As a new parent, you’re probably paying close attention to important milestones in your child’s life: the first tooth, the first time your baby grasps an object, the first time he or she rolls over, sits up, crawls and walks. But do you know when your child should start speaking and developing language skills? You can make sure your child is on track by watching out for some basic communication milestones, too.
People often confuse the words “speech” and “language.” They mean slightly different things. Speech is the verbal expression of language—or talking. Speech is produced by precisely coordinated muscle actions in the head, neck, chest and abdomen. Language is much broader and refers to the entire system by which we express and receive information in a way that’s meaningful. Language includes speech, writing, signing or even gesturing. For example, people who have neurological disorders may depend upon eye blinks or mouth movements to communicate.
The most intensive period of speech and language development is during the first 3 years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing. By the time babies are 6 months old, they already recognize the basic sounds of their native language. Early language skills appear to develop best in a world rich in sound, sight and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.
In fact, increasing evidence suggests that there are critical periods for speech and language development in infants and young children. Their brains appear most able to absorb a language—any language—during the early stages of their development. Children who are not exposed to a language during these critical periods may have difficulties learning a language later.
Every child is unique and develops speech and language at his or her own rate. There is, however, a natural progression. Doctors and other health professionals know the general age and time when most children reach different milestones. They can determine when a child may need extra help in learning to speak or use language.
Early signs of communication occur during the first few days of life, when an infant learns that crying will bring food, comfort and companionship. The newborn also begins to recognize important sounds in his or her environment, such as a parent’s voice.
As they grow, infants start to sort out the speech sounds that compose the words of their language. An infant is able to make more controlled sounds as the jaw, lips, tongue and voice mature. This begins in the first few months of life when infants start “cooing,” a quiet, pleasant, repetitive vocalization.
By 6 months of age, an infant usually babbles or produces repetitive syllables such as “ba-ba-ba” or “da-da-da.” Babbling soon turns into a type of nonsense speech that often has the tone and rhythm of human speech but does not contain real words. By the end of their first year, most children are able to say a few simple words. Children quickly learn the power of those words as others respond to them.
By 18 months of age, most children can say 8 to 10 words. By age 2, most are putting words together into short phrases or sentences, such as “more milk.” Children continue to learn that words symbolize or represent objects, actions and thoughts. They also engage in representational or pretend play. Between ages 3 and 5, a child’s vocabulary increases, and he or she begins to master the rules of language, or grammar.
You should talk to your child’s physician if you have any concerns about your child’s speech or language development. The doctor may decide to refer you to a speech-language pathologist, who will talk to you about your child’s communication and general development. The speech-language pathologist will also evaluate your child with special speech and language tests. A hearing test is often included in the evaluation because a hearing problem can affect the development of a child’s speech and language.
Depending on the test results, the speech-language pathologist may suggest activities that you can do at home to stimulate your child’s speech and language development. These activities may include reading to your child regularly; speaking in short sentences using simple words so your child can successfully imitate you; or repeating what your child says using correct grammar or pronunciation.
The speech-language pathologist may also recommend group or individual therapy or suggest further evaluation by other health professionals such as an audiologist or a developmental psychologist.
It’s important to discuss speech and language development, as well as other developmental issues, with your child’s doctor at every visit. Knowing what’s normal and what’s not can help you figure out if your child is right on schedule or if you should be concerned.