As parents we spend the first year worrying about our children becoming actively mobile and then generally secondly worrying about their language development or lack thereof. In most cases there is no need to worry. The vast majority of children learn language without a problem. Language or the ability to use language has its own piece of software in the brain and most linguists are now convinced that language is instinctive, a behaviour which happens just like eating and sleeping. After all humans can’t help but talk.
Some children do speak earlier than others but do we always recognise their babble as words? Children start talking by cooing or babbling and if you listen closely you will notice that it has a rhythm similar to our communication. To the young child these babblings, sound just like what they hear when they listen to our conversations. When engaging back to your child, listen intently to what your child is babbling and try to respond back with proper language.
After babbling comes the next phase of using either single or double syllable sounds. The child understands what he is trying to say long before the penny drops with the parent. Try and make the association and recognise that your child is referring to something or someone and respond back appropriately. Don’t be tempted to repeat the baby language, this may only delay speech further.
What do you do if you have a late talker? The first step is to have the ears checked. Even a small amount of hearing loss may cause speech delays. For every ear infection your child has, he may lose 6 – 8 weeks of full functional hearing which may delay his speech development.
There are two parts to language development – receptive language and expressive language. Some children will have good receptive language skills (understanding the words you say) but take longer to actually talk. They are able to respond to your requests and can follow simple instructions. Expressive language is when your child uses the words he can say to communicate with you. Between 2 and 3 years of age your child’s expressive language skills should increase to about 300 words.
It is important for children to develop good oral-motor skills in order to be able to chew their food efficiently as well as perform good oral motor movements for speech production. These skills can be developed by getting your child to imitate you by performing different movements with your mouth, such as puffing up your cheeks, smacking your lips together, sticking out your tongue or licking your lips. Oral motor skills can also be stimulated by getting your child to suck through a straw, blow bubbles or windmills and through eating chewy foods such as biltong, apples, carrots etc.
Girls tend to speak earlier than boys. Boys are more physical than girls. They are often referred to as the “walkers” and the “talkers”. The little one zooting around being very physical may take longer to talk than the little one sitting quietly and taking in everything around them. The third or fourth child may also take longer to talk than their older siblings, especially if the older ones are very vocal. They just can’t get a word in or the older children tend to talk on their behalf. However the opposite is also true, some younger siblings talk quicker as they are exposed to more language in the home environment.
A toddler has little motivation to talk when everything is handed to him as soon as he points to something. If he understands what you are asking of him, he is busy building language skills and the words will follow. The frustration of trying to get others to understand you compels you to try harder, linking sounds to people, objects and actions. From this a communicator is born.
Thumb sucking or extended use of the pacifier (dummy) may also delay speech development, by delaying the fine oral motor skills needed for speech. If your child is not letting go of his dummy, then insist on him taking it out of his mouth to talk to you.
Language development also depends on how much language the child is exposed to. Children have to hear language to be able to develop the skill. Start early and talk about everyday things. Read to your child on a daily basis, making reading to him part of your daily ritual. Singing along to songs will also help to develop language skills. Extended viewing of the television is never a good thing. Communication happens between people and not between you and television characters. The language instinct is being supressed so much by screen time these days that it’s rife. Limit viewing time. There is never any substitute for verbal interaction.
Language and vocabulary is very important because it is the foundation for phonetic reading skills. If you have a feeling there may be a speech delay, then don’t hesitate to communicate with a professional Speech and Language Pathologist. Having a one on one consultation can put your mind at ease as they know exactly what signs to look for. If there is advice they can give you to do at home, what a bonus as you are learning something new to help your child. If they pick up a disorder then hopefully you’ve caught it early and can prevent academic issues later on.
It is very easy to have a chat with a professional. The wait and see approach must be avoided if you have a gut feeling. Parents must trust their gut!
Note = If you are concerned about your child’s language development then it is advisable to have your child assessed by a registered Speech and Language Pathologist.