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Bilingual English and Auslan Development Scale

This scale has been developed to help parents, educators and others to understand the milestones children achieve when they are acquiring Auslan and English as first languages. The developmental stages presented in this scale are fundamental to most languages, so if your home language is not English, this scale is still useful for understanding and recording a child’s bilingual development in speech and sign. The section ‘Pragmatic language skills’ refers to the way children communicate, regardless of which language is used. Recording these skills can be useful to indicate how your child communicates with you and others.  

Your child will not always fit neatly into one discrete stage, so don’t worry if skills are scattered over two or more stages as language is acquired – this is quite normal. Children acquire language at different rates, so don’t be concerned if your child’s skills don’t always increase in 3 or 6 months increments. Also, with bilingual development, you may find that, at times, skills in one language are stronger than the other – again, this is normal for bilingual development.  

You can choose which way is best for you to record your child’s communication skills with this scale, either by writing the date in the columns beside the skills  or by using the colour-coded system suggested at the end of the scale. Highlighting the language item in a particular colour for each observation date can provide a quick and effective overview of your child’s communication and language development and can show patterns of development at a glance. (Download PDF of the Bilingual English and Auslan Development Scale to record your child's progress)
0-3 months
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • coos
  • vocal play
  • cries, smiles to express needs
  • turns towards speaker
  • manual movements
  • moves arms/legs to communicate
  • cries, smiles, to express needs
  • turns towards signer
  • responds to familiar touch, voices, faces
  • smiles
  • quietens and looks intently at familiar voices/faces

3-6 months
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • vocalizes to stimuli
  • says 'm'; makes mouth movements when talked to
  • syllable-like vocal play, with long vowels
  • uses voice to make contact with people and to keep their attention
  • starts to respond to name
  • starts to copy signs, gestures
  • uses facial expressions to communicate
  • manual movements show emergence of rhythm
  • uses gestures to attract and maintain attention, request, refuse, reject

  • smiles, takes turns, attends to faces
  • laughs to express pleasure
  • cries at angry voices and faces
  • maintains eye contact
  • puts arms up to be lifted
  • copies facial expressions; reaches towards objects

6-9 months
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • canonical (‘reduplicated’) babbling, eg. ‘baba’, ‘gaga’
  • vocalizes for attention
  • uses voice to join in with familiar rhyme/game
  • recognizes and responds to own name
  • voice tuneful and expressive, starting to have tone and rhythm
  • manually babbles, using rhythmic hand movements, eg. repeated opening & closing, tapping
  • uses hand movements for attention
  • uses gestures to join in with familiar rhyme/game
  • responds to visual and tactile attention-gaining strategies
  • likes attention
  • plays Peek-a-boo
  • points to request
  • uses two gestures or gesture and vocalization to: attract attention, ask for things, refuse
  • becomes excited when taking turns

9-12 months
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • uses voice to direct attention to objects people and self
  • variegated babbling
  • imitates new speech sounds
  • approximates words
  • gestures and points
  • understands approximately 10-12 words

  • uses gesture/sign to direct attention to objects, people and self
  • manually babbles with more rhythm
  • imitates familiar signs, eg. mummy, milk, eat
  • approximates signs - simple handshapes
  • understands approximately 10-12 signs
  • begins to point to objects, self and others close by
  • makes it clear through gesture, sign or vocalization when they want something to happen again

12-18 months
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • intonation and jargon babbling
  • makes animal sounds (12-15 months)
  • longer vocalisations have recognisable words and sounds, but meaning is unclear
  • vocalisations sound more like speech
  • plays vocal games with adult, copies their sounds

  • first handshapes: flat, point, spread, fist, good, cup, 1 handed O’
first handshakes

