Baby language development is adorable for adults to hear, especially when babies interact with one another, like the twins in this video:
But, more than the cuteness factor, learning to talk and communicate is an important milestone in the life of a little one.
We chat to Kerry Knight, a Speech-Language Therapist at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, who obtained her qualification in BCommunication Pathology: Speech-Language Pathology (UP). She gives us her advice for helping babies learn to talk.
1. At what age do babies normally start to talk?
Babies start playing with sounds from very early on. But, first words are usually around about a year. Like with all milestones, there’s a range that’s considered normal of a month or two on either side.
2. What are the most common first words for babies?
A baby’s first word is most likely going to be “mama, baba, dada, tata”. I don’t want to shatter any parents dreams (it is still adorable), but it’s a natural way that speech progresses when little ones start combining simple sounds together into consonant vowel combinations.
3. What language development techniques would you recommend to parents?
The most important thing to do is talk. And, when I say talk, I literally mean ALL the time about EVERYTHING. Bath time, dressing, playtime, eating, even just when you’re hanging out. Slow down, make eye contact and use real words. Change the pitch of your voice and make it fun. But, you don’t want your child to call a ball a “boba” forever.
The most important thing to do is talk. And, when I say talk, I literally mean ALL the time about EVERYTHING
The biggest thing I can say is relax and have fun with your baby. Children’s language development happens through play. Do what feels natural, read some books on communication if you would like to, but don’t stress. Language development is a normal process we all went through, and most kids will be just fine!
Shop the Petit Love book collection of ‘tails’ for an engaging, colourful reading & learning:
4. Is there a difference between ‘speech’ and ‘language’? For example, even though some babies are slower than others to talk, it’s not to say that they don’t understand what’s being said to them.
Absolutely, they are very different. When we talk about ‘speech’, we’re referring to sounds and how accurately they’re pronounced. Whereas ‘language’ refers to the content of a message, and it’s broken up into understanding and expression. Babies are like sponges. They’re listening all the time and their vocabulary grows at a rapid rate. Sometimes, they’re slow to grasp the words permanently. But they’ll often try and imitate you. With time, they’ll start retaining the words to use them in a more functional way.
5. Why does hearing play such an important role in speech and language development?
Babies start hearing from 20 weeks in utero. So, their tiny ears are prepped and ready to learn before they even meet the world. It’s essential that your baby has their hearing screened as soon as possible. Hopefully your hospital offers the service, but if not I would recommend going to your local audiologist. It’s a non-invasive, quick and painless test that assesses if your baby is receiving sound.
The first few years of life are essential for language development when the brain is the most flexible and absorbent. Missing out on hearing during that stage of life can cause a permanent delay in your child’s communication. If you can’t hear, you can’t learn to speak.
If you can’t hear, you can’t learn to speak.
6. At what age should parents seek expert advice if their baby’s language development seems slower?
If any parent is concerned about their child’s speech or communication development (that includes gestures, pointing, playing with sound etc.) then my advice is to get your baby checked.
The older a child gets, the more difficult it becomes to treat in therapy. Rather be safe than sorry. I think a nice way to see how your baby is doing is to spend some time with their peers who are the same age.
Mom-and-baby play dates are a great, simple way to suss out if they’re doing similar things. It’s true that all children develop at a different pace, but there is a range that is considered normal. If your child is a bit behind, then early intervention may be the best intervention.
Smart Heart, a cute, fun, emotional communication game we love for children over 3:
7. In South Africa, many children are brought up with parents who speak two different languages. Being bilingual is a massive win in an adult world, but can it be confusing for little ones as they learn to talk?
That’s a great question, and there will be a difference in opinions.
The most important thing to acknowledge is that every child is different, and they have different strengths. Some kids will flourish and grasp multiple languages simultaneously, others may get confused and mix them up or say very little.
I would advise dedicating a language per parent/caregiver. For example, mom will speak English exclusively and dad will speak Xhosa (swap it out for granny, nanny, or anyone in the child’s life). This way, the languages are separate and distinct, which reduces the chances of the child merging them together.
The most important thing to acknowledge is that every child is different, and they have different strengths.
It’s important to understand that there are then two words for everything, “eyes” and “amehlo” are the same thing. But, if you only learn it in one language then there will be gaps. If your child is struggling and confused, then simplify and focus on the language that they will be using at school to prevent poor academic progress down the road.