Everything You Need To Know About Your Child’s Early Language Development

Early language development


The early years of a child’s life is considered a critical period for development. A child’s ability to speak clearly, process speech sounds, to understand what others are saying, to express ideas and interact with others, are key skills.
Speech and language tend sometimes to be confused, but they are, in fact, two very distinct areas.

To clarify, language is a set of shared rules that allow us to express ideas in a meaningful way. Language is divided into two areas, receptive language, which involves the ability to listen to, process and understand what is being said, and expressive language. This is the ability to put thoughts into words and sentences, in a way that makes sense and is grammatically accurate.

Speech, on the other hand, gives vocal expression to language. It involves the precisely coordinated muscle actions of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal tract, to produce the recognizable sounds that make up language. In terms of Speech and Language Therapy “speech” is the sounds that are used within the words, not the words themselves.

Parents often become concerned regarding their child’s communication, sometimes unnecessarily and other time with good reason. Knowing what to expect is half the battle…

How do I know what communication to expect as my child develops?

Typical early communication development follows four main steps.

Between 6 and 9 months of age children should react to and begin to discover the world around them. Communication at this point in development consists of babbling, cooing and changing tone but isn’t very purposeful.

Between 9-12 months children learn to send specific messages and communicate with more purpose. Children begin to develop an understanding of cause and effect: if the child puts his arms up it means he wants to be lifted up. At this stage, children should communicate by pointing, using gestures, sounds, and be persistent. The ability to imitate more sounds, and ability to follow simple directions, in context, should be emerging or present at this stage.

By 12 months, children generally begin to use their first real single words to communicate their needs and by the age of 24 months, children should demonstrate the ability to “string” or combine 2 or 3 words together, with a repertoire of 50 single words which are combined together in different ways “mummy up” “more juice” .Children begin to understand directions without the help of gestures at this point.

How do I spot a possible communication delay?

A late talker is a child who has expressive language delays (are slow to talk) without the presence of concern in any other area of development.

Children are late talkers if they have less than ten words between eighteen to twenty months, less than 25 words between twenty one and twenty four months and less than 50 single words or no two word phrases by two and a half years of age.

Parents generally have good gut instinct. If you, as a parent, think your child isn’t communicating the way you feel they should be; then seek the support of a Speech and Language Therapist, even if it is just to put your mind at ease.

Do boys really talk later than girls?

This is a question I get asked a lot. So let’s clarify. It is not unusual for boys to speak later than girls in terms of producing their first words or sentences, but, it is understood that the window for this difference should only be months. i.e. still within the normal “window” or age range for attaining certain milestones. Boys are not actually delayed in their language development but they can be just a little more behind the girls!


Can parents help early language development?

Yes they can. Here are a few ideas which help early communication and language.

1. Eye contact:
Eye contact is one of the earliest means of communication .To maximise eye contact; sit face to face with your child. Draw your child’s attention by holding items close to your face without verbalising. It is important to gain this attention before you give a child a direction or offer a choice. Keep visual and auditory distractions to a minimum. This can be tricky in a busy household, but should help your child’s focus.

2. Baby talk?:
Initially babies may benefit from baby talk as the way in which it is delivered helps them to hone in on who is talking when things are loud around them. Calling a cow a “moo” is a good idea as it allows the child to associate the sound the animal makes. However, the child also needs to know the correct name. It would be more appropriate to say, as the child grows
“It’s a moo, yes it’s a COW. The cow goes Moo”.
Baby talk has its place, but as your child develops in age and ability, the way you say things to your child should mature with them so as they are always receiving new learning opportunities. Don’t underestimate your child’s readiness to hear and learn new words.

3. Interaction:
Useful ways to help enrich your interactions with your child to help support their language learning include:

  1. Getting down to your child’s level
  2. Watching your child and listening to your child
  3. Imitating your child’s actions
  4. Playing how the child plays
  5. Allowing your child to decide how they want to play a game (as adults we feel things need to be done a certain way)
  6. Encouraging turn taking (A turn could be a look, a smile, slight movement, an action, gesture, sound, word etc).
  7. Labelling and show what you are both doing, in this way your child is hearing the words they should be using if they could. This gives an opportunity for language learning
  8. Giving a reason to communicate. Keep some of their favourite things out of reach. This acts as a temptation to communicate
  9. Don’t give all at once. Leave an opportunity for your child to, in any way they can, ask for “more” of something.
  10. Offering your child a choice “do you want toast or a cracker” while showing both options.
  11. Books: Colourful books. Show your child how a book works, get them to turn the pages and show how you read left to right…this all links in for early literacy development. Pause in various places during a familiar book to allow your child to input by taking a turn.
  12. Technology will not teach your child, it’s how YOU use it WITH them helps. Technology has its place but use it sparingly and for a purpose other than entertainment.
  13. Importantly, eliminate the focus of getting your child to talk. “Don’t say “say”. Asking a child to talk on demand takes the enjoyment out of communication and may lead to more passive/reluctant communicators.

Everyday situations are ideal times for learning language and don’t underestimate the power of simply sitting and playing with your young child! If in doubt, at any stage, or if you have any questions, contact a Speech and Language Therapist. It’s what we are here for! Early intervention is key!


Written By

Elaine Baldwin, Senior Speech and Language Therapist at Sensational Kids, Clonakilty


Copyright Sensational Kids CLG 2018