  • ‘proximalization’ common
  • location mostly correct; movement correct approximately 50% of the time, handshapes correct less than 25% of the time (depending on complexity of sign
  • imitates other children
  • initiates routines
  • uses words/signs to: request information; label; comment; respond; greet; call
  • responds to adult conversation but often not topically contingent
  • chatters/signs to self while playing
Receptive Language
  • understands approximately 50 words
  • follows 2 word commands
  • enjoys listening to favourite story
  • points to pictures/objects when asked (12-15 months)
  • knows and turns to own name
  • responds appropriately to wider range of sounds, words, phrases by listening alone
Receptive Language
  • by 18 months: understands up to 50 signs
  • follows simple instructions, eg. book (point) + give + Daddy
  • sustains attention to favourite story
  • points to objects when asked (signed)
  • responds consistently to visual and tactile attention-gaining strategies
Expressive Language
  • first words: over and under-generalisation
  • uses 10-15 words
  • imitates familiar words
  • asks ‘whaddat?’
  • gestures similar to words (14-16 months); different to words (16-18 months)
Expressive Language
  • first signs: over and under-generalisation
  • uses 10-15 signs
  • imitates familiar signs
  • combines sign & point; points to objects – not always people
  • some signs similar to gestures
  • non-manual features for yes/no questions, ‘wh’ signs may emerge

18 months - 2 years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
  • uses range of consonant and vowel sounds in ‘words
  • uses words more often than ‘word-like’ approximations

  • uses a wider range of handshapes, in more complex combinations with locations and movements
  • uses speech/sign to respond to adult input
  • more topically contingent
  • uses longer utterances to express intentions,eg. reject; protest; notice; label; initiate pretend play
  • talks/signs to self continuously when playing, although may not be readily understood by adults
  • practises familiar conversational behaviours, eg. book reading, shopping, doctor's visit
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 75 words by 18 months, up to 100 words by 21 months, 250-300 words by 2 years
  • understands wh- questions
  • follows simple commands
  • understands prepositions in/on
Receptive Language
  • understands more signs and fingerspelling, in more complex structures
  • understands wh- questions
  • follows simple commands
Expressive Language
  • 18-21 months: produces over 20 words with correct meanings and increasing accuracy in pronunciation
  • 21 months - 2 years: expressive vocabulary up to 75 words
  • two-three word utterances appear
  • possible pronoun reversal errors
  • asks wh- questions
  • no syntactic or morphological markers
Expressive Language
  • uses up to 50 signs by 18 months
  • uses 100 signs by 2 years
  • 1st 2 sign utterances; may prefer subject-verb-object (SVO) order eg. subject-verb (SV) or verb-object (VO)
  • first 2-sign utterances include pointing
  • pronoun reversal errors
  • uses wh-question signs - non-manual features (NMFs) may disappear temporarily, but NMFs for yes/no questions may occur
  • no verb or noun modifications
  • pointing to other people reappears
  • some negator signs (eg. NOT) signed, but not used with NMFs
  • possible use of some common depicting signs, 1 handed only

2 - 2 ½ years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 600 words
  • follows two stage commands
  • understands more questions and prepositions
  • recognizes family members' names
Receptive Language
  • understands hundreds of signs
  • follows two stage commands
  • understands size, quantity and location descriptions

  • announces intentions
  • takes 2 conversational turns
  • introduces and changes conversational topic
  • clarifies and 'repairs' communication bids
  • uses words/signs to express emotion

Expressive Language
  • uses up to 200 words
  • uses more questions and prepositions
  • beginning morphological development
  • uses ‘don't’ and ‘can't’
  • uses personal pronouns
  • uses adverbs eg. ‘now’, ‘again’
Expressive Language
  • uses approximately 200 signs
  • many handshapes and movements still simplified; location can be on face/body
  • uses a greater number of wh- signs
  • most verbs in citation form
  • personal pronouns correct by 2 ½ years
  • noun-verb pairs may be incorrect
  • no spatial syntax - possibly relying on subject-verb-object (SVO) word order instead
  • combines point + sign

2 ½ - 3 years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 900 words
  • understands all pronouns
  • follows questions;
  • follows 2-3 step commands

