Skip to content

Expressive or Receptive Language: Which One Comes First?

Expressive or Receptive Language: Which One Comes First?

Have you ever been chatting around your baby or toddler thinking they can’t understand you, but come to find out they could understand you the whole time? Maybe you were watching football and yelling at your team’s quarterback “Throw it! Throw it!” and next thing you know, your baby has picked up whatever he/she can reach and throws it at you.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, when evaluating new clients, I often hear parents say, “my child understands everything, but he just doesn’t talk!” and depending on the child’s age, that’s ok! Why? This is because a child’s Receptive language skills develop before his/her Expressive language skills.


What is Expressive and Receptive Language?

Receptive and Expressive Language work together to help us communicate with one another. Receptive Language refers to how your child comprehends spoken language that he/she hears or reads, while Expressive Language refers to your child’s ability to communicate his/her ideas. Think of it as Receptive language being the language input, and Expressive language the language output.


Receptive language in children includes understanding words, sentences and questions and understanding/following directions. For example, when playing in the backyard with your child, you say to them “kick the ball!” and your child takes a big kick at the soccer ball. Your child’s ability to comprehend this command and carry out that task reflects his/her Receptive language skills.


Expressive language in children involves using gestures, signs, vocalizations and words to express thoughts, wants, and needs. Ask yourself this, how have you known your child was hungry throughout his/her life? Before they could talk, how did kids let their parents know they need food? Your newborn cries, your baby reaches for his/her bottle while babbling, your toddler with excitement yells “me eat!!,” and your school age child may say, “I’m hungry mom.” These are different ways a child may demonstrate his/her Expressive language skills.


So, Which One Comes First? 

There are many important Receptive and Expressive Language Milestones throughout a child’s development that help your little one be an effective communicator. However, Receptive language skills generally develop before Expressive skills. What does this mean? That your toddler understands more than he/she can express. In fact, according to Dr. John Pope of My Health Alberta, babies first develop Receptive language skills as early as in the womb. Your baby begins to hear and respond to familiar sounds and voices while growing in utero

Quickly after birth, babies start to learn Expressive language skills. As discussed earlier, these skills can be as simple as babbling and pointing to desired objects, to saying “want toy!” to express his/her wants and needs. However, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), most babies start to make the connection between sound and meaning around six and nine months.


Why is This Important?

It is important for caregivers and parents to be aware of the relationship between Receptive and Expressive Language and when these skills begin to emerge, so they can best support their child’s development.

Your little one begins listening to you and responding to your voice before he/she is even born. In knowing this information, parents and caregivers can begin to create a language rich environment for their children sooner, and therefore, assist in the growth of the child’s language development from the start.


What Can I Do as a Parent?

There are numerous ways to support your child’s Receptive and Expressive language development from home. Here are five easy things to incorporate into your daily routine:

  1. Self-Talk. Talk out loud about what you are doing. Whether it’s your one-month-old or four-year-old, your child can hear you and begin to connect actions to words when you narrate what you are doing.
  2. Parallel Talk. Talk out loud about what your child is doing. For the same reasons as #1, you will be providing your child with the vocabulary that matches his/her actions.
  3. Repeat words over and over again. This can be through nursery rhymes, songs, or books that repeat the same words. This high volume of a word helps connect words to meanings for your child.
  4. Tell your child what they can say. For example, if your child is looking up at you with his/her arms in the air, we know he/she wants to be picked up. By simply saying “me up” you are providing your child with the words to express his/her want or need to be picked up.
  5. Verbal Routines. Use the same words or phrases for daily routines. You let your child know they are about to have a snack by saying “snack time,” or every night when getting ready for bed you tell your child “Night night- time.”


Reach out to PediaSpeech

Here at PediaSpeech, our team of speech language pathologists have significant experience working with receptive and expressive delays and disorders. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your child’s expressive and/or receptive language skills, reach out to us today!