Regardless of the domain, children develop at different rates from their first steps to the day they realize that their perspective may not be the same as their peers. Speech is no exception to the rule: there is no exact age at which every baby should start speaking.
Of course, the development of communication goes through certain stages that children of about the same age go through. It can also be discouraging for parents to hear that their friends’ children are beginning to express themselves in front of their own. In most cases it is simply a completely natural personal variation in learning progress. In other cases, it may be a temporary delay in speech that recovers without intervention.
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However, in other children, it may be the first sign of a long-term disorder. So what benchmarks should you keep in mind before worrying about your child’s progress?
It’s not just the word
In general, children begin to babble from around six months of age and utter their first words between ten and fifteen months (most start speaking around 12 months). Then, from about 18 months, they understand an increasing number of words, which they reuse in simple sentences.
It’s important to note that language is not limited to the sounds we make with our voice. The idea that language is reduced to language is a big mistake we are often prone to make. But understanding what the people around us are saying is a very complex task. This means knowing the words used, knowing which concept they refer to depending on the context, and understanding the meaning of the sentence according to the order of the words. This is known as reception language competence.
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Parents should know that from the earliest stages of language development, children can understand far more than they can express. Indeed, children build their own skills by understanding those around them—their parents, siblings, and other caregivers.
Some developmental disabilities, such as stuttering, are evident. On the other hand, the problems other children are having can be hard to spot. Sometimes the child appears to understand complex instructions but actually relies on the general context. For example, if you say to your child, “Go put on your coat and boots,” he will do so because he knows the words “boots” and “coat” and sees that we are getting ready to close the house leaving.
Other instructions where the context is less clear, such as “Get the blue and black book that’s under the covers on the chair,” require a better command of the language and may be more difficult for children with language difficulties.
When to ask for help
For children themselves, not being able to express thoughts or not fully understanding what is going on around them can be very frustrating. A child who throws tantrums but has trouble explaining why they are in that state may have difficulties that may not seem obvious but are very real. This type of attitude can be a sign of speech delay. The fact that a child has difficulty following simple instructions can alarm you.
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70% to 80% of children with a speech delay catch up by age 4. For others, this delay indicates a developmental language disorder (TDL), a long-term deficiency that affects about 7.6% of children, or 1 in 15 children, with manifestations extending into adulthood. But before elementary school, even experts find it difficult to separate the simple delay from the language disorder.
Affected children may need support to thrive. It’s better to seek professional advice than to wait, especially if your child between 18 and 30 months seems to have trouble understanding, uses few gestures to communicate and is slow to learn new words. The first step is to contact a speech therapist.
Strengthen your language skills
The language is flexible. Whatever stage the child is in, we can always help them develop.
For example, if you are playing with a toddler, look where they are looking and name what they see. If he says “runs horse”, you can then say “Yes, the horse runs!”. Where is he running? This helps children learn new words and concepts and better structure their sentences.
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Reading stories together is great because in the books you can find words for people and things that you don’t often come across in your daily life, such as animals at the zoo. It is also valuable for encouraging attention and listening. To get your child talking, ask lots of “why” and “how” questions instead of questions they can answer “yes” or “no.” Watching videos or TV shows can also be an asset provided you watch them with him.
This might seem like obvious advice, but it never hurts to reiterate how much a light conversation with a child can help. Not only is it incredibly socially rewarding, but it can also help strengthen and develop one’s communication skills. Try to integrate this activity into your everyday life, for example by having a conversation while shopping in the supermarket.
The original version of this article was published on The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas between academic experts and the general public.