From the moment of birth, our children begin to communicate. We all remember our baby’s first cry, and even before they can speak, our children generally understand far more of what we say (receptive speech) than they are able to articulate (expressive language). Although speech development is a natural process, verbal interactions with children help them learn to communicate.
Language is a code made up of rules that include what words mean, how to make words, how to put them together, and what word combinations are best in situations. The first “coo” or babble of our infant brings an onslaught of parental celebration and excitement worthy of calling Grandma. Then, the race is on for whether “mama” or “dada” will be their first word, and it’s only when progress through school that they start to develop a “fresh” mouth and begin talking back that we wonder why we ever taught them to talk in the first place.
As children move from infancy to toddlerhood and on to preschool, we often wonder if their speech is progressing appropriately. Sometimes it seems like we’re the only ones who can understand them, and then there are times when we can’t understand them at all and pretend we do. And that can be frustrating for our children and us. We can even wonder if their ability to talk is delayed. As with any skill, children learn speech at different rates. Some pick up language quickly while others move more slowly – just make sure that it is steadily progressing.
So what should our children be able to say and when?
At only seven days old, an infant can distinguish their mother’s voice from another woman. At two weeks, they can distinguish their father’s voice from another man. At three months, they can make vowel sounds. At one year of age, begin to say “mama” and “dada” - and attach those words to the correct person. And at four years of age, the child can understand most sentences, use sentences that are four or five words long and also have strangers understand their spoken language.
Language development really takes off during the first two years of our children’s lives, especially as they approach their second birthday, and there are many things we can do as parents to help them learn to communicate more easily.
Always encourage them to make vowel-like and consonant-vowel sounds such as “ma,” “da” and “ba.” Teach them to imitate your actions, including clapping your hands, throwing kisses and playing hand games such as Peek-A-Boo. Make sure to expand on single words your baby uses. An example of this would be “Here is Mama. Mama loves you. Where is baby? Here is baby.” You should also read to your child, preferably from sturdy books that have large and colorful pictures. Ask your child “What’s this?” and encourage naming and pointing to familiar objects in the book.
Between the ages of two and four, make sure to use speech that is clear and simple for your child to model. Refrain from using baby talk to convey messages. An example would be saying “It’s time for din-din.” Try “we will have dinner now.” You can also sing simple songs and recite nursery rhymes to show the rhythm and pattern of speech. Help your child understand and ask questions. You can play the yes-no game by asking questions such as, “Is this a dog?” Encourage your child to make up questions and try to fool you.
From the ages of four to six, give your child your full attention when they start a conversation and on the flip side, make sure you have your child’s attention before you speak. Continue to build their vocabulary by introducing a new word and offering its definition or using it in a context that is easily understood. This can even be done in an exaggerated, humorous manner by saying something like “I think I will drive the vehicle to the store. I am too tired to walk.” Also, encourage your child to give directions and then follow them as they explain how to, for example, build a tower of blocks.
Ultimately, every child is different and progresses at their own speed. That said, parents need to know when to be concerned about their speech development. It is recommended to consult your pediatrician if at about two-and-a-half years old your child’s speech is very hard to understand, they do not use two-word sentences or they do not follow simple verbal instructions.
Also keep in mind that girls seem to develop the ability to communicate earlier than boys, and that language can develop smoothly and continuously or in jumps and spurts.
Because the development of speech varies, it is important not to compare your child’s language development to other children’s. If you suspect your child is having a delay in either receptive or expressive language, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. They may evaluate your child, or refer you to professionals who specialize in speech and language evaluation.