When and how to help a child start to speak

Mother and child.

From first cry to first word

Below are listed the stages through which many speech specialists believe that all “normal” children proceed on the way to speaking sentences or groups of words.

However, it is good to insert a note of caution here.

“Normal” simply means that this is what most children are doing within the time noted.

 But no child is a statistic or an average; every child is very much an individual.

Thus while all children who speak normally usually go through this pattern, the age at which they do so may vary considerably.

Also, recognize that heredity is believed to play a role.

So, in some families speech begins later than in others.

Keeping these factors in mind, let’s follow the pattern from first cry through first words:

1. From birth through the first month or so the baby’s sole vocalization will be crying with little difference in tone no matter what the reason for the discomfort.

Then, usually, from the fourth through about the sixteenth week the baby will “coo” and make “laughing” noises.

He will produce some (mostly vowel) sounds.

The crying will take on differences in tone. (Yes, mother is not just learning what baby means when he cries, baby is varying the tone when he cries.)

2. At or around the twentieth week what is called “babbling” begins.

The baby will string together “chains” of one-syllable sounds that often are the repetition of similar sounds.

The child usually enjoys making these and they will include some consonant nasals (such as m, n).

3. From the sixth month through the ninth the infant’s babbling will lead into what is called “sound imitation.”

This starts as “self imitation,” that is, the child repeats the sound he himself made.

Later he will begin repeating the sounds that an adult or another child makes to him.

4. During the tenth through the twelfth months the baby may begin actually to say short words, but normally this is simply repeating what adults have said; it is still imitation.

5. By the eighteenth month the infant will have a vocabulary of from three or four to fifty words and will increasingly show by voice inflection that they mean something, they identify something.

At this time the child may begin to use two-word utterances.

Usually little girls will start speaking slightly ahead of little boys.

And, as noted earlier, the individual child may linger at one stage and then rapidly go through another.

However, speech specialist Dr. Jon Eisenson contends:

 “Most children who are going to talk, perhaps up to 90 percent of them, say their first words by 15 months.”

Now in considering these stages perhaps the most important thing to note is: Children learn to speak by mimicking those around them.

Thus you play a major role in helping your child at each new level.

Aiding vocabulary expansion

The rate at which a normal child’s vocabulary expands is amazing.

It climbs from two or three words at year one to between 50 and 200 by age two, on up to around 900 by age three.

Why the big jump between ages two and three?

This is believed to be due to the fact that the child discovers questions.

Hence, the two-year-old now has a system to explore all language possible.

Because the question is the infant’s main tool, it is very important for parents (or any who care for children) to realize that the seemingly nagging query “Why?” is vital.

Discourage it and you discourage vocabulary increase and logical thinking patterns.

Besides your reaction to questions, there are, we might say, three responses to the early statements of a child that will have much effect on his progress in speech.

To illustrate: Suppose little Mary goes outside and finds a “flower” and brings it to Mommy.

How will Mommy react when Mary says: “Look, Mommy, flower”?

The negative reaction would be: “Go away, Mary, I’m busy. Take that weed out of here.”

The neutral reaction could be: “That’s nice, Mary.”

However, the positive reaction might be: “Oh, that’s a pretty flower, Mary. See, it has four petals.”

Obviously, here the mother not only reacted warmly to her daughter’s enthusiasm but went one step farther and added a new word—“petals.”

Thus, parents can view conversations with their children as opportunities to add new building blocks—new words—to their “world of understanding.”

This is best done by short statements, frequently repeating what the child said (if basically true) and then adding just a little more to it.

Too, it is good to remember that even when a small child makes what sounds like a statement he or she is often seeking support from the adult—asking in effect, ‘Am I right?’

Yet sadly, although extensive attempts might be made to help a child, it may become apparent that there is a serious speech impediment of one type or another.

What then?

Avoiding extreme reactions

Although his hearing is normal, and despite allowing for slowness at a particular age, it may be that your baby is not progressing as to forming words and linking them together.

What can be done?

Well, the worst reaction is to panic and go to either of two extremes.

The one extreme is to look upon the child as some sort of “freak” and excessively blame yourself or the child.

If a baby falls and breaks his leg, what parent would not rush him to a doctor to have it set?

But somehow “broken” speech is viewed as the child’s fault and so it is something to be ignored or to be ashamed of rather than something to be repaired.

It is true that often the home circumstances have contributed to the faulty speech pattern, but that is all the more reason to give real attention to both the child and the relationships within the household.

Frequently, speech therapists can quickly help a small child to solve a speech or language problem, whereas if allowed to live on that way, the difficulty may be so ingrained that it is virtually impossible to correct.

The other extreme is one of frantic dismay expressed in such a way that the child senses that he is the object of much anxiety.

He is made to feel that he MUST speak otherwise.

Especially with stutterers, this added pressure usually pushes them farther into the non-fluency pattern.

Rather, as with small infants discussed earlier, there is the greatest need for patience and tenderness on the part of parents.

Avoid constantly correcting and nagging; instead, try to get the young one’s mind off his speech problem.

Frequently, when his mind is turned away from the impediment, the child can speak normally.

In addition, it is important that older brothers and sisters be aided to see the need of treating the stutterer with tender affection—not always cutting him off when he tries to talk, thus inducing frustration and anxiety.

Such treatment of children is invaluable in helping an infant with a speech impediment and who thus is often also termed a “slow learner.”