When does the learning of speech and language skills begin?
When I was around 10 years old, my three-year-old cousin Peter (not his real name) was barely talking. I clearly remember the adults in the family discussing why he would not say any words. Some of the family elders said “Don’t worry… it will come later, he will learn. He just needs more time…”
Learning to talk for most children is something that happens naturally when the time is right. However, what is the right time? What happens before a baby starts talking?
I did not have the answers for the questions above until I took up speech pathology. There is a well-established speech-language development milestone for children. At the same time, there are also factors that may hinder the development of spoken language.
Hearing for babies starts before birth. The inner ears are formed by the 16th week of gestation. However, the sounds that babies hear in-utero will be different from what we hear in the actual world.
This is because when babies are growing inside the womb, they are surrounded by amniotic fluid, amniotic sac, plus all the layers of the mum’s body. Being separated from the world, even when their inner ears are developed, the sounds that babies hear inside the womb will be muffled.
When babies are in the womb, the clearest sound that they will be able to make out is the mother’s voice. When mum speaks, the sounds of her voice reverberate through the bone and the body, amplifying it and making it easier for babies to hear. This helps to build up their familiarity with the mum’s voice!
Newborns cry as a way of communication. This cry is loaded with meaning. Their caregivers usually are able to correctly identify what each cry means –hungry, sleepy, hurt, wanting to be picked up, etc.
Then, the babies start to make sounds that only consisted of vowels, like “a…” or “o…” with more pitch, duration and intensity variation as they grow.
They also start to blow raspberries, yell and enjoy making more sounds when they are around 4 months old. They begin to develop an interest for the adult’s face when we talk to them, and they look at the adult and respond back with their vocalisations just like having a typical, pleasant conversation.
Between 7 to 10 months old
When they are between 7 to 10 months old, their vocalisations progress from just single sounds to a string of repeated syllables just like the little minion song that all children fancy! You will hear them making sounds like “bababa” or “tatata”.
They use this when they are playing, calling for an adult’s attention, expressing their emotions. More than that, they actually enjoy listening back to the sounds that they make and that helps them to progress further by making more different sounds.
Between 10 to 12 months old
Between 10 to 12 months old, they will make a string of more sophisticated sound that consisted of different consonants and vowels combination like “abudamimataka…”. It carries no meaning to us but this is actually their language for communication!
This is an exciting milestone indeed as when a child is at this stage; their first word is right on their way! At this stage of development, a child should also understand and follow routine instructions like “sit down, bye-bye, fly kiss” and knows some names of their favourite toys.
At this is the stage, babies who are born deaf differ from hearing babies. Babies who are born deaf at this age, do not produce these string of consonant-vowel combinations. Consequently, they do not proceed to the first word stage. They become quieter and eventually silent unless they are fitted with hearing aids and taught to listen and talk.
Between 12 to 18 months old
Between 12 to 18 months old, children should start speaking their first meaningful word, usually something that they are really familiar with. Following the appearance of their first-word production, there will be a steady increase of the number of words that they comprehend.
By 18 months old, they should be using around 10 meaningful words and understand around 50 words. When they are 24 months old, they should be able to understand 250 words. Here they start to combine two words to form short phrases such as “where mummy” or “want milk”.
3 years old
At 3 years old, children can understand around 400 words. It will then increase exponentially to 20,000 words when a child is around six to seven years old. This is the minimal number for a child to strive and learn in mainstream primary education.
Imagine the impact of language delay that happened at a very young age, and the exponential increment of vocabulary that failed to take place at the right time. The consequences can be devastating.
Should your child not have an interest in you when you talk to him, or does not understand and follow simple instructions after 18 months old, bring him to your paediatrician. You may also visit related healthcare professionals such as a speech-language therapist or clinical psychologists for an assessment if warranted.
If you are wondering whether my cousin Peter did eventually learn to talk, the answer is yes. However, his struggle in school is significant, possibly because of his language skills.
There are cases of late talkers who eventually catch up with their speech and language skills, but most of the time, these delays are important warning signs.
If these signs are ignored at the beginning stage, the harder it is to tackle the learning and communication difficulties later on. Therefore, it is very important to make sure your child’s speech and language development is followed close to the milestone.