Receptive Language
  • understands plurals
  • understands all pronouns; by 3 years; understands I, YOU, HE/SHE
  • answers wh- and yes/no questions
  • follows 2-3 step commands
  • converses in sentences
  • attempts to control events by using speech/sign
  • uses 'polite' discourse behaviour
  • responds to requests to clarify or repair language
  • apologises, using appropriate language
Expressive Language
  • uses up to 450 words
  • uses 4-5 word sentences
  • different sentence forms develop eg. statements, questions
  • answers yes/no questions, what happened
  • joins sentences using conjunctions, eg. ‘and’, ‘but’
  • over-generalization of morphology, eg. 'goed'
  • retells story
  • uses infinitives, eg. ‘I like to swim’
Expressive Language
  • uses 400 signs
  • still only most common depicting signs used; handshapes often incorrect
  • noun-verb pairs marked in different ways: facial expression, body posture or speed
  • 4+ sign utterances, simultaneous grammar emerging
  • first use of indicating verbs, with errors
  • retells story

3 - 3½ years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 1,500 words
  • understands plural vs singular commands
Receptive Language
  • understands longer utterances with more complex grammar

  • takes 4-5 conversational turns
  • uses 'fillers' eg. ok, uh huh, mm, nod, gestures
  • begins to change register to suit younger child
  • requests permission
  • teases, jokes
  • corrects others
  • uses descriptions to clarify meaning
  • requests, using yes/no questions
Expressive Language
  • uses up to 900 words
  • most speech sounds intelligible
  • uses more complex grammar
  • uses ‘won't, is he?, are you?’
  • uses plurals, possessives, indefinite articles
  • uses subject pronouns ‘we, she, they’ and object pronouns ‘her, him, them’
Expressive Language
  • more accurate use of handshapes, locations and movements, although still errors and substitutions
  • more correct use of depicting sign handshapes
  • movement in depicting signs sometimes sequential
  • indicating verbs more accurate for present people/objects; some omission of verb modifications for absent people/objects
  • noun-verb modification mastered
  • stories not coherent due to lack of spatial consistency
  • modifications for number & aspect used (not mastered till over 5 years)
  • use of non-manual features (NMF) for topicalisation
  • NMFs for negation starting to emerge - not for all negator signs

3½ - 4 years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 3,000 words

Expressive Language

  • uses up to 1,500 words
  • irregular verbs ‘drank, swam’
  • 3rd person singular: /s/ ‘he runs’
  • uses ‘isn't’, ‘aren't’, ‘would’, ‘could’, ‘should’
  • past tense ‘was, were’
  • infinitives ‘I want him to do it’
  • uses reflexive pronouns eg. ‘myself’
  • seeks detailed information with ‘wh’ questions
  • joins clauses
Receptive Language
  • understands longer utterances
  • recognises more fingerspelled patterns

Expressive Language

  • verb modification consistent across sentence - not maintained over discourse
  • use of manner modifications on verbs begins, sometimes sequential
  • some NMFs of wh-questions and conditionals begins
  • use of role shift
  • IF/ PRETEND used for conditional sentences, non-manual features (NMFs) later
  • uses compounds, but with no stress change
  • some indicating verbs modified for absent people/objects, but they are not established in space first
  • has long, detailed conversations
  • tells 2-3 events in correct order
  • mixes real and imaginary details in story
  • knows to wait if others are talking/signing
  • more confident in a range of social situations

4 - 4½ years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands up to 3,000 words

Expressive Language
  • uses more than 1,500 words, speech consistently intelligible
  • uses infinitives, possessives
  • contracts auxiliary ‘they're –‘
  • uses ‘has, does’
  • past progressive: ‘I was running’
  • uses ‘because’ in clauses
  • asks ‘what if?’
Receptive Language
  • comprehends non-manual markers, but use is inconsistent
  • comprehension of verb agreement emerging - some errors

Expressive Language
  • some control of abstract locations in space achieved
  • occasional over-generalisations of verb and noun-verb modifications
  • use of role-shift to describe 2 people other than signer
  • many depicting signs not adult-like
  • most handshapes correct, including
8 Middle '8 Middle'
R Wish 'R Wish'
W Three 'W Three'
X Hook 'X Hook'
A Fist variant 'A Fist' variant

  • correctly changes reference using this/that, here/there
  • ends conversations appropriately
  • changes conversational topics appropriately
  • uses wh questions as indirect requests

4½ - 5 years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • understands 6,000 + words
  • follows sentences with 3 commands

