Receptive language: What It Is & What To Expect

Most of us are familiar with the term language—the ability to use words to communicate with other people. As speech-language therapists and audiologists, though, we break the idea of language down into smaller pieces. First, we clarify between receptive language and expressive language. While expressive language involves the use of language to express our thoughts, feelings, and needs to others, receptive language involves our ability to receive the messages of others. When a child has difficulty understanding the language of others, we say he is having difficulty with receptive language.

We don’t stop there, though. In order to better describe what is going on, we try to figure out whether a child is having difficulty with receptive language semantics or receptive language syntax. Semantics involves language meaning, or vocabulary. If a child is having difficulty understanding what certain words mean, he has difficulty with semantics. For example, if you tell a child to go get his coat and he brings back his shoes, you might assume he has difficulty understanding the word, “coat”. This indicates a difficulty with receptive vocabulary or semantics. Syntax, on the other hand, involves sentence length and grammar.

A child might understand a wide variety of words, but have difficulty following directions when those words are put into longer, more complex sentences. This indicates difficulty with syntax.

Of course, children aren’t born with the ability to understand language. Their receptive language skills unfold over time as they grow and experience the world around them.


Here’s how:

  • Children seem to know that voices are special from almost the moment they are born. Newborns respond differently to human voices, especially the voice of their mother’s, by doing things like sucking faster on a pacifier or calming when they are spoken to.
  • By 3 to 6 months, children will start to turn their eyes or head toward the sound of a voice and will respond to different tones of voice differently – at this age, you’ll notice your little one start to cry if he senses tension in the air. He’ll also begin to understand what you mean when you say, “no,” although he won’t always listen!
  • At nine months, most children understand a few very routine and oft-spoken words such as “bottle,” “mommy,” “daddy” and “bye-bye.” At this age, your baby will also start looking at you when you call him by name.
  • By one year, children already understand up to fifty words that are spoken to them. At this age, your little one will follow very simple directions that he’s heard often. You’ll also notice that he shows you he understands your simple questions like, “do you want to eat?” by crawling (or walking!) to his high chair.
  • By 18 months, your toddler will point out objects and pictures that you name. He’ll also be able to show you simple body parts, and will begin to understand the meaning of action words.
  • By 2 years old, your child will be able to follow more than one direction at a time, such as when you tell him to “get your cup and give it to me.” He’ll also start learning new words very quickly, sometimes after hearing each word only one time!
  • At 3 years old, your child will understand a variety of questions, including “where,” “what” “who” and “why,” He’ll also show you that he comprehends concept words such as color, position, size, and number; for example, he’ll be able to show you the big cup, give you just one cheerio, and put something on the table.
  • At 4 years old, children start to understand “when” and “how” questions and will begin to identify basic shapes such as triangle, circle, and square. At this age, your child will be able to follow more complex directions with two different adjectives in a row, such as “give me the big, blue bowl.” He’ll also be able to listen to stories and answer simple questions about them.
  • By 5 years old, your child should be able to understand the vast majority of what is said to him. He’ll be able to talk about his feelings, will understand time words like before and after, and will answer questions about a story that was just read to him. You’ll be amazed at his ability to understand and participate in basic conversations about his day.
  • Children’s receptive language skills continue to grow throughout the elementary school years. During this time period, they will learn to:
    • Follow up to four different directions given in a row,
    • Listen carefully in groups, and
    • Draw conclusions about information that is presented to them orally.