When it develops
How it develops
What comes next
When to be concerned
Your baby will gradually learn to use words to describe what she sees, hears, feels, and thinks as she makes mental, emotional, and behavioural leaps. Researchers now know that long before a baby utters her first word, she's learning the rules of language and how adults use it to communicate.
When it develops
Children learn to talk during their first two years of life. Your baby will begin by using her tongue, lips, palate, and any emerging teeth to make sounds (ooh and ahhs in the first month or two; babbling starts shortly thereafter). Soon those sounds become real words ("mama" and "dada" may slip out and bring tears to your eyes as early as four to five months). From then on your baby will pick up more words from you, your partner, and everyone else around her. And between one and two years, she'll begin to form two- to three-word sentences.
How it develops
Your child's wail at birth is her first foray into the world of language. She's expressing the shock of being out of the confines of the womb and in a new and unfamiliar place. From then on, she's absorbing sounds, tones, and words that later shape the way she speaks.
Talking is inextricably linked to hearing. By listening to others speak, your baby learns what words sound like and how sentences are structured. In fact, many researchers believe the work of understanding language begins while a baby is in utero. Just as your unborn baby got used to the steady beat of your heart, she tuned into the sound of your voice. Just days after birth, she was able to discern your voice among others.
One to three months
Your child's first form of communication is crying. A piercing scream may mean she's hungry, while a whimpering, staccato cry may signal that she needs a nappy change. As she gets older, she'll develop a delightful repertoire of gurgles, sighs, and coos, becoming a mini sound factory. As for her ability to understand lanugage, linguists say babies as young as four weeks can distinguish between similar syllables, such as "ma" and "na."
At this stage, your child will start to babble, combining consonants and vowels (such as "baba" or "yaya"). The first "mama" or "dada" may slip out now and then, and though it's sure to melt your heart, your baby doesn't quite yet equate those words with you. That comes later, when she's almost a year old.
Her attempts at talking will sound like stream of consciousness monologues in another language, endless words strung together. Vocalisation is a game to your baby, who is experimenting with using her tongue, teeth, palate, and vocal chords to make all sorts of funny noises. At this stage, babbling sounds the same, whether you speak English, French, or Japanese in your home. You may notice your child favouring certain sounds ("ka" or "da," for example), repeating them over and over because she likes the way they sound and how her mouth feels when she says them.
Six to nine months
When she babbles and vocalises, she'll sound as if she's making sense now. That's because she's using tones and patterns similar to the ones you use. Foster your baby's babbling by reading to her.
12 to 17 months
She's using one or more words and knows what they mean. She'll even practise inflection, raising her tone when asking a question, saying "Up-py?" when she wants to be carried, for example. She's realising the importance of talking and how powerful it is to be able to communicate her needs.
18 to 24 months
Her vocabulary may include as many as 200 words now, many of which are nouns. Between 18 and 20 months, children learn words at a rate of 10 or more a day. Some learn new words every 90 minutes, so watch your language. She'll even string two words together, making basic sentences such as "Carry me." By the time she's two, she'll use three-word sentences and sing simple tunes. Her sense of self will mature, and she'll start talking about herself -- what she likes and doesn't, what she thinks and feels. Pronouns may confuse her, and you may catch her avoiding them, saying "Baby throw" instead of "I throw."
25 to 36 months
She'll struggle for a while to find the appropriate volume to use when talking, but she'll learn soon enough. She's also starting to get the hang of pronouns, such as I, me, and you. Between ages two and three, her vocabulary will increase to up to 300 words. She'll string nouns and verbs together to form complete though simple sentences such as "I go now."
By the time she turns three, your child will be a more sophisticated talker. She'll be able to carry on a sustained conversation and adjust her tone, speech patterns, and vocabulary to her conversation partner. For instance, she'll use simpler words with another child, but be more verbal with you. By now she may be almost completely intelligible. She'll be fluent at saying her name and her age, and will readily oblige when asked.
What comes next
As your child grows, she'll become more of a chatterbox. You'll scarcely remember the time when she hardly spoke at all, and you'll enjoy hearing about what projects she did at playgroup, what her friend Cassie had for lunch, what she thinks about Cinderella's wicked stepmother, and anything else that occupies her mind. She'll also start to tackle the more complicated skill of writing.
It's simple: talk to your child. Research shows that children whose parents spoke to them extensively when they were babies have significantly higher IQs than other children. Their vocabularies are also richer than those of kids who didn't receive much verbal stimulation. You can start as early as when you're pregnant, so your baby gets used to the sound of your voice. Read a book out loud or sing to your baby when you are in the bath. When the baby's born, talk to her as you change her nappy, feed, or bathe her, and give her time to respond with a smile or eye to eye contact. At around five months, you may notice her watching your mouth intently. Keep talking, and soon she'll start trying to talk back.
Baby talk has its place, but also speak in real sentences. Your child will learn to speak well only if you teach her to do so. You don't have to avoid using complicated words. While you may need to simplify the way you talk so your child will understand what you mean, the best way for her to expand her vocabulary is to hear you using new words. The same goes for toddlers and preschoolers, whose language skills will continue to grow as long as you continue to stimulate them with conversation.
Reading is a great way to help develop your child's language skills. Babies will delight in the sound of your voice, toddlers will enjoy the stories, and preschoolers may even jump in to tell you what's going on in a book.
When to be concerned
Babies with hearing problems stop babbling at around six months. If yours isn't making any sounds (or even attempting to) or eye contact with you, consult your doctor. While some kids start forming words at nine months, many will wait until they are 13 or 14 months. If your child isn't saying any words by 15 months, or you still can't understand a word she's saying, discuss the matter with your doctor or health visitor.
If by age three your child continues to drop consonants (saying "ca" for "cat," for example) or substitute one sound or syllable for another (saying "car" as "tar", for example, or "fish" as "sish"), she may have a speech or hearing problem. Talk to your GP or health visitor, who can arrange for her to be assessed.
All toddlers sometimes stammer and stutter from time to time. Sometimes they're so excited to tell you what's on their mind that they can't get the words out easily. Allow her to finish her sentences, and avoid jumping in to help her out. That can feel like a put-down and won't help her learning.
However, a persistent stutter should be checked out by a speech and language therapist. A child will usually make best progress if he is seen in the first six to 12 months after the stutter is first noticed, regardless of his age. You could ask your GP for a referral, but most speech and language therapy departments will also accept referrals directly from concerned parents.