What It Is and 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, we break the idea of language into smaller pieces. Receptive language involves our ability to receive the messages of others. When a child has difficulty understanding the language of others, we say they are having difficulty with receptive language.
We don’t stop there, though. We determine whether a child struggles with receptive language semantics or syntax to describe better what is happening. Semantics involves language meaning or vocabulary. If a child has difficulty understanding what certain words mean, they struggle with semantics. For example, if you tell a child to go get their coat, and they bring back their shoes, you might assume they have difficulty understanding the word “coat.” This indicates a problem 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 a problem with syntax.
Of course, children aren’t born with the ability to understand language. Instead, their receptive language skills unfold over time as they grow and experience the world around them.
How children develop receptive language:
3 - 6 months
By 3 to 6 months, children will start to turn their eyes or head toward the sound of a voice and respond to different tones of voice differently – at this age, you'll notice your little one start to cry if they sense the tension in the air. They'll also understand what you mean when you say "no," although they won't always listen!
At nine months, most children understand a few common 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 spoken words. At this age, your little one can follow simple, familiar directions. You'll also notice that they understand simple questions. For example, they may respond by walking or crawling to their high chair when you ask, "do you want to eat?
By 18 months, your toddler will point out objects and pictures you name. They'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 can follow multiple directions, such as when you tell them to "get your cup and give it to me." They'll also start learning new words quickly, sometimes after hearing each word only once!
At 3 years old, your child will understand a variety of questions, including those beginning with "where," "what," "who," and "why." They'll also show you they comprehend concept words like color, position, size, and number. So, for example, they can show you the big cup or give you the yellow car.
At 4 years old, children start to understand "when" and "how" questions and will begin to identify basic shapes such as triangles, circles, and squares. At this age, your child can follow more complex directions with two different adjectives in a row, such as "give me the big, blue bowl." They'll also be able to listen to stories and answer simple questions about them.
By 5 years old, your child should understand most of what is said to them. They'll be able to talk about their feelings, understand time words like before and after, and answer questions about a story just read to them. You'll be amazed at their ability to understand and participate in basic conversations about their day.