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What to expect as children's talking develops, and understanding language delay.

Children all learn language in their own individual ways. There are many factors that influence how they communicate:

  • who talks with them and how
  • what encouragement they get
  • how people listen to them
  • what environments they spend time in
  • what languages they hear
  • how well their hearing is developing
  • their individual temperaments
  • their experiences and so on.

There may be times when you are supporting a family where you wonder if the child is reaching normal developmental milestones as far as language is concerned. It may be useful to refer back to earlier stages, in particular Language and communication skills (25–36 months).

Parents often need reassurance that children understand a lot more than they can say. This continues throughout life. Think of yourself as an adult trying to learn another language. Initially you’re likely to be able to understand a lot more than you can confidently speak.

What is a language delay?

When children’s talking or understanding is not usual for their age, because they’re much less able than their same age peers, they may have a language delay.

Issues may occur with saying first words or learning words, putting words together to make sentences, building and extending their vocabulary and understanding words or sentences.

By about 3 years old a child can usually make little sentences like ‘Help me Mummy’, or ‘Want more drink’. They can usually understand instructions with 2 or more parts like ‘Get your shoes and put them on the shelf’. Or they’re able to understand and answer questions like ‘What do you want to eat for lunch today?’ They take an interest in books and can ask and answer questions about them.

Now you’re talking

By 4 years old, children usually understand more complex language. They can ask lots of questions, learn new words, use short simple sentences, enjoy simple jokes, take part in make-believe play sequences, and understand many more words and ideas.

They may have also learned 'parentese' from hearing their parents and whānau use it when talking with babies and younger children, and you may hear 4-year-olds speaking in this way to younger children or baby dolls during play – maybe even to the whānau pets!

If needed, revisit Communication (0–6 months) and Parentese – what pēpi loves to hear.

Adults can encourage language development by:

  • giving tamariki plenty of time and attention
  • keeping calm and making reading and talking with them enjoyable experiences
  • involving them in interesting and relevant conversations.

Helping if there are concerns

Refer to Ara mātua ages 3–4, Ara mātua ages 4–5 and Te kōrero me to whakarongo — Talking and listening for ideas that can be used to encourage whānau to support their child’s language development.

If there seems to be a language delay, refer back to the previous Ara mātua 19–24 months where you may find the level more relevant.

Much more than words(external link), produced by the Ministry of Education, is a comprehensive downloadable booklet of information on children’s language development. Page 9 has a list of what language development you would expect at 4 years old, and tips for adults to support their tamariki.

Children who have difficulties with language need help as early as possible. Parents are the best judge of their child’s language development. If they’re concerned, encourage them to speak with their GP, Tamariki Ora Well Child health nurse, the child’s early childhood teacher or a speech language therapist.

If there are still concerns, for more advice contact the Ministry of Education on 0800 622 222, or your local Ministry of Education office.

Other resources

Nourishing our babies; why listening and talking matter | Brainwave Trust(external link)

Language delay | Raising Children Australia(external link)