Although learning to talk involves listening, understanding and analysing information, your child practises these seamlessly through spending time and bonding with you and his loved ones. While you’re talking to your baby, his brain is already hardwired to grasp the speech and sounds used for his home language and how to join words into sentences, says Johannesburg-based speech therapist Jessica Reeves. He is also picking up on social skills, such as eye contact when talking to someone, and understanding facial expressions and body language – which all contribute to learning how to speak.
The difference between speech and language
Your baby learns about language before he starts to talk, explains Jessica. Language is what your little one understands from a young age, and this progresses to how he’ll use words and combinations of words to communicate at a later stage. Speech relates to the sounds his mouth makes and how he can combine those sounds together. “First, he’ll listen and respond to changes in sound, rhythm and intonation,” explains Clamber Club founder and author Liz Senior in her book, Growing Up with a Smile. Between his first and second birthday, your child will go from understanding concepts, but saying no words, to being able to have a simple conversation. During his second year, the average toddler learns to say about 200 words, says Liz..
Speech milestones you can expect your child to reach
Birth to three months – crying and gurgling
Your newborn’s first means of communication is through crying. When you respond, you are already starting to teach your child communication skills. Your little one will start responding to your smiling face by gurgling.
Three to six months – cooing and babbling
As your baby gets older, he’ll start to experiment with more vowel sounds and this is called cooing, says Jessica. At about six months, your baby will start to join consonant and vowel sounds together, for example, “da-da-da-da” (sorry dads, he doesn’t mean you just yet). At about five months, he’ll change the combinations of consonants and vowels. He’ll also start babbling randomly using patterns of noises to communicate, says Liz. The tone of his voice will change to attract your attention.
Six to 12 months – early speech
Your baby will try to imitate you when you sing or talk to him. Around his first birthday, he’ll begin to use simple words such as “mama” and “dada”. It might seem as if he’s engaged in conversation with you.
12 to 24 months – first words
You’ll start to recognise your child’s first words – even though you might be the only one who understands what he’s saying. His first 10 words will probably be the names of things that are important to him, says Liz. By his second birthday, he should be starting to join words together, like “more juice” or “gone away”.
Tips for language and speech development
For language development, what a child hears and understands is important, says Jessica. For example, he has to understand what “more juice” means before he can ask you for “more juice”. Being listened, and spoken, to is what your child needs most to stimulate speech development.
- Read Books. Open a world to your child where he’ll learn new words and how to combine them. When he reads with you, he’ll associate books with love, which will help him to develop literacy when he’s older, explains Jessica. It’s never too early to start reading books with your child. You don’t have to read the book word for word. Let him explore the pictures, and talk about what interests him – follow his lead.
- Play and sing Games like Peek-a-Boo and Round and Round the Garden are great for developing a shared interest in what’s happening around you. Songs will allow your child to predict what will happen next. When he’s a toddler, he’ll start singing along with you and you can play games when singing, like leaving a word out or changing the lyrics. The rhyming words in nursery rhymes will help to develop his reading and spelling
- Talk. Jessica suggests using language during everyday activities and to vary words as much as possible. For example, during bath time, talk about the water, asking questions like, “Is it too hot or is it too cold?” Simplify how you speak to your child so that he can understand you and has a chance to copy what you’re saying. While communicating with your child, encourage eye contact by getting down to his level.
- Change up the environment. Let your child explore and learn about the world around him by taking him to different places. Studies show that the more exposure he has to the world outside of his home, the broader his language will be.
Why hearing matters
A child needs to use all his senses to develop speech and language, but hearing is crucial, adds Liz. Your child will need to listen to you chatting and singing to him in order to develop both speech and language. “Anything that stops your little one from fully experiencing and interacting with his environment can affect his speech and language development,” she says. In fact, the most common cause of speech difficulties in early childhood is hearing loss, explains Liz.
“A baby with a hearing impairment may start to make sounds at about the same age as a baby with normal hearing, but he doesn’t hear the sounds he makes. He also won’t hear other sounds in his environment. This lack of feedback from outside sources hinders his progress, as his ability to interact with others will be limited because of his inability to respond to their speech,” she adds.
How to spot problems
Even though your baby is young, there are often already red flags for a language delay. Some skills to look out for between nine and 12 months are eye contact, pointing, responding to his name and understanding that an object is still there if you hide it behind your back, explains Jessica.
With language development, you want to monitor what your child understands and if he’s beginning to put words together by the age of two. If you’re concerned, consult a speech therapist. There’s strong evidence that early intervention is key when it comes to helping your child overcome any speech delays or problems.
It’s normal for your child to make some speech errors, so don’t panic too soon, advises Jessica. As your child reaches the age of three or four, he should become easier to understand – not only by you as a parent, but also by friends and family that he may not see every day.
When your child’s speech is difficult to understand, he may use a limited amount of speech sounds or he won’t always articulate a sound in the same way. For example, he might pronounce “dog” differently every time he says it. In this case, you should consider intervention from a speech therapist, who can help with pronunciation.
If your child gets frustrated by people not understanding him, it’s recommended to sort this out earlier rather than later, adds Jessica.
Bringing up a bilingual baby
It’s a myth that bilingualism causes speech or language delays. When your child is learning two languages at the same time, there may be a slight lag in his expressive language, but this shouldn’t persist for long.
“I advise parents of bilingual children not to code switch. This means they should avoid switching between two languages within a sentence or conversation,” says Jessica. “In my opinion, bilingualism is a huge advantage!” she adds.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.