Expressive language: What It Is & What To Expect

Expressive language refers to a child’s ability to use language to express himself. A child uses expressive language every time he communicates his needs, thoughts, and ideas to others using words, phrases, or sentences. Expressive language, though, is a very broad term. As speech- language therapists, we break expressive language down even further into three distinct parts: semantics, syntax, and morphology. We do this so that we can better describe and treat the core problem.

Some children, for example, may have difficulty with vocabulary. They might not yet have words that they use to communicate with others. Or, they might have a very limited vocabulary. Or, they might be able to use words some of the time, but have trouble “finding” the words other times. These types of difficulties with vocabulary fall into the category of expressive language semantics.

Other children might have difficulty using what we typically think of as “grammar,” or expressive language syntax. These children might use shorter phrases and sentences than we expect for their age. Or, they might have difficulty getting the words in the right order.

Or, they might leave out the small, grammatical parts of language that have important meaning—like the “ing” in “Joey’s walking” or the possessive –s in “Daddy’s shoe. These small, but very important pieces of language are called morphemes; a child who has difficulty using them is having difficulty with morphology.

As children develop expressive language, they typically follow a general pattern of acquisition. In other words, they generally develop expressive language skills one after another, in a certain order, around a certain age.

Here are some of the important milestones for expressive language:
  • Even before their first words, children communicate with the world around them. They start babbling around 6 months and by 9-12 months, they use gestures such as pointing, nodding, and waving.
  • Children usually use their first real word around the age of 12 months. This varies widely, though, so don’t be too worried if your child isn’t talking by one year. Some children take up to 15 months to utter that long-awaited first word, and this is still considered normal.
  • Around 18 months, children usually have about 50-100 words in their expressive vocabulary (the words they are saying out loud). Again, though, this depends on the child—some children only have about 20 words at this age.
  • By 24 months, many children have 200-300 words that they are saying. But some children will just be hitting the 50-word mark, and that’s okay too.
  • Sometime between 18 and 24 months, or whenever a child has 50 words in his expressive vocabulary, he will start using 2-word phrases. You’ll hear him start saying things like, “mama shoe” and “dada walk” and “go outside.” This is a very exciting time, as it usually marks the beginning of a language explosion, when kids start gaining vocabulary very quickly. At this point, it’s usually really hard to keep track of how many words a child has in his vocabulary!
  • At 24-30 months, children start using morphemes, or grammar markers that are added onto words. As they create their sentences, you’ll hear them start using –ing (daddy walking!), plural s (two ducks!), and possessive –s (mommy’s shoe!). They also start using longer sentences by this age, although you’ll still hear lots of mistakes in grammar, or syntax.
  • At 3 years of age, children’s sentence length is growing rapidly. Children this age typically use lots of sentences that are three or four words long; in doing so, they’ll start to amaze you with their own, independent and creative thoughts! Sentences will continue to become more complex and more like adult-like. Children at this age will also start asking lots of questions (this is when the dreaded and oft-used “why” question emerges!), using color words, and using concepts such as big, little, in, on, and under. At 3 years, children usually have somewhere between 550 and 1100 words that they use to communicate with others.
  • By 4-5 years of age, children’s grammar skills really fallen into place. Although they make occasional errors now and then on tricky parts of language such as irregular past tense verbs (I ran instead of I runned), most of their sentences have four or more words in them and are generally correct. At this age, your child will be able to tell you about things that happened to him at a friend’s house or preschool in a way that you and others can easily understand.
  • By 5-7 years of age, children have an expressive vocabulary of 3000-5000 words and are starting to tell simple stories, using the correct order of events. They can also participate pretty well in basic conversations, and can accurately answer questions about things that happened to them.
  • Your child’s expressive language skills will continue to develop throughout the elementary school years. As they grow, children learn to do things such as:
    • Give multi-step directions,
    • Entertain and persuade peers using their language,
    • Stay on topic in conversation for longer periods of time,
    • Use figurative language,
    • Give oral presentations, and
    • Participate in and report on group learning.

Remember that these milestones are general in nature—there is much more to each age than meets the eye (or the ear!). Speech-language pathologists have extensive and detailed knowledge about expressive language at each age and are able to assess each area carefully and fully. Also remember that children vary widely in their development of language. If your child isn’t meeting these milestones, it doesn’t mean that he has a language delay for sure. However, if you have concerns, talk to your pediatrician about a speech-language evaluation—only a speech- language therapist can assess whether or not your child has a true language disorder.

Paul, R. (2007). Language Disorders from Infancy Through Adolescence: St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsvier.