Speech and Language give us access to the world around us. They allow us to interact, express our needs, tell stories, make friends, follow direction and learn. Speech and language are great gifts that help us to be fully human. But, what should we expect from our children, how do we help them develop these abilities and how do we know when we need help along the way?
Children are amazing language learners. From the day they are born, they learn about speech and language. Babies learn to recognize and imitate meaningful speech sounds within the first 6 months. Imitating, cooing, and babbling are the first stages of future complicated speech. By 12 months, they are often able to follow some easy direction, respond to simple yes/no questions and often speak their first words. By 18 months, children have about 50 words in their vocabulary and are even learning to combine them. “Mommy up!” and “More juice!” are examples of early word combinations which begin the development of sentences.
At this age, toddlers are still fine tuning the control of their mouths. Some sounds can just be too difficult to pronounce (e.g. bath; slide). Especially before age 3, replacing these sounds with easier ones help them with the very complex task of moving the tongue, the lips, the voice box and breathing, all at the right time! It is very normal at this stage that a cat is a “tat” and a dog is a “gog”. At age 5, children might still make some speech errors but it is easy to understand them. Some dysfluency is normal. They are still working out grammar forms and therefore need some thinking time. A certain amount of word repetition and false starts is expected. By age 7, they are very much in command of their speech, which provides a solid foundation to take on the challenge of learning, reading, and writing.
However, what if a child is growing up bilingual or multilingual, is it any different? Learning a second language does not put your child at risk for language learning problems. Actually, bilingual children may have advantages over other children. Such as, performing higher on vocabulary tests, early development of metalinguistic skills, and being better prepared to meet the demands of a multicultural society. Children, who begin learning languages simultaneously from birth, tend to master both languages within the same amount of time as monolingual children. However, bilingual children need to have a balanced input of at least 20 hours of each language per week and their boundaries should be kept clear.
Even still, they will encounter alternative challenges along the way. Because they are processing and sorting out two different systems, first words may come out later. Sometimes children will begin speaking in only one language. It is important to keep in mind that as children are learning two languages, the grammar of one might influence the other and they might mix vocabulary. It is very likely that children will switch back and forth between languages, even within a sentence. For example, they start a phrase in German, and end in English. These are normal learning processes for bilingual children.
In order to help your child have the best chance for developing speech-language skills, here are some very basic tools. First, make sure to see a pediatrician for developmental check-ups. A 'hearing screening' should be performed to ensure accessibility to all speech sounds and language. Monitor frequent ear infections because they can contribute to speech problems. And be conscious of ‘developmental milestones’. Research has shown that proper parental awareness of their children's accomplishments by certain ages can help foster sophisticated speech and language.
Most importantly, spending time talking with your child facilitates speech and language. Talking about the world around them, playing face-to-face, and providing new experiences are a good place to start. Explain new vocabulary, talk about categories, compare and contrast items. Acknowledge communication by responding and then expanding thoughts. Read stories and discuss them. Ask them to predict what comes next in the story and if they don't know, help them find the answer. Encourage them to tell their own stories and give their own opinions. Play age-appropriate games with them like “I spy” and “21 questions”.
While playing games like house, doctor and store, build a dialogue between the characters. Promote early literacy by using print as much as possible. For example, have them help you make a grocery list or schedule activities for the day. Helping them become aware of speech sounds in words is also important. Practice talking about first and last sounds, playing rhyming games and singing “Ana Banana” type songs. If children are growing up with two languages, when possible, practice these activities in both languages, ideally with the native speaker.
If you are concerned about your child's speech-language development, it is always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician and contact a Speech-Language Pathologist otherwise known as speech therapist.
Sometimes comparing your child to others of the same age, or even to siblings, can prolong a proper diagnosis. Friend and family may tell you “My kid didn't talk until he was 2, but now she won't stop.” or even “Don't worry, she'll grow out of it.” But, if at any time, as a parent you are concerned, seek a professional opinion. Early action increases the chances of improvement as opposed to simply "waiting it out." Early detection of language disorders can help prevent potential behavioral, learning, reading, and social interaction difficulties. When possible, children who are difficult to understand should be treated between the ages 3-4 because otherwise children are likely to experience problems with reading and writing when they start school.
Problems with speech-language development are quite common and can be effectively treated. As mentioned, early detection is key, and with the proper tender loving care, any child can overcome obstacles and flourish.