How is language learned?
Whether they speak early or late, are learning one language or more, are learning to talk along typical lines or are experiencing difficulties, the language acquisition of all children occurs gradually through interaction with people and the environment.
Your role in language learning
Maybe you are a couple raising your baby, or you might be a sole parent or caregiver. Whatever your family structure, you are the most 'significant other' your baby interacts with communicatively. The way you engage with him or her will determine the path that language development takes in the vital first five years.
Enjoy this exciting period in your child's development. Talk in a natural way about what he or she is doing, seeing and hearing. Listen to the sounds, and later the words he or she says, and respond, so that your child knows you are listening. Read stories together from an early age, and make communicating fun.
Progress should be steady
Children learn at different rates. Some are fast language learners and some are slow, so it is best not to compare one child's language development with another's. The important thing to watch is that language development proceeds steadily, not whether it is fast or slow.
"Ages and Stages" charts for speech and language development and speech intelligibility criteria can be worrying if they are interpreted too rigidly. Remember that children vary quite considerably with regard to the rate at which they reach the various speech and language "milestones". So there is no need to put out an SOS for a speech pathologist if your child does not do the things itemised at precisely the ages stated! When you see language ages and stages and read an age like '12 months' say to yourself, 'twelve months or so'.
The first three years
By 12 months (or so!) most children have one or two words that they say with meaning and can comply with simple requests (e.g., 'Can I have your cup?') or commands (e.g., "Don't touch!") and understand little questions (e.g., 'Where's your tummy?').
By 2 to 3 years of age your child should be able to follow two-part instructions ('Get your teddy and put it on the chair') and string two or three words together to talk about and ask for things.
If progress seems too slow
If 'first words' have not emerged by 18 months make a concerted effort to spend half an hour a day just playing and interacting one-to-one with your baby. This can be difficult to organise in larger families, but it often does the trick! How to set these times up and maximise their usefulness can be discussed with an SLP, who may suggest and demonstrate various activities.
When to seek help
Even though they are concerned that their child's speech and language development may be unusual or slower than normal, people may hesitate to seek the professional advice of a speech-language pathologist. Sometimes this is because they are advised against it by reassuring friends, family and others. But sometimes it is because they think the child is too young to 'be assessed'.
The fact is, babies or toddlers are never too young for a communication skills assessment. Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) see children from infancy.
The very very young clients SLPs include on their caseloads may have cleft palate, hearing impairment, developmental disability (for example, Down Syndrome) or they may have been identified early as being "at risk", unduly silent, withdrawn or unresponsive to the communicative attempts of others. Or they may simply be late talkers.
The right time to seek help is when you, as a parent, are concerned.
Children's speech does not sound like adult speech because they make typical child-like 'sound replacements'. These sound replacements are called phonological processes by some researchers.
Some of the phonological processes, and the ages by which they normally disappear from a child's speech are outlined in quite a lot of detail here. The following examples of phonological processes provide a general rule of thumb.
The phonological process called context sensitive voicing e.g., cup = gup has usually disappeared from a child's speech sound system by three years of age (3;0). Similarly, the phonological process called word final devoicing e.g., bed = bet has normally gone by 3;0. A few months later by 3;3 (that's three years 3 months) final consonant deletion, e.g., boat = bow generally vanishes. The phonological process of velar fronting e.g., car = tar persists until about 3;6 in many children. Consonant harmony e.g., kittycat = tittytat, continues until close to 3;9, by which age it has normally vanished.
Weak syllable deletion e.g., elephant = effant is common up to the age of 4;0, as is cluster reduction e.g., spoon = boon. Gliding of liquids e.g., leg = weg normally disappears by 5;0. Stopping of 'f' e.g., fish = tish, and Stopping of 's' e.g., say = tay go by 3;0. Stopping of 'z' e.g., peas = pead often persists until 3.6. Stopping of 'sh' (shop = dop), Stopping of 'j' (Jack = dack) and Stopping of 'ch' (chin = tin) are eliminated by 4;6. Stopping of 'th' (this = dis, that = dat) can go on until 5;0.