Preschool Language Development

Language is unique to man and is the highest human achievement. Language is the basis of communication, and is used for three main purposes:


Firstly, it is a means of communication. You can use language to convey information, feelings and thoughts. You can also identify relationships with others and influence thoughts and actions of others, through language. Secondly, language is used to develop our thought processes.


Language ability influences our ability to learn, remember and understand. It is important to be able to label, classify and categorise objects – eg. bus is transport. Thirdly, language aids in the transmission of culture - we are able to learn and gain knowledge from past generations.


Learning a language is a development of successive skills. A young child begins to understand people and develops listening skills. The child’s first cries, babbles and gestures lead to true speaking skills. The child learns vocabulary and learns grammar rules. Then the child’s ability to comprehend develops and he learns to produce verbal symbols. The child then learns to change verbal symbols for visual ones. Thus the child learns to read, write and spell.


Through a child’s first six years, many factors can influence the development of these skills. The three major factors are heredity, maturation and environment.


It is important to always remember that every child is an individual, and develops at their own pace. This development usually follows the same stages and milestones, and in the same order. Children grow and learn continually, but not in a smooth flowing pattern. Sometimes they practise skills for quite a while and seem as if they will never move on. At other times they learn many skills very quickly.


Some children are slower than others (developmentally delayed) but catch up with time. Other children, however, may have an underlying difficulty that causes their delayed development, and they may not catch up. It is important for these children to get as much treatment (early intervention) as possible. So if you are concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, see your nurse or doctor for help without delay. If in doubt, it is better to have your concerns checked than to ‘wait and see’.


The guidelines below represent the development of an average pre school child:


Four years

  • Makes a few grammatical errors
  • Asks endless questions
  • Uses words “How?” and “Why?”
  • Likes to play with words – eg. rhyming
  • Understands “who?”, “when” and “what?”
  • Speaking vocabulary of 1,000 words

Four and a half years

  • Few articulation errors
  • Repeats 4 digits
  • Speaking vocabulary of 1,500 words
  • Uses comparative (-eg. bigger) and superlative(eg. biggest)

Five years

  • Speech is intelligible
  • Answers questions directly
  • Asks relevant questions
  • Asks for information
  • Uses all types of sentences – eg. questions, commands
  • Uses conjunctions – eg. but, and
  • Uses complex sentences
  • Speaking vocabulary of 2,200 words
  • Forms nouns –eg painter, postman, pianist

Five and a half years

  • Knows month of birthday
  • Repeats 4 – 5 digits
  • Uses past tense
  • Can hold a long, sensible conversation

Six years

  • Knows day and month of birthday
  • Repeats 5 digits
  • Understands passive, opposites
  • Understands and uses negative
  • Uses complex grammatical structures

References:  Cohen, L :  1987


Michelle Servant


BA Speech and Hearing ( Wits University)
MA Linguistics (Stellenbosch University)
Speech and Language Therapist
Cedarwood School, Johannesburg.


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