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The Language Development of a 3-Year-Old

author image Lisa Sefcik
Lisa Sefcik has been writing professionally since 1987. Her subject matter includes pet care, travel, consumer reviews, classical music and entertainment. She's worked as a policy analyst, news reporter and freelance writer/columnist for Cox Publications and numerous national print publications. Sefcik holds a paralegal certification as well as degrees in journalism and piano performance from the University of Texas at Austin.
The Language Development of a 3-Year-Old
A pair of toddlers talk to each other on a trail. Photo Credit: Nadezhda1906/iStock/Getty Images

The first three years of your child's life are the most "intense period" of language and speech development, says the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders. This time is characterized by cognitive development that includes certain speech and language milestones–what the NIDCD describes as a "timetable" during which time receptive, expressive and speech skills are acquired in specific progression. The NIDCD and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association looks for language acquisition between specific age ranges. In between 2 and 3 years of age, your toddler should exhibit the language development below.

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Receptive Language Skills

Receptive language refers to how well your child is able to understand what is communicated to him. ASHA notes that between the ages of 2 and 3, your child will acquire receptive language skills that allow him to understand words with different meanings, such as "stop/go," and to comprehend spatial relationships, such as "in/on/under," as well as descriptors, such as "happy" and "cold." She can follow such simple, two-part commands as, "Get your cup and put it on the table." She also recognizes pronouns when spoken, such as "you" or "her," and she attends to story-telling for increasingly longer periods of time.

Expressive Language Skills

Expressive language refers to how well your child is able to communicate thoughts, ideas and feelings verbally and nonverbally. ASHA indicates that a child between 2 and 3 years of age "has a word for almost everything" and can ask for items by name. Additionally, he is able to string together short two- and three-word phrases in response to questions and to make requests. Use of pronouns such as "I" and "you" emerges during this time. You may also notice that your child starts to use a question inflection at the end of simple sentences, for example, "Where kitty?" He may use plural nouns ("shoes") and past-tense verbs ("jumped").

Speech Skills

Speech refers to the physical process entailed in verbal communication and is comprised of articulation (use of correct speech sounds), fluency (which ASHA describes as the "rhythm of speech") and coordinated use of vocal folds and breath. Between the ages of 2 and 3 years, your child's speech will reflect a finer degree of accuracy, but she may still leave off final word sounds. Familiar listeners, such as parents and close family members and other caretakers, can understand her speech, although it might not be clear to unfamiliar listeners. ASHA notes that your child acquires more challenging consonants, specifically: /k/, /g/, /t/, /d/ and /n/.


ASHA is careful to point out that the above milestones apply to monolingual English speakers. Your child may not have acquired each and every skill appropriate to her general age group, but this does not mean that she has a language disorder. If your child has not achieved the majority of the language and speech skills appropriate for her chronological age, ASHA advises seeking a consultation with a certified speech-language pathologist (see Resources), so that your child can be formally evaluated using standardized testing.

Getting Help

If your 3-year-old functions considerably below same-age peers, he or she may have a speech and/or language disorder. A child with age-appropriate speech skills can have a receptive language disorder, an expressive language disorder or both. Similarly, a child with a speech disorder–a 3-year-old who stutters or lisps–can have receptive and expressive language skills that are perfectly intact. Speech and language disorders can be mild, moderate or severe. Once diagnosed by a speech-language therapist, subsequent therapy sessions can improve your child's overall communication skills.

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