Babies Learning Language

By Paula Moss, Speech-Language Pathologist on March 12, 2007

Babies Start To Learn Language Before They Speak

Your baby's brain is 'wired' at birth to listen to and learn the language spoken around him. Babies need to listen to and participate in 'conversations' with other people, especially their parents. Leaving a baby in a crib all day or putting him in front of a television is not helpful for language development.


Reading Baby's Signals

Long before your baby speaks, he communicates using sounds, facial expressions and gestures:

  • A hungry baby may cry loudly. But first, he will nuzzle at his mother's breast, open his mouth or make sucking sounds. New parents commonly miss these simple signals.
  • When babies are ready to interact, they gaze at peoples faces and smile.
  • When a baby wants to stop interacting, he may look away, stiffen, or change his facial expressions. These early signals are reflexive, non-conscious reactions to how he feels and what he hears and sees.
  • Every baby learns new skills at his own rate. (Premature babies may take longer.)
  • Move close to your baby and speak to him gently. Watching your face and listening to your voice helps him to earn about speaking.The first true smile happens at about six weeks. Your baby will respond when you speak to him by smiling and waving his arms and legs. About a month later, he will start making cooing sounds. At about three months, he will make sounds and smile while you listen, then listen as you respond. This is the beginning of conversation.

Moving On

From six to 12 months, babies start using gestures to communicate. He will reach with his hands for things he wants. Later, he will point at things he wants you to look at.

When your baby turns away from certain foods, he is telling you he doesn't want it. Later, he learns to use the more sophisticated gesture of shaking his head. The dreaded word 'NO' has arrived!

Your baby will display different sounds with different meanings. For example, a loud scream gets your attention. Different tones of voice tell you how he feels.

Another milestone at this age is babbling. "Ma-Ma-Ma" or "Da-Da" may not be your baby trying to say "Mom" or "Dad". These long strings of sounds are a 'practice' period for language.


First Steps, First Words

Many babies speak their first words about the same time they take their first steps - between nine and 15 months.

First words fall into five categories: names of people or things (such as "Mommy" or "juice"), action words ("go" or "eat"), places or directions ("up" or "down"), describing words ("hot") and social words ("bye"). These words are important building blocks for later word combinations and for simple sentences that start at around two years. At this point, a child understands much more language than he can speak.

Toddlers may not speak clearly at first. They may drop endings from words and simplify longer words.

After children can say about 50 words, they go through an important language explosion. From 18 to 24 months, they start joining words into small sentences, such as "More juice" and "Doggie gone." If your child does not do this by this stage, he should see a speech-language pathologist.


Helping Toddlers Talk

  • Speak slowly and use simple, complete sentences. "Put shoes on" is more helpful for an 18 month-old than "Put your shoes on because we have to go to the store to get milk." And "Put your shoosies on your tootsie-wootsies" is baby talk you don't want to teach.
  • Follow your child's lead in conversation. If he says "car", say "Yes, that's Daddy's car."
  • Repeat yourself. Children need to hear words many times before using them.
  • Try not to ask too many questions. Too many questions makes a child feel as if he is being tested. Instead, try describing what's happening. You could say "That's a ball, a big ball."
  • Don't do all the talking. If you do, your child may stop trying to join in the conversation.
  • Turn-taking games such as pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo encourage conversation. Nursery rhymes and songs with actions help children learn about listening and copying language.
  • Introduce books early. Try to read to your child every day. Surround him with books; start with simple board or cloth books, and from six to 12 months, move to books with simple illustrations and a few concepts per page.
  • Can your child hear properly? Frequent ear infections and undetected hearing loss are major causes of speech/language delays.


Getting Help

If you're concerned about your child's language development, ask his doctor to refer him to a speech-language pathologist. Language is too important to "wait and see." PC

Paula Moss is a speech-language pathologist in Brampton, Ontario.

Published in March 2007


By Paula Moss, Speech-Language Pathologist| March 12, 2007

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