When do babies start talking
In general, babies start uttering their first words somewhere between 9 and 14 months. However, every baby develops at its own pace. So, it should come as no surprise that the timing for a baby’s first word will vary from child to child.
Even though new parents may need to wait until their first birthday (or more) to see if their child says “mama” or “dada” first, the road to a baby’s first words begins long before this. Babies continuously learn to talk throughout several stages of their linguistic development. Parents will have many opportunities to help their little bundle of joy reach their developmental milestones.
How Do Babies Learn To Talk?
Listening to the sound of your voice, observing you, and then imitating seem like oversimplifications of a very complex process-but that’s basically how babies learn to speak.
Babies learn to talk through exposure to their native language.
Being exposed to language is critical in learning to talk because talking is an “experience-expectant” skill. The human brain expects such experiences to help it develop its capability. Children who have been neglected and deprived of language exposure tend to have poor language ability1.
Language patterns begin to develop during the sensitive period when neural connections are still relatively plastic. This period generally ends within a few years after birth. Therefore, for a child to be able to learn to speak, they must be exposed to an environment where language is not deprived during early age.
Children who grow up in the wild with animals or in isolation for the first 4 to 6 years of their lives, not exposed to human communication, tend to have a difficult time speaking complete sentences later2.
In a language-rich environment, a baby’s neural networks code the native language during early development. Native language neural commitment (NLNC) is committing the brain’s neural networks to patterns that reflect the native language3.
As a result, the early learning of the native language facilitates future learning of languages that follow similar speech patterns but limits the ability to learn languages that do not follow these patterns.
Stages Of Speech Development
Your baby is likely to show some prelinguistic skills even before they begin to speak. Such skills are good indicators of imminent speech development.
These prelinguistic communication skills include4,5:
- Joint attention with caregiver
- Eye contact and visual checking
- Gaze following
Immediately following the pre-linguistic stage, babies will transition into the babbling stage around 6 -7 months in preparation for their first words6.
Baby babble is often one of the first steps on the road to speech for babies. This process often sounds like gibberish to others, but it is one of the most important early language milestones.
Essentially baby babbling is a child’s first attempt at language. It’s prep work and practice that will prepare them for their first words.
Babbling often includes sighing, cooing, or making vowel-like sounds. It is considered one of the major speech milestones because the sound syllables your baby makes at this stage start to resemble the new sounds and syllables that they will need when they begin using actual words7.
A 9-month-old baby likely knows a few basic words such as “no” and “bye-bye.” They can also use a wide range of tones and consonant sounds.
Also known as the one-word stage, the holophrastic stage10 follows the cooing & babbling stage and typically occurs around 12 months of age8.
During this stage in their speech development, babies begin to say single words that are language-specific. This marks the beginning of their journey to develop speech skills.
At this time, not only does the child understand how to form the word, but they also know how to use it to communicate. They may generalize words and their meanings or use one word to express an entire thought. For example, the word mama may serve as an all-purpose call for assistance rather than addressing the mother9.
The two-word stage of speech development likely begins somewhere around 18 months and continues on until your child is about 2 years old8.
Children now can combine simple words to form two-word simple sentences to communicate.
An 18-month-old would likely have about 20 new words in their vocabulary, but this is just the beginning of an exponential vocabulary growth spurt. Their vocabulary may grow by leaps and bounds overnight during this “language explosion”10.
Somewhere around the age of 2 to 2 1/2 years, your child will enter into the telegraphic stage.
In this stage, the child’s speech is composed of short, simple phrases with primarily content words, such as “daddy run”, “want noodle”, “ball go”, etc.
Telegraphic speech often focuses on content and omits adjectives, articles, and other grammatical morphemes, similar to the concise messages contained in telegrams decades ago. Typically, there are no grammatical morphemes such as tense, number, or gender.
Parents can expect to hear sweet statements such as “doggy bark me” during this phase.
What causes language delays in some babies
The causes of language delay vary from individual baby to baby. No one underlying cause applies to all children. Here are a few conditions that could contribute to delayed language development or language disorders.
- Slower maturation rates
- Hearing loss or hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability or developmental delays
- Neurological and developmental differences such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and cerebral palsy.
- Receptive aphasia – a child lacks receptive language skills to understand spoken language
- Expressive aphasia – a child has trouble translating ideas into speech to express themselves
- Lack of language exposure
How can parents help their babies start talking
There is plenty that parents can do to encourage speech and language. If you are eager to hear your baby’s first words, here are some tips for you to help them get there.
Talk To Your Baby
Talk to your baby from birth. Early language exposure benefits not only a child’s speech and language development but also their cognitive abilities and academic achievements down the road11.
Pay attention to your baby’s attention
Having joint attention is found to correlate with a baby’s language skills. Joint attention is the ability to coordinate attention with others regarding objects and events12.
When talking to them, pay attention to infant cues. Try talking about the names of objects that your baby is currently focused on instead of redirecting their attention to something else. Over time, your baby will develop the skills to follow your gaze or look at something you’re pointing at, so they will know the subject you’re talking about13.
Use “baby talk”
Some parenting resources warn parents not to use baby talk because it’s too simplistic. In recent years, however, studies show otherwise.
Research shows that child-directed speech, commonly known as “baby talk,” may help a child’s language development, more than adult-directed speech (“real speech”).
In baby talk, the enunciation is more precise, the speech is usually slower, and the tone is nurturing. It captures the babies’ attention and helps them distinguish words within syllable sequences more easily14.
Also, don’t just talk at your child. Have a conversation with your baby. Let your child take turn in “speaking” with you. Studies show that the process of interaction with parents in conversation is crucial in language acquisition as well as cognitive and emotional development15.
Avoid telegraphic speech
In telegraphic speech, only content words are used with little or no grammar. For example, “Apple want?” (instead of “Do you want this apple?”), or “Dada bowl” (instead of “this is Dada’s bowl”).
Although young children learning to talk use telegraphic speech, using it by parents has shown no benefits in helping them learn. In fact, telegraphic speech may make it more difficult for children to learn grammar and word meanings since it lacks the cues and information that come with grammatical speech16.
Instead, parents can use shorter grammatical speech that lightens the processing load on children while adhering to grammatical rules. For instance, “Want this apple?” or “Dada’s bowl”.
Use gestures when talking
Before they speak, babies communicate with gestures. Research has shown that children whose parents use more gestures to communicate are more likely to use gestures themselves, which predicts their vocabulary development later in life17.
Therefore, when you are talking about everyday objects, use gestures to demonstrate what you are saying. You could, for example, make a big circle with your hands to represent the concept of large size. Point to the object or parts of the body you are going to talk about. When referring to the direction, turn your body in that direction to show it.
Read To Your Child
Reading aloud is a great way to share words and language with your child. Studies have even shown that shared book reading has a significant effect on children’s development of expressive language18. You can use age-appropriate picture books to captivate your child.
Repetition is an important learning aid, and it can be an invaluable tool for helping your child’s speech development. One study found that word repetition (as a way to help the child learn to talk) leads to stronger language outcomes19.
Final Thoughts on when do babies start talking
Every baby learns to talk at different rates. There are many reasons why your baby is a late talker. Speak with your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s speech delay. Most well-child visits also include initial hearing screening. If there is a history of hearing loss in the family, ask to see a hearing specialist or schedule hearing tests.
The good news is there are resources and help readily available for early intervention. Your child’s healthcare provider can also refer your baby to a speech-language pathologist or a speech therapist for an evaluation.
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