Vocabulary and language development at 3-4 years
Your child learns lots of new words by listening to you and other adults and guessing from context. He also learns from new experiences and from listening to stories read out loud. He’ll still understand many more words than he says.
Your child will learn and use a lot more connecting words – for example, ‘because’, ‘and’, ‘if’. She’ll also learn more and more number words, names for groups of things – for example, ‘vegetables’, ‘animals’ – and family terms – for example, ‘aunty’, ‘brother’. She might be able to name basic emotions like ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’.
By four years, your child might know one or more colours and some contrasting concepts like ‘longer’ and ‘bigger’.
Sentences and grammar in language development
Your child might begin to use more complex sentences that include words like ‘because’, ‘so’, ‘if’ and ‘when’ – for example, ‘I don’t like that because it’s yucky’.
He’ll show that he understands the basic rules of language. And he’ll often apply these rules strictly across all examples, not realising how often English breaks its own rules. For example, ‘He runned away’ or ‘There were lots of sheeps’.
By this age, your child might be using ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘me’ correctly. Your child might confuse the use of negatives – for example, when asked if she doesn’t want to go to the park, she might respond by saying, ‘I don’t not want to go’.
At this age, your child might tell stories that follow a theme and often have a beginning and end. He’ll often need a lot of prompting from grown-ups to keep the story moving. For example, ‘And what did the cat do then?’
Your child might reason, predict things and start to express empathy. She’ll also use lots of ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ questions to find out more about her world – so try to be patient!
As your child gets closer to four, he might start conversations using questions like ‘Guess what?’ He’ll talk about a wider range of things, as well as more abstract and complex topics. For example, ‘If it keeps raining, will we have to build a boat to get to Grandma’s?’
By age four, most adults will understand your child, although your child might not pronounce some of her words the right way. She might still have trouble pronouncing words that include the sounds ‘l’, ‘th’ or ‘r’.
Understanding and language development
When your child doesn’t understand what’s said to him, he might ask for an explanation, or ask what specific words mean.
Your child will understand instructions that have more than two steps, as long as they’re about familiar things – for example, ‘Turn off the TV, put on your pyjamas and get into bed’ or ‘When I open the gate, take my hand, then we’ll walk down to the corner’.
Also, your child will understand questions most of the time, especially if they’re about something that’s happening right now, or that she can see. She’ll understand slightly complicated explanations, as long as she can see the results herself. For example, she’ll understand an explanation like, ‘When the sun shines on things, it makes them hot. Feel how warm the water in the dog’s bowl is from being in the sun?’
By four, your child might be able to understand expressions of emotion like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘mad’ or ‘surprised’.
Play, communication and language development
By now, your child will be able to do some simple negotiation with other children. For example, he’ll be able to discuss who’ll play with a certain toy first.
At around four years, your child might even be able to explain why she wants an object from another child – for example, ‘Can I have the green pencil? I want to colour in the grass’.
And at this age, your child will begin to use language in role play. For example, he can pretend to be ‘daddy’ and imitate his father’s tone and words. Your child might also create imaginary characters.
Children grow and develop at different rates. The information in this article is offered as a guide only. If you’re at all concerned about your child’s language development, speak with your GP, child and family health nurse or other health professional. If your health professional doesn’t have concerns about your child, but you still do, it’s OK to get another opinion.