13 Minutes Reading Time
Congratulations! – You have brought your newborn baby home. Aren’t you glad to see she remembers some of the stories and rhymes you had read to her before she was born? Now that you have established a new routine for your newborn, you may wonder: How does language development happens in your baby?
You should know that each child develops at their own pace. Remember to measure her progress to the norm and not with other children. Language development shows the rate of a baby’s brain development. Girls often develop faster than boys in this specific area. Language development from newborn to age five takes place at a brisk pace and is ideal for learning new languages.
The sensorimotor stage is the time from birth to about 24 months. During this stage, your baby goes through three stages of language development. These stages are only a guideline for parents, and they often overlap.
1. Stages of language development for your baby
1.1 Prelinguistic stage (0-12 months)
Your baby is now developing talking skills. It involves using gestures and making eye contact. She begins to interact by cooing, babbling and crying, and making simple sounds. For example, dadadada, mamamama, and waaah.
Let’s have a look at what happens during different periods of the prelinguistic stage.
1.1.1 Newborn (up to 3 months)
She will recognise your voice, respond to you, and try to mirror your expressions. Talk to her, smile, and make faces. It helps build her communication skills and develop a vital emotional connection. She turns toward you and responds with cooing or gurgling. Your baby can now express her needs by crying in different ways. She can also make vowel sounds like ooh and ah.
1.1.2 Three to six months
She starts to babble.
She makes eye contact and says combinations of vowels and consonants, like ah goo. You are her role model – she listens to how you talk and watch how you do things. She tries simple sounds on her lips, like ma, pa, etc. and combines sounds and body language.
Babbling sounds the same for all babies, even if she is deaf. It means that all babies can learn any language. But it is exposure to a specific language that determines the language they will learn.
She will start to turn towards you when you speak and watch your lip movements. She responds to different tones and makes screeching sounds. It is how she expresses excitement, pleasure, and displeasure. She moves her mouth to shape different sounds and begins to communicate by using gestures. She babbles to get your attention and mimic sounds, tones, and movements.
1.1.3 Six to twelve months
From about six months, she will start to copy your sound and gestures. When she reaches nine months, she starts to put sounds together. It delights you when she says mama or dada. But she doesn’t know the meaning of these words yet.
She search for the direction sounds is coming from and pays attention to speech and sounds. Conversations interest her, and she recognises words like mama, dada, and bye-bye. Your baby knows and will respond to her name. She knows friendly and angry tones and expresses her moods with sound and gestures.
It is an exciting stage where she will start to experiment.
She makes more sounds, using her tongue to change them. Your baby also uses combinations of vowels and consonants when babbling. Have simple conversations with her. She will repeat syllables and repeat your intonation and speech sounds.
1.2 Holoprase or one-word stage (10-13 months)
1.2.1 Nine to twelve months
From around twelve months, she will start saying her first words.
She listens when you speak to her, recognises words for familiar objects, as well as the names of siblings. She also knows her name and can respond to simple instructions. Your baby identifies the voices and names of familiar people. When she babbles, it sounds more like her mother tongue. She can understand no and some gestures and will repeat sounds. Engage her in vocal play to practice accentuation and repeat sounds.
1.2.2 Twelve to eighteen months
Your baby knows a few words and their meaning.
She begins to make short sentences and understand most of what you say. She can pronounce and use up to six words starting with b, c, d, or g, and family members can understand most of what she says. But, strangers will grasp only about a quarter.
From about fifteen months, she understands up, down, hot, and off. She uses ten to twenty clear words (most of them nouns). Your baby now uses complete words and can make two-word sentences. She likes to imitate others and often repeats words and phrases.
1.3 The two-word sentence
1.3.1 Eighteen to twenty-four months
Her vocabulary has now grown to about fifty words. She starts to use short two-word sentences, using a noun or verb with a modifier. These sentences can be:
- Declarative: These sentences are statements or give facts, explanations, or information. For example, ball mine.
- Negative: It is false statements and uses words like do, did, and does before not. For instance, not doggy.
- Imperative: These sentences give an order or command. For example, give ball.
