Children learn language at different rates and it is extremely difficult for professionals to identify language delays in young children because the range of what is considered "normal" language development is so wide. However, overall, it is generally found that boys develop language comprehension (understanding) and production (speech) a little slower than do girls.
Children learn to understand language before they can speak it. Children who have good receptive language by 25 months of age generally have more vocabulary as they grow through their early childhood years and show better language abilities at school up to around age eight. Having a good understanding of language is also linked to improvements in reading (literacy) at an early age.
At some point, when children have gained enough understanding of language, they will begin to produce words. Girls tend to say their first words earlier than boys, speak more clearly, use longer sentences and generally demonstrate better fluency.
Learning language begins from birth (or even before birth) when children are surrounded in a rich language environment. It is important that the language babies hear is relevant to them - putting the radio or TV on and creating background speech does not create a rich language environment.
Rather, babies need interaction with others - a kind of serve and return interaction where they send out a message (turning the head away to indicate I've had enough of this) that the interaction partner recognises and responds to appropriately (okay, I'll stop playing peek a boo and bring you close to me for a quiet cuddle instead). Words gradually get linked to meaning when we use them consistently and speak them clearly.
As toddlers begin to use words, it is important we provide correct models for them to copy but we do not tell them that they are wrong nor ask them to repeat the word/phrase correctly. If we insist on correcting children's spoken words and phrases, we actually discourage them from interac
ting with us. Given they learn through these interactions, that can significantly disadvantage children. It is better to focus on extending a "conversation", taking the opportunity to provide a correct model for children to hear, but putting more effort into encouraging children to tell us more.
It is best to follow the leads children give us and expand/model.
Child: Look. Look. Sheeps
Adult: Yes, I can see lots of sheep in the paddock. (Model the correct word, and add something - a new word, paddock - but leaving options open for the child to respond in a lot of different ways. Compare this to a question - what colour are the sheep? - which limits the choices the child has to respond.)
Child: Sheeps. Lots of sheeps.
Adult: Yes, there are lots of sheep. I can see some lying down and some standing up (again model the correct word and add something new - the idea of standing up and lying down. This leaves the options open for the child to answer in lots of different ways - the child can follow the lead offered or take the conversation in another direction)
Child: Sheep - wool. Mummy make wool
Adult: Yes, sheep give us wool and your mummy made the wool into a jumper for you. (Follow the lead the child has provided and expand on it, modelling the correct language)
Child: Mummy, jumper
Adult: You wore the jumper mummy knitted you yesterday. It was lovely and warm. (stay with the child's interest and expand)
Compare this interaction and the learning opportunities offered to the child (not just language but knowledge about the world) with the following:
Child: Look. Look. Sheeps
Adults: They are sheep. Say sheep
Child: Look sheeps, sheeps
Adult: No, they are sheep
Child runs away to play elsewhere, so any further opportunities for learning are lost.
A lot of research suggests that boys are more likely to play together in large groups whereas girls are more likely to play with a 'best friend'. Boys are less likely to have rich interactions with early childhood educators as they spend their time in vigorous activity.
This suggests that girls are more likely to experience the rich interactions necessary for language development as they interact with a friend in a dyad or small group, and with educators, and this difference in socialisation might contribute towards the differences observed in the language skills of young boys and girls.
Thus, it is really important that the adults and older siblings in the lives of young children have as many interesting child-led conversations as they can, remembering to model language and offer new information, but all the time, follow the young child's lead to ensure the child is engaged and interested.