Expressive Language
  • uses more than 2,000 words
  • uses comparatives: ‘better, best’
  • uses more adjectives
  • reflexive pronouns: ‘myself, ourselves’
  • uses ‘neither, whether’, ‘if’
  • present perfect: ‘I have been’
  • negative tags: ‘didn't we?’
  • uses: ‘does?’
Expressive language
  • see 4 - 4½ years
  • relative location in 2-handed depicting signs: approximately 30% correct
  • handshape use in 2-handed depicting signs: dominant hand correct approximately 70%, subordinate hand 30%
  • uses ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’, ‘those’ from communication partner's perspective
  • initiates conversation easily & confidently; politely interrupts conversation

5 - 8 years
English Auslan Pragmatic language skills
Receptive Language
  • by 6 years: understands 13,000+ words
  • by 8 years: 20,000+ words

Expressive Language
  • uses 3,000-6,000 words
  • uses irregular adverbs, reflexive pronouns
  • uses past perfect tense and conjunctions ‘although’, ‘unless’ in clauses

Receptive Language
  • understands longer utterances with more complex grammar

Expressive Language
  • most verb modifications mastered
  • maintains reference across text
  • more role shift development
  • depicting signs improving
  • wh- NMFs mastered by 8 years
  • signed and NMFs for direct quotes by 6 -7 years
  • makes threats, insults; issues promises, praise, apologies
  • negotiates rules of play
  • 6 - 8 years: gives multi-step directions
  • checks comprehension of others
  • explains events fully
  • responds appropriately to compliments
  • learning to understand non-literal meanings, sarcasm and metaphor

Compiled by Elizabeth Levesque and Louise de Beuzeville, 2008. Revised by Elizabeth Levesque, 2011 and with Adam Schembri, 2013. Information drawn from references listed below.

