Baby Talk and Beyond
Speech and language development in early childhood
Story by Meghan Cornelison
“I wiwwy yuv you mamma.” Most parents would hear these words from their child and not miss a beat in replying “I really love you too!” In this case, speech and language would have worked perfectly to convey important information. But when is your child’s speech or language something to worry about? Should you be concerned about those r’s turning into w’s or the i’s into y’s in a 4 year old? Or what about the 1 year old who has not yet said her first word?
Children’s ability to communicate is crucial to their healthy development. While children without the ability to speak can certainly live full lives, with the help of other communication techniques, most people in our society communicate verbally. “Language is that connection between people,” says Sandra Jamison, MS CCC-SLP, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) and owner of Talkabout, in Fairbanks.
Speech and language comprise two halves of verbal communication. “The language portion deals with the way you understand what is being said to you and the way you are able to say things to other people,” says Jamison. Speech “is the way you articulate your words,” she says. Healthy speech and language development lay the foundation for future social and emotional growth as well as literacy. “(It) is one of the most important aspects of early childhood,” says Alicia Deaver, director of consultation at thread.
Children’s verbal communication develops slowly, with a wide range of typical ages for achieving specific milestones. With an understanding of the basics of speech and language development through the early years, you can help your child’s skills blossom and address any issues early on.
From babbling babes to toddling talkers (birth to 2)
Babies begin learning speech and language “from the moment they are born,” says Jamison. Infants watch parents’ facial expressions and hone in on making eye contact and listening to the voices of those closest to them. Soon, babies start playing with producing sounds, first by cooing then babbling. Between 6 to 12 months, you should hear lots of babbling with both vowels and consonants, and imitation of intonation (the melodic pattern of speech), according to Cheryl Campbell, MA CCC-SLP, owner/president of Alaska Speech and Hearing Depot, Anchorage. By 12 months, babies should be able to say one to three words, according to Campbell.
In their second year of life, babies continue to practice their budding communication skills. Most toddler language development revolves around common objects (cup, ball) or desired actions (up, more), says Campbell. Throughout their development, children understand more words than they use. A 2 year old should be able to answer simple questions, either verbally, or through body language, such as pointing to specific body parts when asked. Also, by age 2, specific sounds should come pretty easily, such as p, b, m, w, h and n. Of course, you will probably notice his ability to say one familiar “n” word quite well: No!
Preschool chatter to big-kid talk (2 to 6)
Your child’s language skills grow exponentially through the preschool years. New words are tucked into her vocabulary rapidly, especially from age 3 to 4. “We expect (children between 2 to 3) to be able to use about 250 words, and (3 to 4 year olds) to have a usable vocabulary of about 1,500 words, so that is a huge jump,” says Campbell. Watch your child’s play and interactions with others at this age. “You want to see them engage in long conversations with peers and adults, using four-to five-word sentences,” says Campbell. By around age 3, an indicator that your child’s speech is on track is if unfamiliar listeners can mostly understand what she says. Although some sounds will not develop until later, if you find yourself constantly serving as her interpreter, you might want to talk with a professional.
As children move past their preschool years, they grow into proficient (and sometimes prolific) little talkers. By around age 5, children should pronounce most sounds accurately, with some exceptions. Sounds such as l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, th, are more difficult and may not develop for a few more years, so don’t stress if your 5 year old tells you she saw a “wabbit” at the zoo. Toward 5 or 6 years, you want to hear children incorporating the nuances of language, such as proper use of tense, into their skills and expressing more abstract concepts, according to Campbell.
Speech and language problems
The American Speech-Language and Hearing Association categorizes verbal communication problems into speech or language disorders and medical and developmental conditions. Speech disorders include any issues that affect the child’s ability to articulate their words. Examples include stuttering and speech sound disorders (when certain sounds are not made correctly), although many other specific speech disorders exist as well. Language disorders affect a child’s ability to understand others or share his thoughts and feelings. Underlying medical, neurological or developmental conditions, such as cleft palates or autism (among many others) can also affect speech and language. SLPs will provide therapy for such conditions, but they will refer you back to a doctor for a diagnosis, explains Jamison.
What can you do to help?
Keep an eye on those ears. In order to learn speech and language, we need to be able to hear it. “We all develop speech based on what we hear,” explains Jamison. Ear infections are an unfortunate part of many children’s early years, and if they are severe or frequent, they can (usually temporarily) impact children’s hearing. “It’s the equivalent of listening to speech under water,” says Jamison. “It becomes distorted, and if distortion is what you hear, then distortion will be what you will say.”
Trust your gut. If you have any concerns about your child’s speech development trust your gut and seek help from a professional. “The earlier children are given support if they need it, the better off they are and the less likely they will be to need services for a long period of time,” says Deaver.
So who can you call? Your child’s pediatrician or family doctor is a good starting point, says Jamison. Doctors can refer you to a speech and language pathologist who can evaluate your child and either put your mind at ease or make recommendations. Both Campbell and Jamison say you should make sure the professional you see has the proper credentials. Look for someone whose name is followed by MS or MA, indicating a master’s degree, followed by CCC-SLP, which shows she has a certificate in clinical competence in speech and language pathology.
The statewide organization called thread also provides parent support services and can help you get the ball rolling. The state will help evaluate speech and language development and may provide services for children birth to age 3 through the Early Intervention/Alaska Infant Learning Program of the Office of Children’s Services, explains Deaver. At age 3, the local school district picks up those services through the office of early intervention. Parents can contact those programs directly, or call thread for help navigating through the process, says Deaver.
If your child needs services, don’t stress. “There’s a great support system in Alaska,” says Deaver. “Lots of speech and language issues can be overcome with some initial support. It’s not necessarily going to be a lifelong battle or challenge for your child.”
Play with your child, read to him, talk with him and listen to him. “Having conversations with children is one of the simplest and most important things we can do to support their development,” says Deaver. When chatting with your child, give him opportunities to see your face, so he can watch you make the sounds, explains Jamison. For your child’s speech and language to blossom, she needs someone to listen (really listen) to what she has to say, which means you have to be down at her level. Imagine trying to develop these skills when all you have to talk with is a pair of knees, rather than a friendly face. “We don’t spend near as much time as we think we do listening to our children,” says Jamison. “Parents with young children need to sit down on the floor and play with them, interacting face-to-face at eye level.”
So have fun with your little talker. You never know what she might say.