“Why is Christopher not saying anything yet when Abigail couldn’t stop talking at that age?”

I hear this type of question often when working with parents on their children’s language development plans. Their thinking is not unusual – society has placed expectations on when it’s developmentally appropriate for children to communicate. Parents often worry and want to know why their child is not pacing others their age based on these norms, but as a Speech-Language Pathologist, I can tell you that milestones that use exact ages should be taken with a grain of salt. I personally was one of those people asking why my nephew wasn’t speaking at 12 months, even though I professionally knew better than to expect him to conform to those standards.

So what are the general expectations?

A true vocabulary word means that they look at the person and say the word with intent (i.e. look at Mom and say “mama”). It’s believed that by 12 months of age, children should have one or two words that they say meaningfully (i.e.: “hi!” “mama” and “dada”) and a vocabulary of about 50 words at the age of 24 months. But these aren’t set in stone, nor are they appropriate for every child. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website has an extensive listing of those milestones to review, and is a great place to look for further information about the development of language.

What concerns me is the way some statistics and guidelines are taken very literally, and how language development studies can be misinterpreted in a way that causes parents undue worry. For example, a UC Berkeley study recently published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences indicated that language skills of Mexican-American babies lag behind their white peers by the age of two. This research found that lag occurred for babies whose parents lived below the poverty line and had not attained high school diplomas, whose mothers were generally born outside of the U.S. Unfortunately, for non-clinicians, it is easy to misinterpret this study as something resulting from strictly cultural or bilingual origins, as opposed to the myriad of factors that affect a child’s language.

Being bilingual is an asset – for example,  children with bilingualism have been found to obtain increased metacognitive skills (i.e. self-awareness) due to their understanding that an object may have more than one word to label it. Further, according to an article from the Journal of Cognition (summary here), monolingual infants expect that an unfamiliar person would only understand one language, whereas bilingual infants understand that all speech would not communicate to all people.  So to answer a question brought forth by a concerned parent to The Scientific Parent’s Facebook page asking if speaking more than one language affects a child’s ability to learn to speak, the simple and short answer is no.

Let’s break it down. There are two types of language skill sets that every person utilizes. Receptive language (where one takes in what others are saying and is able to understand what is being said) and expressive language (how we are able to get our thoughts, feeling and ideas across, either through nonverbal/verbal language or written expression). Babies begin developing receptive language at birth when infants learn that crying will bring them food and comfort and by hearing the environmental noises around them. They begin to comprehend the various speech sounds of which their native language is comprised. It is vital to assess infants’ hearing to ensure that they are able to hear speech sounds and environmental noises. This normally occurs early on however should be reassessed if the child suffers from chronic ear infections. By the age of 2, a child should be able to increase their vocabulary every month, point to a couple body parts, point to pictures in a book when named, and ask a two-worded question, for example, what’s that? But also remember, when it comes to speech and language development there are many things that you can do at home:

Structured Parenting Activities:
Regularly read to your child.Children pick up that words have different uses and the visual of the picture book help children comprehend what the word means. Limit media time.According to the American Academy of Pediatrics television and other media should be avoided by children under 2. See the journal link for more details.
Limit the amount of toys that make noise.These often overstimulate children. Your words as a parent are more powerful than sound from a toy. Provide positive reinforcement when your child attempts to communicate. There is nothing like seeing a child smile and excited because you responded to them!

 

Regular Verbal Exercises:
Have your child imitate your sounds. (i.e. mamamama, papapa). This helps children produce the sound as they are being given a visual. Also, practice making these sounds on their cheeks to give them the sensation. Teach your child to imitate your actions.Use gestures to help convey meaning (i.e. waving bye, blowing kisses). Many children will use gestures to help them communicate (i.e. point to the juice and say please since they can’t produce the word juice.)
Talk as you complete everyday routines.Expose the child to everyday vocabulary (doing the dishes, taking a bath, folding laundry). Identify what you see around you (see the white cat?), count items (I see 1, 2,3 fish!). Sing songs. (i.e. Old MacDonald, The Wheels on the Bus, Hokey Pokey). Repetitive words and sounds help children remember vocabulary and correlate the sounds/actions with words (i.e. sheep says baa, dog say woof).
Expanding any language opportunities.If the child says “doggie,” the parent responds, “yes I see the little black doggie.” This will convey the message to the child that there is more that can be said to get their point across. Use hand over hand cuing to point to items in a book.I.e. place your hand on your child’s when pointing to an apple and say “apple” while touching the item. 

If you are concerned that your child has not reached developmental milestones you should contact your pediatrician and explain your concerns and observations. They can refer you to a professional for an evaluation to determine if a child has a developmental delay, and if they do, a program called Early Intervention (EI) provides services in support of children from birth to age three before they enter the school systems. I have seen children benefit greatly from the services through EI, not just because I work in EI but through the growth of my nephew’s expressive language when he was little. EI is parent-centered, and is able to work with children who experience delays in physical (reaching, rolling, crawling, and walking); cognitive (thinking, learning, solving problems); communication (talking, listening, understanding); social/emotional (playing, feeling secure and happy); and self-help (eating, dressing). Therapists that work in EI such as myself want you to participate in therapy and also strive to leave you with customized strategies to help enhance your child’s abilities.


 

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Toddlers + Preschoolers