DISCLAIMER: I am not a speech therapist. I have a master’s degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences and have spent my career working with children who have hearing impairment and/or language delays. I am happy to attempt to answer any questions you may have, but if you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, please contact your local early intervention agency or talk to your child’s pediatrician.
I always wanted to be a writer. But as my senior year of college began, I realized I had no concrete career plans for my forthcoming English (with emphasis in Creative Writing) degree. My sister and I had signed up to take a sign language class together, and it was the instructor of that class who recommended I look into deaf education as a career. I applied and was accepted to the graduate program across the state, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. The first thing I learned is that sign language is not the only way to teach a child with a profound hearing impairment.
Much of my graduate studies centered around first learning, and then putting into practice, typical language development. When I left the field after five intense years, I went on to put this knowledge to use helping families with children who had language delays not related to hearing impairment. The same fundamentals apply, whether you’re talking about a child who is hearing with a cochlear implant for the first time or one who melts down in frustration at not being understood.
Now that I have a child of my own, I am blown away to see the language development I spent years studying and working on with families unfold effortlessly before my eyes. Yes, I have some tricks up my sleeve, but baby girl’s development has been on a fast track since she first started saying “bye-bye” at ten months old. I don’t know that anything I’ve done has made a significant impact. Child development is funny that way. There are huge individual differences, broad ranges of what is considered “typical,” and periods of relative quiet preceding and following an “explosion” of new skills. My own language development, in contrast to my daughter’s, started out slowly. According to my mom, I hardly said a word until I was two, when I suddenly started speaking in full sentences and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which I learned from watching Captain Kangaroo.
So what is “typical”? As I’ve said, there’s a broad range of skills that fall under that umbrella. I’d rather not get into numbers of words at specific ages here. Instead, I’d like to walk through the foundations of language development that most children will use to build their communication skills, as well as some strategies parents and caregivers may be able to use to enhance that development.
The first thing we need to clarify are the terms I’ll be using here, specifically “communication,” “language,” and “speech.”
Communication comes in many forms: crossed arms, a significant glance, raised eyebrows, or even a slammed door. Children are born knowing the most primal form of communication–crying. And we heed these cries for a reason. They are a clear signal to us that our child is hungry, uncomfortable, in pain, or otherwise in need of attention. As they grow, watching and interacting with the world around them, children begin to learn new ways to communicate: imitating a facial expression, pointing to the cat or a ball or a cookie, laughing at a shared joke. All of these are forms of communication, and all are important for a child’s cognitive, social-emotional, and language development.
Language, as I will refer to it here, consists of spoken words. Humans are the only species on the planet to use a complex system of words to express their wants, needs, feelings, emotions, and opinions. We’re the only ones to write songs and recite poetry. Spoken words are the most efficient and effective way to make our thoughts known to others, especially when that thought is “I’m hungry,” or “Stop!” Children learn to both understand and use spoken language in a series of milestones that build onto each other.
Often confused with language, Speech does not refer to how many words a child uses, but rather how the child pronounces those words and whether or not the child is understood by others. This is a skill that also develops incrementally, meaning that a new talker is not going to be developmentally capable of pronouncing every word perfectly. Some sounds develop before others, and perfect speech is not something to be expected from a toddler. Even at age five or six, some children may not be able to produce a clear /s/ sound, but this is not necessarily an indication of a problem. Again, the range of typical speech development is very broad.
I’m used to working with parents of all backgrounds and education levels. In my experience, even the smartest parent has never been taught the basics of language development. So forgive me if some of the content here seems a bit remedial. As one of the parents I worked with–a doctor–said, “I never knew how to talk to my kid.” I hope that’s not the case for you, but if it is, maybe this series of posts will help. I welcome any feedback or suggestions in the comments.