Language and Speech Development

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Language development is a common concern for many of the parents who call our Support Line, attend a Parent Coaching session, or come to our workshops. Often the issue is a child who is not speaking as soon or as much as other children the parent knows. As in all areas of child development, there is a wide spectrum of ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ language development (Click here for an example of a language development chart). There are milestones that children typically reach by a certain age, but a later start in one aspect of language development – such as speech – does not necessarily mean there is a problem. Moreover, very few children follow any developmental chart to the letter.

The fact is, while in everyday use we often use speech and language as interchangeable terms, verbal speech is only one aspect of language development. Language is the socially shared rules that define what words mean, how to make new words, how to arrange words together, and which words fit which situations. Speech is the verbal means of communicating those words. The Deaf community has effectively shown that we can indeed have language without speech.

It is important for parents to remember that a delay or later start in talking does not necessarily mean your child will have long-term language problems. And, just because you child is not speaking does not mean s/he cannot understand your words.  Research has consistently shown that children can understand language and speech long before they are physically able to produce words. This is why “baby signing” or infant sign language can be so effective with young children.

How and when children learn to speak can be influenced by factors such as:

  1. their inborn ability to learn language (we all know those people who can just pick up languages like it’s learning a new recipe)
  2. other skills they are learning at the time (kids tend to put all their energy into one aspect of development at a time – your one year old may be too busy learning to walk to worry about saying ‘mama’ or ‘dada’)
  3. the amount and kind of language the child hears (one of the best ways to encourage healthy language development in your baby or young child is to talk to them as much as possible using simple, clear speech)
  4. how people respond to their communication attempts (it is important to acknowledge and respond to your child’s attempts at speech; there are some ideas below on how)
  5. Sometimes children who are learning two or more languages at the same time will also have a silent period where they tend not to talk much for a while. This is completely normal and the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual far outweigh any disadvantages.

As mentioned above, while our children`s innate ability for language and their own developmental timeline are important factors in when and how they learn language, there are also a number of ways we can help foster healthy language development:

  1. Talk and listen to your child. Make eye contact with your baby and describe the world around them as you go about your day. Repeat back their babble and practice making funny sounds together. With older babies and toddlers you can repeat back those first attempts at language (don`t explicitly correct their language, just repeat it back correctly). Toddler: “me wawa“ Mom/Dad: “You want some water? Sure, here you go.” As your child grows, use more complex language and encourage them to tell stories and talk about abstract concepts such as feelings, wishes and fears.
  2. Acknowledge non-verbal gestures and provide words for them. When your baby lifts their arms up to be picked up – “you want up”; when she throws her bowl to the ground or pushes it away – “you are all done”; when he points at something – “you see a bird” “you want a cracker”, etc.
  3. Sing to and with you child. Join an infant/toddler music class. There are free Parent-Child Mother Goose programs in many communities across Canada and they are a great way to learn simple, easy songs and rhymes to share with your child. Programs are offered in a number of languages.
  4. Read to and with your child. Make reading a part of your daily routine. Even very young babies enjoy looking at picture books (there are some wonderful books made especially for babies – the children’s librarian at your local library can help you choose some). Young children like to read the same stories over and over again (often to Mom and Dad’s dismay!). Encourage them to ‘read’ favourite stories to you (our 3-year old loves ‘reading’ us Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, LaLaLa). Listen to your older child read aloud and encourage them to write and illustrate their own stories.
  5. Check out this short video for other ideas

In the end, parents know their children best. While it is important to know that late-talkers do not invariably have challenges with language down the line, if you do have concern about your child’s speech or language development, consult your doctor or the BC Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists. Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health offer Speech and Language services for children in and around the Lower Mainland. Visit their websites for more information and links to handy resources.