- Interrogative: It is a direct question, like where dada?
Your baby can use these types of sentences in context, and with the use of gestures, convey a complex message. She knows parts of her body and can point to them. She also tries multi-syllable words and uses three-word sentences. Her speech is more precise and better understood by strangers. She asks two-word questions and likes to try more challenging words like helicopter.
2. Communication types
2.1 Receptive communication
Receptive communication means that she reacts to you. She will turn towards your voice and reacts by making sounds and gestures. As her language development progresses, she will respond using understandable language. It is all about receiving messages and responding to them.
2.2 Expressive communication
Expressive communication means that she can convey a message to another person. It starts with the use of sounds, body language, and finally talking. And in the school years, through writing. She begins by saying single words and then joining them together in sentences. First using two-word sentences and then expanding. Her babbles will sound like the rhythm and cadence of their mother tongue.
3. Six ways to help with your baby’s language development
3.1 Talk to her constantly
You had already talked to your baby before she was born. It helped her to get used to the cadence and rhythm of her language. Continue talking to her right through her baby years, even though she can’t respond in the beginning. Tell her about daily events and things that you do, e.g. “We are going to the park and look at the kids playing.” Use words in different contexts. For example, bark – the sound a dog makes or the outer layer of a tree.
As she gets older, you should respond to all her efforts to communicate. You can mimic her sounds and, when she points at something, ask: “do you want your dummy?” Repeat common words often. Research shows that babies need to hear a word five hundred times before using it in a meaningful way.
Tip! Do not use baby talk. She needs to learn the language that she will use to communicate in future. But you can use parentese, which parents use without thinking. It refers to the way that parents tend to speak in a song-like or high-pitched voice.
3.2 Read to her often
Reading to your child is essential for her language development. Listening to you has many benefits. She gets used to the structure, grammar, and rhythm of their mother tongue. It also helps them to learn many new words. Start with board books with one to two high-contrast pictures per page.
From about three months you can read her short stories. Babies like listening to these familiar stories so read them to her often. When she starts to talk, you can make mistakes or leave gasps, which she will try to fill or correct. Teach her the meaning of words used in different ways and point to words as you read.
Different reading styles
Both mom and dad should read to her so that she can learn through your different reading styles. Mom’s tend to ask more concrete questions, and they label or describe objects. For example, they can ask: “What shape is the sun?”. It helps her to learn more words and information.
Dad asks questions that help kids increase their understanding and use their imagination. Children have to rely on their memory of past events and develop abstract thinking. A typical dad questions can be: “Why do you think the dog is sad?”
3.3 Why repetition matters
3.3.1 The research
Repetition generates a fast neural response and helps to create memory trace information. Babies need to hear a word five hundred times before they can use it in a meaningful way. Thus it would help if you repeated common words often.
Optical scanning can show increased brain activity. Studies found that when babies hear new words, there is more activity in specific brain areas. These areas are the temporal and left frontal brain areas. It proves babies have a natural ability to recognise basic language patterns.
3.3.2 Developing skills
We find the temporal region behind the ears. It helps us to develop skills essential to language, such as:
- Understanding spoken words
- Identification and categorisation of objects
- Learning and remembering new information, and
- Factual and long-term memory
The frontal lobes are behind the forehead and essential for expressive language. The left frontal lobe controls language-related movement. It can be hand gestures like waving and pointing or showing how you do things (e.g. how you comb your hair). Children who use these communication gestures also tend to be early talkers.
3.4 Listen to music with your baby
Listening to music is fun and helps with language development. It is an excellent way to explore rhythm and rhyming. Listen to songs online and when you’re driving. Lullabies are calming, and they entertain her. At the same time, songs build a firm base to learn language skills. It is easier for babies to learn words through songs and rhymes. Sing old favourites like The wheels on the bus, Head and Shoulders, and the ABC song. You can find more songs here.
3.5 Check ear infections
Ear infections affect listening and can slow down language development if left untreated. She will need medication and follow-up visits to ensure it has cleared completely.
