Some babies start talking as early as 9 months old; others (to the worry of their chagrin of their parents) can only manage garbled words and sounds even by their second birthday.
While delayed speech can be an early sign of a developmental disorder, in many cases it’s a classic case of miscommunication: parents don’t recognize the ‘first signs of speech’ or the child doesn’t feel motivated to learn the language. Here are some ways to encourage late talkers, and to appreciate your child’s own, unique way of self-expression.
1. Language starts earlier (and is more complex) than you think
In the first week, babies cry to communicate their needs. However, on or before 6 weeks, they can express sounds of pleasure or contentment. We call this cooing, but this begins the open vowel sounds like ‘ah’ and ‘ooh.’ When they’re two months old, they’ll start to make throaty coos and can begin to distinguish sounds of speech from that of the environment. They’ll also begin to turn their head when they hear someone talking. By five to six month, they can begin babbling random consonant strings (like ‘babababa’) and imitating or approximating speech inflections or tones. They may also recognize their name.
As they grow older the baby babbling grows more complex and varied in terms of pitch, speech rate, and intensity or volume (see typical language development). They may also start expressing their feelings—squealing or grunting their discontent or pleasure.
So they are talking—just not in a language you understand! More importantly, they’re also mastering the skill of listening and mimicking. And even if you don’t understand them, they understand you. They’ll be able to recognize words and follow simple commands (‘wave bye bye to the nice doggy!’). He may also use gestures like pointing to show you what he wants.
2. What to watch out for
Actually saying a word, then, is just one aspect of language. Your child interacts, responds, and is able to associate words with experiences. Be worried if he shows absolutely no signs of being able to communicate: unresponsive to others, and won’t even point or nod.
However, you can and should share your concerns with your pediatrician, who can judge whether or not your child needs to be referred to a developmental pediatrician, or given formal testing (which is usually given after the child turns two). Don’t panic until you get a diagnosis, though. Kids develop at their own pace; your son can hit his first birthday without speaking his first word and still fall within normal range. Save your worry when there is a ‘significant discrepancy’—like if he hits 18 months old and still babbles non-specific consonant strings.
3. Possible causes of speech delay
Some things can lead to delayed language development. Heredity, or physical problems like poor hearing (have this checked this if your child seems to have problems mimicking or responding to sounds).
You can also check your home environment.
Does he watch a lot of TV? Educational videos can teach some concepts, but can slow down communication skills since the interaction is one-way. Or, you may be ‘overtranslating.’ Parents can become such experts at decoding their child’s gestures or sounds that it’s unnecessary for them to learn the words. Why talk when Mommy knows what I want, right? So encourage them to actually verbalize their needs. If he pulls you over to the refrigerator and whine, grab the teaching moment. ‘What do you want? Do you want a cookie? Coo-kie.’ Nothing like the motivational powers of chocolate chip!
Children who grow up in bilingual households may also become confused since they are learning two vocabularies at the same time while just figuring out that words are concepts or codes for actual objects.
4. What you can do at home
The first thing to remember is to use short, simple sentences. Sometimes we forget we’re talking to a two-year-old. ‘Hurry up, Zachary, we’re late for the doctor’s appointment. Get your shoes now!’ That’s 16 words, many unfamiliar. Stick to one concrete thought at a time. ‘Zachary, get your shoes.’
Also avoid baby talk, or at least repeat a phrase with the real word: ‘Wawa? You want WA-ter.’ Avoid language confusion by assigning a language to each family member: Daddy always speaks English, but Mommy always speaks Spanish.
And most importantly, remember that children learn through play and concrete experience. Flashcards are less effective in building vocabulary than walking around the playground and pointing to the things you see. ‘Say hi to the dog!’ or ‘What a big tree!’ Give your child time to reply—he may need more time to process what you see—and if he doesn’t say anything, answer for him. For example: ‘Do you want a cookie?’ and he takes it, say, ‘Yes, you want cookie.’ (Pause—to let him absorb the phrase.) Then add, ‘Thank you!’ You’ll be holding many one-sided conversations for a while but eventually your child will get the idea.