How Children Learn to Talk

How Children Learn to Talk – and How Parents Can Help Them

From within the womb, infants are tuning in to the sounds of their native language. Research shows that from birth, infants prefer the sounds of their mother’s voice to others and they can distinguish between sounds in words. As children grow, the more oral language input they receive, the more likely they will become competent and confident talkers. There is no replacement for ongoing rich dialogue with young children. In today’s digital world, it is important for parents and caregivers to find a balance between children’s passive engagement with digital technologies and opportunities for shared conversations with adults.

Learning to talk is a complex process that involves both biological and environmental factors. For most children, key stages of speech development to toddler age include:

  • Cooing: contains vowel sounds such as ‘oo’, ‘ee’ and ‘a’.
  • Canonical babbling: contains consonant and vowel blends such as ‘da’, ‘ma’ and ‘pa’.
  • Conversational babbling: long strings of speech that may include first words. Although not formal speech, conversational babbling sounds like a conversation, with pauses, inflections (e.g., raising the pitch at the end of the sentence) and hand gestures such as pointing to objects or people.
  • Two-word utterances: putting words together in the correct word order such as ‘more milk’, ‘no sleep’ or ‘my dog’.
  • First sentences: children use familiar words and new words in short sentences to make statements and ask questions.

In these early stages of learning to talk, it is critical for children and adults to engage in turn-taking. When a baby coos or babbles and adults respond, the infant is learning the rules of conversation. This includes maintaining eye contact, taking turns to speak (or vocalise), and using inflections. As children grow, these rules are applied in more sophisticated ways and become integral to building social relationships with peers and adults in a range of social settings including playgroups, childcare centres and schools.

Adult support for children’s oral language

Adults often support children’s speech development instinctively. Along with reading books to children, singing, playing games and narrating what they are doing throughout the day, adults use techniques including expansions and recasts.

Expansions are where the adult extends the child’s attempts at talk. For example, if a toddler points to and labels the vacuum, parents can expand on this to say, ‘Yes, this is a vacuum. Can you hear the sound of the motor inside when I turn it on? The motor needs electricity for power’. Here, the adult acknowledges the child’s interest and attempt to label the object and provides the correct pronunciation of the word. They also increase oral language input by introducing new vocabulary related to the object such as ‘motor’, ‘electricity’ and ‘power’.

While a child’s use of language can be novel or cute at times, it is important for adults to model correct forms of language. Using real words, complete sentences and correct grammar enables children to hear how language works and to practice talking. When responding to common errors in children’s talk, adults will use strategies including a recast. This is where adults recast or repeat a child’s talk back to them, but in grammatically correct form. For example, if a child says ‘I runned up the big hill’, the adult would respond with, ‘Yes, you ran up the big hill’. This is also the case for phonological substitutions that relate to how words are pronounced. For example, children may say ‘lellow’ instead of ‘yellow’ or ‘at’ instead of ‘cat’. Young children will replace or omit sounds in words that are difficult for them to make initially. Producing sounds is complex and requires the roof of the mouth, lips, teeth and the tongue to work together in different ways to make a range of consonant and vowel sounds, and sound blends. Particular sounds are produced earlier than others (e.g., m, b, p, n) in a development sequence, with some sounds and sound blends remaining difficult to pronounce correctly until around the age of four and above (e.g., j, z, ch, th). Children’s novel use of language is a natural part of learning to talk. Effective support is provided when adults use strategies such as expansions, recasts and correct pronunciations informally as part of everyday conversations with children.

Along with supporting children’s oral language development, parents and caregivers play a key role in identifying any speech difficulties. In the first instance, concerns can be followed through with a GP. For parents, milestones of cooing (around 1 – 4 months of age) and canonical babbling (around 6 months of age) provide key indicators of their child’s ability to hear and produce early vocalisations. Conversational babbling (around 9 months of age) and the appearance of first words (around 1 year of age) provide further indicators of continuing development. A critical window for children’s speech development is birth to 5 years and, for this reason, it is optimal for specialist support to be accessed in the years prior to formal schooling. In some instances, speech delays can be corrected with minimal specialist support.

For parents and caregivers, there is genuine delight in communicating with their child and watching them develop the ability to talk. Communication begins from birth, with young children understanding much of what is being said even when they are pre-verbal. Both adults and children benefit greatly from shared conversations that begin with cooing and babbling and lead to full sentences where children use language to ask questions, share ideas, express themselves through role-play, and connect with other children and adults in social settings. Learning to talk is uniquely human and integral to a child’s overall development. There is no better teacher than a parent or caregiver to help a child develop the ability to talk.

Dr Melinda Miller, Queensland University of Technology

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