Your child’s speech development starts long before he or she says the first word. In fact, some research indicates that a baby learns to recognize the mother’s voice already while in the womb. At just a few months old, babies will distinguish between the language of their environment and a foreign language. Studies showing this did not include a familiar voice, just the familiar language contrasted with the foreign language.
Your child’s language development thus has already started before he or she is making any speech-like sounds. It follows that talking to your tiny baby is important, even though the baby cannot yet understand the words. You may even want to read out loud to your baby. Could hearing rhymes at this early stage help the baby develop better speech and learn to read more easily later on? We don’t know, but we can be sure at will not hurt.
So just hearing speech lays a foundation for learning to talk. Actual speech skills also start to develop through several stages before the first words appear.
The baby starts making vowel-like sounds when only around six weeks old. It is usually a sign of contentment and may also be a way for the baby to experiment with making sounds. These sounds are what we call cooing. Imitating these sounds back to the baby becomes a way of connecting, a first step toward verbal communication, even though the sounds are not really verbal in the true sense but merely a pleasant game.
Sometime around the age of four to six months, the baby starts to make strings of consonant-vowel sequences such as ba-ba-ba, or da-da-da. We then say the baby is babbling. The baby is now experimenting with more complex sound making.
The babbling consists of shifts between an open mouth (the vowel sound) and closed mouth (the consonant sound). The most common consonant sounds used in babbling are b, d, g and m. For the first three sounds, the air stream through the mouth is momentarily stopped. When the baby opens the mouth it makes a vowel sound. For m, the air is stopped at the mouth but allowed to escape through the nose. When we imitate the baby’s babbling, we set the stage for the baby starting to imitate our words. We match the baby’s sounds, and the baby in turn matches ours. At first it is just a fun game, but gradually the child learns how to make the sounds we are making.
By eight months or so, your baby’s babbling may begin to sound more like the baby is trying to talk. The strings of syllables start to include variations in rhythm and intonation that imitate conversations.
Often the first words develop directly out of the child’s babbling. The parents, eager to hear those first words, assign meaning to the baby’s ma-ma-ma or da-da-da.
Your child may or may not catch on to the meaning you assign to “mama” and “dada.” The first true words may be these or some other words. They are usually ones that are repeated frequently in a situation of high interest to your child. Which words come first differs a great deal from one child to another.
My daughter’s first word was “titta,” the Swedish word for “look.” She was my first child, and I spent a great deal of time carrying her on my arm. I would point out birds on the ground and other interesting things to look at. Each time, as I pointed to something, I would say, “Titta!” This word has a babbling-like structure similar to “mama” or “dada,” and is therefore easy for a baby to say.
The baby’s first words have not yet taken on their exact, lexical meaning in the child’s mind. It may take quite some time before your baby understands the real meaning of a word and is able to use it correctly in a variety of situations. Learn more about this in my article, Learning Words.
Putting Word Together
Some time in the second year, your child will start to put two or three words together into simple phrases. Those phrases may sound something like “Daddy go bye-bye.” These are not true sentences, but simply short strings of words with no real grammatical structure.
When one of my sons was about 18 months, seeing the very first snow fascinated him. He stood by the window much of the morning looking at the white stuff falling from the sky. When he woke up from his nap, he went straight to that window. It was with great disappointment in his voice that he exclaimed, “_now don!” (Snow gone!)
Some children will imitate sentences exactly as they have heard them. It may then sound as though they are putting complete sentences together, before they are able to do it themselves.
Soon after the second birthday, most children will be able to start building their own sentences. They will use common phrases and structures they have heard as the building blocks around the needed content words. Many grammatical features such as gender or verb tense may still be incorrect. But, they are now on their way to being able to communicate effectively in a variety of situations.