Typical Speech and Language Acquisition in Infants and Young Children
- Created: Wednesday, 09 November 2011 08:56
- Updated on Tuesday, 06 January 2015 13:23
Innate and learned
Language is partly innate and partly learned, as children interact with other people and the environment.
The symbolisation of thought
Language has been called the symbolisation of thought. It is a learned code, or system of rules that enables us to communicate our ideas and to express our wants and needs. Reading, writing, gesturing and speaking are all forms of language.
Language falls into two main divisions:
Pragmatic skills begin to develop in the early weeks of life, with tiny babies "turn taking", and initiating communicative interchanges, and "talking" (non-verbally, of course) to their caregivers.
Pragmatic skills include:
A rough guide to development
This may sound strange, but expect your child's speech to be child-like.
This is normal...
ALL children sometimes misunderstand what is said to them, utter oddly worded sentences, and put speech sounds and syllables in the wrong spots (or omit them) when they are learning to talk.
...and this is not
If your child is a late talker (see above) or you are concerned about your child's language progress seek an assessment from an SLP/SLT.
Trust YOUR judgment
You might be advised by a kindly friend, relative or "non-SLP" professional that your child is too young
Follow your instincts!
How is language learned?
Whether they speak early or late, are learning one language or more, are learning to talk along typical lines or are experiencing difficulties, the language acquisition of all children occurs gradually through interaction with people and the environment.
Your role in language learning
Maybe you are a couple raising your baby, or you might be a sole parent or caregiver. Whatever your family structure, you are the most 'significant other' your baby interacts with communicatively. The way you engage with him or her will determine the path that language development takes in the vital first five years.
Enjoy this exciting period in your child's development. Talk in a natural way about what he or she is doing, seeing and hearing. Listen to the sounds, and later the words he or she says, and respond, so that your child knows you are listening. Read stories together from an early age, and make communicating fun and interesting.
Progress should be steady
Children learn at different rates. Some are fast language learners and some are slow, so it is best not to compare one child's language development with another's. The important thing to watch is that language development proceeds steadily, not whether it is fast or slow.
Ages and Stages charts for speech and language development and speech intelligibility criteria can be worrying if they are interpreted too rigidly. Remember that children vary quite considerably with regard to the rate at which they reach the various speech and language 'milestones'. So there is no need to put out an SOS for a speech pathologist if your child does not do the things itemised at precisely the ages stated! When you see language ages and stages and read an age like '12 months' say to yourself, 'twelve months or so'.
The first three years
By 12 months (or so!) most children have one or two words that they say with meaning and can comply with simple requests (e.g., 'Can I have your cup?') or commands (e.g., "Don't touch!") and understand little questions (e.g., 'Where's your tummy?').
By 2 to 3 years of age your child should be able to follow two-part instructions ('Get your teddy and put it on the chair') and string two or three words together to talk about and ask for things.
More detailed information
You might be interested to read the section here about Brown's Stages. It provides an account of the development of the first 'sentences' children say, and the grammatical rules (morphemes) they apply. There is also information on this site about the way SLPs collect and analyse small children's language samples.
If progress seems too slow
If 'first words' have not emerged by 18 months make a concerted effort to spend half an hour a day just playing and interacting one-to-one with your baby. This can be difficult to organise in larger families, but it often does the trick! How to set these times up and maximise their usefulness can be discussed with an SLP/SLT, who may suggest and demonstrate various activities.
When to seek help
Even though they are concerned that their child's speech and language development may be unusual or slower than normal, people may hesitate to seek the professional advice of a speech-language pathologist. Sometimes this is because they are advised against it by reassuring friends, family and others. But sometimes it is because they think the child is too young to 'be assessed'.
The fact is, babies or toddlers are never too young for a communication skills assessment. Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) see children from infancy.
The very very young clients SLPs include on their caseloads may have cleft palate, hearing impairment, developmental disability (for example, Down Syndrome) or they may have been identified early as being "at risk", unduly silent, withdrawn or unresponsive to the communicative attempts of others. Or they may simply be late talkers. The right time to seek SLP/SLT help is when you, as a parent, are concerned.
SLPs and SLTs
Many researchers have studied children's acquisition of individual speech sounds (phonetic development, also often referred to as articulation development), and the way they organise these sounds into speech patterns (phonemic or phonological development).
Drawing on this vast and varied body of research, Dr Sharynne McLeod of Charles Sturt University in Australia and Dr Kenneth Bleile of the Universityof Northern Iowa compiled an overview of typical speech development from a researchers around the world, working from a variety of theoretical perspectives.
Children's speech does not sound like adult speech because they make typical, systematic child-like 'sound replacements'. These sound replacements are called phonological processes by some researchers and phonological patterns by others.
Intelligibility, Phones and Phonemes
Speech development can be considered in terms of:
Some of the phonological processes, and the ages by which they normally disappear from a child's speech are summarised in Table 3. The following examples of phonological processes provide a general rule of thumb.
The phonological process called context sensitive voicing e.g., cup = gup has usually disappeared from a child's speech sound system by three years of age (3;0).Similarly, the phonological process called word final devoicing e.g., bed = bet has normally gone by 3;0. A few months later by 3;3 (that's three years 3 months) final consonant deletion, e.g., boat = bow generally vanishes. The phonological process of velar fronting e.g., car = tar persists until about 3;6 in many children. Consonant harmony e.g., kittycat = tittytat, continues until close to 3;9, by which age it has normally vanished.
Weak syllable deletion e.g., elephant = effant is common up to the age of 4;0, as is cluster reduction e.g., spoon = boon. Gliding of liquids e.g., leg = weg normally disappears by 5;0. Stopping of 'f' e.g., fish = tish, and Stopping of 's' e.g., say = tay go by 3;0. Stopping of 'z' e.g., peas = pead often persists until 3.6. Stopping of 'sh' (shop = dop), Stopping of 'j' (Jack = dack) and Stopping of 'ch' (chin = tin) are eliminated by 4;6. Stopping of 'th' (this = dis, that = dat) can go on until 5;0.
This information is displayed in Table 3.
Speech-Langage Pathologists (SLPs) / Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) are the only professionals uniquely qualified to assess, diagnose and treat communication disorders.
Speech and language professional are called by different names in different parts of the world. For example:
Australia Speech Pathologist
Not all SLPs/SLTs see children, and not all SLPs/SLTs who do see children assess and manage every childhood communication disorder. Some SLPs/SLTs specialise in particular areas, and some are generalists.
If you are in Australia, consult a certified practising member (CPSP) of Speech Pathology Australia. United States and Cananda residents should look at the ASHA site where there is an Online Directory of SLPs and Audiologists. The Canadian site has a 'find a practioner' page. In the United Kingdom ASLTIP has a searchable database of Speech and Language Therapists in private (independent) practice.
If you are somewhere else in the world, and you are uncertain about a practitioner's qualifications, check with the professional association for Speech-Language Pathologists/Speech and Language Therapists in your country, or the country where the practitioner says they gained their qualifications. Most of these sites contain a description of the criteria for membership of their associations.
The links to Associations on the SLP START PAGE connect you to bona fide professional associations.
You are the expert
Rely on your own judgment. If you think your child has a problem in the area of communication skills don't hesitate to seek proper professional help. Don't be diverted by well-meaning people who are overly reassuring. Remember, you are the best expert on your own child's development and progress.
Early identification of communication difficulties in children can prevent other problems developing, such as difficult behaviour, learning difficulties (especially with reading and spelling) and problems relating to and getting along with other people.