Your baby’s first steps toward learning to speak

Your baby is born ready to learn language! His brain has special structures that enable him to learn about sounds, words and sentences when you speak to him.

What do we know?

Even before he was born, he learned to recognize your voice and wanted to listen to you. Language develops in three areas:

  • speech sounds
  • words or vocabulary
  • sentence structure or grammar

Your child may learn at a different rate in each area.

Speech sounds

Your baby learns a lot about the sounds of language in his first year. From the day he is born, he can hear almost any speech sound. As early as 5 months old, your baby already understands some new words. From the age of six months on, he will try to communicate and start initiating exchanges. In his first six months of life, he will start gesturing when he cries, babbling and playing by making sounds.

By the end of the first year, your baby will pay special attention to sounds that are important in the language or languages that you speak. He will ignore sounds that are not used in your language.

By the time your baby is one year old, he should also be babbling, making sounds that begin with a consonant and a vowel. He will later repeat these syllables (for example, ‘bababa’ and ‘mamama’). These are the foundation for the first real words that your baby will say.

By the end of his first year, your baby will start to master the basics of language. He will say his first words as he becomes more curious, as he develops his senses and can move around freely.

Your baby may not say his first words correctly, but a stranger should be able to understand half of what he says at age 2, and all of what he says at age 4.

Vocabulary skills

Your baby’s vocabulary skills develop very quickly. Babies can understand some words as early as five months and will say their first word between 10 and 12 months.

A child's vocabulary usually includes about 50 words at 18 months, 100 words at 20 months and 14,000 words at six years.

Sentence structure and grammar
  • Your child will begin to put two, then three and more words together into short sentences at approximately 24 months of age.
  • Your child will start to make complex sentences some time before age 2 and will have learned this skill by age 4.
  • Your child can learn some of the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that go with those letters before he begins kindergarten. This will help him learn to read.
  • Your four year old can learn that words such as ‘boat’ and bear’ start with the same sound or that the words like ‘rat’ and ‘cat’ rhyme.
  • One child might make a lot of speech errors but have a large vocabulary. Another child might speak clearly but have trouble understanding what people say.

Problems with language development should never be ignored. Language delay can last a long time and lead to other kinds of problems that may need treatment.


The Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development identifies and summarizes the best scientific work on the social and emotional development of young children. It disseminates this knowledge to a variety of audiences in formats and languages adapted to their needs.

For more information about any of these stages, refer to the website. Be sure to refer to the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, which provides a great deal of information about all the important social and emotional milestones in a child’s life.

Language: Your baby's first step toward learning to speak. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, Boivin M, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2010. Available online. Accessed 2011 January 15th .

Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD)

The mandate of the CEECD is to foster the dissemination of scientific knowledge on the development of young children with an emphasis, but not exclusively, on the social and emotional development and on the services and policies that influence this development.

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