Learning to talk

Learning to Talk - Developing language, 0-6 years

Tue, February 09 2021

Children have a natural urge and incredible capacity to learn language between the age of birth to six.  They can do this effortlessly and tirelessly, ultimately striving to communicate via the spoken word so they can express their needs and ideas to others.  It’s a phenomenal feat of the first few years of life, and one that you can assist when you know how.  


The road to becoming a chatterbox is a complex synchronicity of body and brain development.  Here are the four main stages. 


  1. Hearing:  Healthy and functioning hearing is essential for the auditory discrimination of sounds by your child.  You’ll notice that by about 12 months they will start to understand the meaning of some sounds or words, eg the sound of the front door signalling and a parent coming home.
  2. Healthy functioning vocal apparatus:  That’s fancy language for the organs, including the pharynx, larynx, gums/teeth, tongue, and lips, that produce sounds and speech.  Children listen to ambient language spontaneously and attempt to produce sound patterns that match what they hear.  Their vocalisation improves with dramatic anatomical changes that happen in the first year of life.  Early on, your baby will start to coo, laugh and babble;  making strings of consonant-vowel syllables such as “bababa” or “mamama,” and eventually meaningful speech emerges.  
  3. Access to spoken language:  Children quickly move to vocabulary development and so the richness of the language around them, quality and quantity, is key.   Talk to them and give them a multitude of vocabulary. It doesn’t matter if your child doesn’t understand, because understanding will grow as your child develops.  The same applies if you are speaking a second language at home.
  4. The desire to communicate:  Through language we are able to express ourselves, cooperate, collaborate and receive knowledge.  Learning to speak opens up new dimensions of early independence as they start to put words into action and string 2 or more words together.  Eventually you can understand what your child says to you (most of the time!)  and so can other people.   Before long they are talking about all sorts of things and vocabulary is growing.

How you can help your child to develop language skills

Recently I worked with a mum who said her toddler was getting very frustrated. It can take a while for children to have the vocabulary and oral skills they need to use their language, sometimes they literally don’t have the words. Besides being patient and giving them time, there are a few thing you can do to help your child become confident talkers;


  1. Talk to them - babble and talk away with your child.  They are listening and absorbing everything. Everyday chatter about what you are doing, what the plan is for the day, naming the things you see and touch.  Anything really.  This helps your child learn the meaning and function of words in their world.   
  2. Listen and give them a chance to respond.  Notice that if you coo or gah, your baby will often respond to you if you wait and listen.  Try and get down to their eye level, stop and listen; free of distraction. Even very young babies will decrease their communication if they feel like they are not responded to.
  3. Watch your language - they hear everything, so quality and quantity matters.  Using a variety of words to express emotions will also help your child to express their feelings;  or give more descriptive detail to situations and objects.
  4. Reading with your child provides endless opportunities to explore language, increasing the complexity as they get older.  You can start reading books to your baby and continue reading aloud right through childhood.  


When to get expert help

Language development varies hugely, and children grow at different rates, but talk to your GP or another health professional if you have concerns. 

Things to watch out for

  • Hearing - notice if they respond to a variety of sounds, pitches and volumes.
  • Illness - Young children can be susceptible to ear infections due to the structure of the Eustachian tubes, and this can affect their hearing.
  • Structural issues like cleft palate, tongue and lip tie are often detected at birth however seek advice from your doctor if you suspect something may have gone undetected.



When I work with families in our Under 3 classes, I show them how to observe their children, and we even take notes so that they can see the changes over time.  You can do the same at home, so this week, try noticing;

  • All of the sounds and words that your child is making. 
  • Are there any obstacles in the way of their language development? 
  • What are some ways to increase their motivation to communicate? 
  • How can you increase the richness of your language? 

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