Aspect The manner in which a verb is inflected, or how it changes according to what it is ‘doing’. It refers to how long an action takes to happen, such as the actions of jumping or running. The movement of the sign is directly related to the particular meaning, or aspect of the verb.
Canonical babbling
Includes ‘reduplicated’ babbling: identical, repetitive sequences of consonant-vowel syllables, e.g., mama, dada); and ‘variegated’ babbling: sequences of different consonants and vowels, e.g. ga, im, ada. These productions are not true words, as they lack meaning.
Citation form A sign that has not been varied or modified.
Classifier A sign or handshape that can be used in different ways, depending on its function. One of the most easily recognisable types of classifiers is the Proform classifier, which refers to signs which have previously been referred to in a conversation. Descriptive classifiers can be used to describe the sizes and shapes of various objects, their texture, arrangements and also how one handles the object.
Compound sign A sign that is made up from two separate and distinctive signs, eg. TASTE+GOOD = delicious. There are slight changes in movement and production of both signs so that overall duration is similar to a single sign.
Conditional sentence An utterance that contains two parts; the first part describes a possible event and the second part describes the conditions required for that event to happen, eg: ‘If it rains tomorrow, we can’t go to the zoo’. A conditional sentence is preceded by fingerspelling ‘IF’ or signing ‘PRETEND’ or by the use of non-manual features such as raised eyebrows and backwards head tilt.
Depicting signs Signs that are used to describe the properties of objects in the same way descriptive words are used in spoken languages.
Fingerspelling A system of representing the alphabet on the hands.
Handshape Positioning of fingers and thumb in relation to the whole hand to depict a sign.
Inflectional verb A sign that can be modified in manner and movement to show how something happens, eg. walk, stroll, hurry.
Jargon Also known as intonated babble. Infants produce long strings of syllables with varied stress and intonation patterns. Jargon may sound like whole sentences and often co-occurs with real words, but lacks linguistic content or grammatical structure.
Locations in space The space in which the signer moves signs; involves the signer referring to an object between themselves and their communication partner. Syntactic space uses grammatical structures which move in space between defined points.
Manual babble Unique to visual-gestural languages. Rhythmic hand movements, such as repeated opening and closing, tapping, waving. Babies make sign-like actions in imitation of the signed language they see around them and play with the rhythmic patterns underlying sign language.
Morphological Related to morphemes – the smallest grammatical unit in a language. For example, in English, /s/ is usually added to modify a word to denote that it is plural; in Auslan, signs are moved differently or placed in a different location to denote a modified meaning of that sign.
Non-manual features (NMF) Also known as non-manual markers. Facial expression (raised or lowered eyebrow movements, eye gaze etc), head or body movements, mouth movements.
Non-manual features (NMF) for negation Headshake used simultaneously with verb sign, eg. I don’t like: LIKE+headshake.
Noun-verb pairs Two signs that relate to each other in meaning but differ in production, such as a slightly altered movement or non-manual features like facial expression. For example: PLANE and PLANE-FLYING.
Over- and under-generalisation of signs An over-application of rules to irregular parts of the language, eg.adding reduplications (repeating movements) to single-movement signs in an attempt to make a sign more like the adult target. Under-generalization: for example. using sign for ‘daddy’ to denote all men.
Phonology The branch of linguistics concerned with the study of sounds (phonemes) in languages. Australian English has 44 phonemes; Auslan’s phonology comprises a relatively small number of handshapes, orientation, location and movement that produce thousands of signs.
Pragmatic language Also known as communicative competence. The ability to use language to effectively communicate with others in socially appropriate ways, incorporating the rules and expectations of a particular culture.
Proximilisation Typical in children up to 12 months of age. Describes infants as first having control of their proximal joints, ie. limb joints closest to the torso, eg. shoulder or elbow. During maturation the child develops control of more distant joints.
Referent An object or person referred to.
Role shift A syntactic device used by signers to denote utterances, thoughts and actions of participants in a conversation. Role shift is signalled by use of body shift, head turns, eye gaze and other subtle movements.
Simultaneous grammar The use of grammatical features, such as depicting signs, space and non-manual features, to express concepts that are typically presented sequentially in spoken languages. More complex signed utterances may contain fewer lexical items than spoken equivalents, but contain the same richness of grammar.
Spatial consistency Maintaining specific space assigned to an object or person (may be absent) at the start of a narrative so that communication partner/s can identify who is being referred to.
Topicalisation A process of highlighting the part of a sentence that the signer wants to make more prominent. The topic usually represents the first major element in a sentence and is usually placed at the front of the sentence, particularly for children.
Variegated babbling Sequences of different consonants and vowels.
Verb agreement Signs can show ‘who did what to whom’ through their movement. The movement of the sign indicates the subject and the object of the verb.
Visual and tactile attention-gaining strategies Typically used by parents with deaf children. Includes strategies such as waving in child’s visual field, tapping on child’s arm/leg, tapping hand/foot on hard surface, moving head/body in child’s visual space, moving object into child’s line of vision, placing hand over object/toy to redirect attention.
WH questions Content questions that require more than a yes/no answer. In English, most content questions start with ‘wh’: where, what, which, who, when, why. Also included: how-many, how-much, how-old.
WH questions NMF Use of non-manual features when asking questions, eg. furrowed eyebrows, slight backwards head tilt or forward lean of the body.

  • Anderson, D. E. & Reilly, J. S. (2002). The MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory: normative data for American Sign Language.Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 7 (2), pp.83-106.
  • Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cottage Acquisition Scales for Listening, Language & Speech (CASLLS) (1999). Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children San Antonio, TX, USA.
  • De Beuzeville, L. (2006). Visual and linguistic representation in the acquisition of depicting verbs: a study of native signing deaf children of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) PhD dissertation.
  • Early Support Monitoring Protocol for Deaf Babies and Children. journals/monitoring-protocol-for-deaf-babies-and-children
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language. An introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Maller, S. J., Singleton, J. L., Supalla, S. J., & Wix, T. (1999). The development and psychometric properties of the American Sign LanguageProficiency Assessment (ASL-PA). Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4 (4), 249-269.
  • Mayberry, R. I. & Squires, B. (2006). Sign language acquisition. In: E. Lieven (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2nd Edition.Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Woll, B. (1998). The development of signed and spoken language. In S. Gregory, P. Knight, W. McCracken, S. Powers & L. Watson (eds.) Issues in Deaf Education. London: Fulton, pp. 58-65.
More information
© 2008 Levesque

Reproduced with permission.
Reviewed: August 2013

Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.

16-Mar-2015 2:18 PM (AEST)