Chatter box: Baby’s first words
Awaiting your baby’s first words is an exciting time. Michelle Randall tells you what the norms are and when you should worry
ACCORDING TO HELENA Oosthuizen, from the division for speech, language and hearing therapy at Stellenbosch University, most children will start using their first words at around 12 months of age.“but children will generally start experimenting with making various sounds between four and seven months,” she says.
Sometimes these babbling sounds might sound like real words – like “mamma” or “dada”, for instance. “However, the difference between first words and babbling is that first words are used spontaneously by a child in a meaningful context – like saying ‘baba’ when she finds her favourite doll or used consistently to refer to the same thing in the same context.”
HOW DOES IT DEVELOP?
“Typically developing children go through predictable stages as their speech and language develops, and the rate of development will vary from child to child,” Helena says. During the first three months communication consists of crying, reflexive sounds from burping or yawning, cooing and laughing. Between seven and 12 months, babies begin babbling by stringing consonants and vowels together to form words like “adada” or “ababa”. “During this time babies will start echoing what mom or dad says or using long strings of consonants or vowels that mimic sentences, but are not meaningful in the adult language.”
From 12 months, a child will usually start “speaking” in a mixture of real words, jargon and babbling. Helena adds that “first words have a specific function and are used in specific situations, like expressing thirst, hunger or the need to
use the toilet.”
At 18 months, most children experience a vocabulary spurt, where they acquire many new words each week, and will start to put two or more words together to build simple sentences (like “bad doggie”, “baby not eat”).
“These sentences slowly become more complex, and as their vocabularies expand, children begin using prepositions, expressive words, or words to describe actions,” Helena says. HOW DOES BABY LEARN TO SPEAK? Physical learning Helena points out that the weight of a baby’s brain triples during the first two years of life, reaching nearly 80% of its adult size in a very short time. “As the brain matures and becomes more organised, baby starts gaining voluntary control over large muscle movements like grasping and manipulating objects with her hands. Breathing also becomes more controlled and better coordinated, which means that more air is available for experimenting with sounds. All these physical changes set the scene for speech to emerge.”
Speech requires very small, precise movements of the muscles of the tongue, lips, cheeks, the soft palate and the larynx. “Because these muscles are used for feeding (sucking, chewing and swallowing), children who have feeding problems are likely to be delayed in their speech development,” adds Helena.
Emotional learning Because language is learnt in a social context, your child needs to have someone to communicate with in an environment where she feels emotionally and physically safe.
“It is essential for babies to form a safe attachment with their parents or caregiver – this is the first and most important relationship of their lives and the one in which they learn how communication works,” says Helena.
HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR CHILD LEARN TO SPEAK?
Talk to your baby as often and much as you can. By treating your baby as a communication partner from the get-go, you are motivating her to communicate with you. “Even if she might not be able to understand everything yet, you are creating a rich language environment,” says Helena.
“By responding to or repeating what your child says you are showing your child that you are interested in what she has to say.”
Take on the role of your child’s interpreter by describing what you’re doing while you are doing it. “Attach new words and language to everyday activities, like naming the different parts of the body during bath time,” adds Helena.
“Read to your child often, so that he hears the language of stories from an early age.” By reading to your child and exposing her to books, you are not only helping with language development but also laying the foundation for learning how to read and write later on.
Typically, a two-year-old child has between 200 and 300 words in her expressive vocabulary, though she may understand more words than she actually uses.
Articulation refers to the physical pronunciation of a speech sound. A child should acquire all the speech sounds of a language by five or six years of age. Some sounds are more difficult to pronounce and can develop later. Sounds such as “s”, “sh”, and “the” are also only learnt later.
“It is normal for a child still in the process of learning language to consistently change the sound rules of that language by simplifying their speech. These are known as phonological processes.”
Children may pronounce only half a word, usually the syllable that carries the most stress. (Banana is often pronounced as “nana” for instance). By the time a child is in Grade One, she should no longer be using phonological processes, and should be able to say all the speech sounds of her language.
THE SILENT TYPE?
According to Helena, personality also has an influence on the rate at which children develop language. Children who are sociable and extraverted are more likely to use language to communicate earlier than children who are introverted or shy, although their understanding of language and vocabulary might be at the same level.
Research has also shown that there is a gender difference when it comes to speech and language development. “Girls are generally more advanced with regard to their speech and language development than boys, and boys typically have a higher risk for developing communication problems than girls,” Helena says.
REASONS FOR CONCERN
A speech delay is when a child reaches the speech and language milestones much later than expected for her age. If your child isn’t speaking at all by 18 months, or at two years only using single words or communicating mainly in gestures, this would be a reason for some concern.
If your child is not responding consistently to sounds, never responds to her name, or seems to be unaware of loud noises, you should take her to an audiologist to test her hearing. “Though most children go through a period where their speech is not completely fluent – they may repeat words two or three times when they talk – this is not something to be concerned about,” Helena says. However, if you notice that this occurs more frequently if the child is repeating parts of a word, or struggles to get words out, you should consult a speech therapist. YB