Basics of Speech and Language Development

Gift of Gab provides speech and language therapy, evaluations, and workshops all over New York City. We as speech-language pathologists believe it is never too early to promote speech and language skills in our children. Development starts in utero where children begin to memorize sounds and melodies, so feel free to sing and read stories to your baby in the womb. This development continues on into the initial days of infancy where children prefer the voice of their mother and can perceive a person’s emotion based on intonation and pitch. Speech and language development then of course continues throughout childhood. Even as adults we are learning new vocabulary for new skills or jobs every day. The purpose of this article is to introduce the different categories of speech and language and our following articles will target specific techniques for certain age groups starting with infancy.

Language Expression

Language production is expressive language. It can be verbal (producing words) or nonverbal (gestures such as pointing). Children learn vocabulary through natural models of language and interactions with others. Different types of vocabulary include names of people, food, toys, objects, verbs, greetings, rejection such as “no”, recurrence such as “more”, etc. As time goes on, your child begins to join words to form short phrases and sentences. As children mature, other components of language such as syntax (the order in which words are put in) and morphology (skills such as plurals and tense markers) are also put into the mix. Expressive language skills allow children to request what is desired, ask for help, get other people’s attention, comment, etc. Overall, we want to support all of our children to make meaningful contributions in their everyday environment.

Language Reception

This is basically understanding language. Skills include: following commands, pointing to pictures in books when asked to, pointing to the correct body part, and comprehending concepts such as prepositions, size, color, length, quantity, etc. Receptive language also involves answering who, what, where, and when questions as well as more complex questions such as why and how. Yes/no questions are also a target among other skills. By being able to understand, children are able to manipulate their environment, be a part of group activities, and function in a social setting such as a daycare.


A more simple term we can use is social skills. This category of language is often taken for granted because it involves simple skills such as responding to one’s name, eye contact, initiating play with someone appropriately, greeting someone when they walk into a room, etc. Higher level pragmatic skills include changing the manner in which you speak (eg – friends versus adults), introducing a topic, maintaining a conversation, solving communication breakdowns, judging facial expressions, etc. Appropriate pragmatic skills allow your child to create relationships and maintain friendships.


The foundations of language and cognition are formed during play. Stacking blocks, doing puzzles, and playing with cause and effect toys (eg – Jack in the Box), for example, are activities that represent the very beginning of problem-solving skills. Even the skill of object permanence is crucial where you child searches for hidden objects (eg – under a blanket). Parallel play (children playing next to each other) and pretend play also develop later on. You must observe whether your child is taking turns appropriately, using objects in the correct manner, etc. Play is the ultimate way your child uses their imagination!


This is how speech sounds are produced. It is common for children to change the way a consonant or vowel should be produced to make it easier to say. Children may exhibit sound substitutions (produces “tootie” for “cookie”), omissions (produces “ca” for “cat”), distortions (produces “thee” for “see”, which would be a lisp), and additions (produces “gureen” for “green”). Some errors can be age-appropriate while others are not.


When we speak we use our breath and the vibration of our vocal folds to produce sounds. Occasionally, issues arise when children use an extremely loud voice or scream often, in other words, abusing their vocal folds. This could lead to hoarseness in their voice.


Simply put, this is the rhythm of speech. Many people use the word “stuttering” when their child’s speech is not fluent. The child may be hesitating, repeating words or parts of words/phrases/sentences, prolonging sounds, or “getting stuck”. Many dysfluencies that children experience can be normal, but it is important to consult a professional in order for them to make the appropriate determination.

We hope you enjoyed the introduction to speech and language development and we look forward to sharing various techniques with you! All children develop at different rates, but there are standardized norms, which allow us to determine if children as young as infants have delays. This series of articles will teach you not only how to promote speech and language, but to notice warning signs so that you can contact a speech and language pathologist as early as possible. Gift of Gab will of course be there to answer any questions along the way!