3.6 Explore the outside world with your baby
You and her can visit many interesting places like the zoo, an aquarium, and even museums. Talk to your baby about all the news things and point to different objects as you say their names.
But the place to visit with your baby is, of course – the library! Read a story together while you’re there, and let her touch and explore the feel of them. As she grows older, she can pick a book and see if you can buy a few board books from a thrift store. Remember to give them a quick wipe at home and put felt tabs on each tab. She can use these tabs to practice turning the pages herself.
4. How does hearing loss affect language development in your baby?
In a previous article, we discovered possible causes of hearing loss. Although it often happens only later in life. The starting point of language development and communication skills is hearing sounds. It includes learning to read and write, as well as social skills. She needs to be able to hear precise speech and hear herself. Otherwise, it will delay the development of these critical skills.
4.1 How do we hear?
You need to know that hearing involves two processes. – the ears receiving sounds, and the auditory centres make sense of what it hears. Your baby’s brain develops as she grows. Thus hearing loss harms the development of the auditory centres in the brain. Most of these structures evolve and interconnects at an early age. It is why a hearing check is part of your newborn’s first screening. Address hearing loss ASAP to ensure proper development of the auditory structures.
4.2 Effects on language development
The earlier hearing loss develops, the more significant its effect on language development. It affects many areas of language development, such as:
- Delays development of receptive and expressive language.
- Above delays can result in learning issues with lower academic performance.
- Communication issues lead to social isolation.
- They are slower to learn words. Concrete words (cat, dog, etc.)are more manageable than abstract words (jump, jealous, etc.)
- The vocabulary gap widens with age if corrective measures are not taken.
- They struggle with words with many different meanings. For example, orange, meaning a colour or a fruit.
- They struggle to understand and use complex sentences.
- Because they can’t hear s or ed at the end of words, they use verb tense, plural form and possessives wrong. They will also often use subjects and verbs that don’t agree.
- They can’t hear silent sounds like s, sh, f, t, and k, affecting speech development.
4.3 What can you do to help your baby?
Luckily, babies can start using hearing aids as young as three months. In cases of severe hearing loss, cochlear implants are an option when she is a year old. Besides these interventions, you should start implementing best communication practices like the following:
- Ensure she can see your face when you speak to her.
- Speak clear and at a normal pace. Shouting distorts sounds and makes speech harder to understand. Instead, rephrase a sentence if your baby struggles to understand you.
- To improve communication, choose a quiet environment. Remove background sounds and move closes to your child when you talk.
5. Tips for optimal language development
- Arrange a hearing check if you had any risk factors during pregnancy. If the tests confirm a hearing loss, make use of measures like hearing aids and cochlear implants.
- Talk to her as you go about your day. Tell her what you are doing and name objects as you point to them. Have a conversation by letting her respond. She will start by using facial expressions and later repeat gestures. When she started talking, she can react using simple words and sentences.
- Read to her often. Start with books with one to two high-contrast pictures. Point to items as you read. As her speech develops, you can make mistakes when reading that she can correct or leave out words for her to fill in. As her talking improves, you can start asking simple questions for her to answer.
- Explore the world by taking her to the park, library, or museum. Teach her new words by pointing to objects while saying its name.
- Repeat common and new words often since she needs to hear a word 500 times before using it in a meaningful way. Find creative ways to use new terms from your explorations in your conversations.
- Take advantage of the different reading styles. You and Daddy can take turns reading to her. In this way, she develops various skills, like expanding vocabulary, understanding and imagination.
We see that the early stages are critical for language development. But there are also many things you can do to give your baby an advantage. Continue talking and reading to her, and remember to repeat words often.
No parent wants their baby to have hearing loss. But ensure that she has a hearing test (even if there are no known risk factors). Early detection and corrective measures can make all the difference in language development.
Which of these action steps can you use today to optimise your baby’s language development?
Susan van der Walt is an avid reader of genres like crime, thrillers, adventure, and true stories. On Read or Rot she shares her favourite books and quotes with you. She also writes articles, book reviews and book recommendations. She lives in Alberton (South Africa) with her husband, Warrick, and fur baby, Pixie.