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Early Language Development FAQs
Q; How do speech and language normally develop?
A: Early language and speech growth are closely related to a child’s overall cognitive and social-emotional development. Infants use a variety of skills to pick up on the patterns of the speech and language that is used around them. These skills are based on both genetic predispositions as well as environmental factors, including the quality and quantity of language input and social interactions. It is important that an infant’s earliest relationships are emotionally healthy, which in turn will allow the baby’s attention and social skills to hone in on the most important features of the language to be learned.
Q: Is my child on track to develop language and literacy milestones at the typical time or point in development?
A: While there are some general benchmarks that are helpful to be aware of, there is also a lot of variation in how children reach milestones, and each child develops at her or his own pace. Typically, a parent or regular caregiver has the best “eyes and ears” regarding an individual child’s developmental path, as opposed to always waiting for a teacher or doctor to first notice any irregularities in a child’s behavior. Any concerns should be brought to the attention of a professional, so the particular behaviors of that child can be discussed and explored on an individual basis.
Q: What can I do to promote good language and reading skills in my baby?
A: It is important that infants directly experience plenty of language from familiar people on a regular basis. Whenever possible, the native language of the caregivers should be used, and language should be used in live interactions, as opposed to through television or media.
Young children learn best when their lead is followed, so pay attention to what the baby seems to be interested in, and provide a “running commentary” on what the baby is seeing or doing, as well as narrate your own actions as you complete everyday activities such as changing, washing or feeding the baby. Be sure to give your child enough time to take a turn too, even if it is a small coo, or even just a smile or laugh, then you can be the one to imitate.
It is never too early to share books, especially ones that are easy for the baby to touch and hold. Familiar pictures, stories, rhymes, simple songs and finger games (such as Itsy-Bitsy-Spider) all help a child get used to the sounds of the language, and regular reading routines teach children that books are fun.
Q: Should I teach sign language to my baby?
A: The short answer is that it is up to you, as long as it is not done under the assumption that the use of signs will cause earlier, faster or stronger language development. While there is no evidence that using sign is related to more advanced communication skills, many parents find that using “baby signs,” or specific gestures paired with familiar actions or events (such as “more” or “all done”), is a fun way to interact with their little one, particularly before the onset of first spoken words. Some parents even report that frustration is minimized, as signs may provide an easy way to communicate.
However, when you teach signs to your baby, you are also using high levels of social engagement and interaction with positive reinforcement, which are all related to overall language and cognitive development. If you do decide to use sign, the important thing is to keep it fun.
Q: My child doesn’t say much but seems to understand everything that others say. Is there a language problem?
A: A general rule of thumb is that if a baby’s first words do not occur by 14 months, or two-word utterances by 20 months, it’s time to seek professional help from a certified early language specialist.
Q: My child doesn’t seem to like to listen to me or look at me when I say something. Does this mean that my child is at risk for autism?
A: A parent is often the best “eyes and ears” regarding an individual child’s developmental path, so any concerns should be brought to the attention of a professional. There could be many reasons for a child to not look or listen when you speak, and consulting a specialist could help determine what could be going on, if anything. It is not possible to tell whether a child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder based on these behaviors alone.
Q: How do I know if my child can hear?
A: If your child has not yet had any hearing screening, regardless of observable symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting one (most hospitals offer a newborn hearing screening shortly after birth, which is a quick and noninvasive procedure). If you observe behaviors that might suggest hearing difficulty, such as not responding in any way to your voice or to other sounds, consult a doctor or pediatric audiologist.
It is important to know that even babies with significant or profound hearing loss often still babble much in the same manner as hearing babies until a certain point in development, so the ability to coo or babble is not necessarily a marker of hearing status.
Q: What happens when a toddler grows up with more than one language being spoken in the house?
A: Research suggests that young children can learn multiple languages without being confused, as long as they hear native speakers and have consistent experience with both languages. In fact, it is easiest for children to learn language as early in life as possible, when their brains are still developing.
Children learning two languages may have smaller vocabularies in one or both languages, compared to children learning only one language. But, when words of both languages are counted, bilingual children have around the same number (or more) words when compared to monolingual children.
When children start to “mix” both languages in the same sentence, they are not confused. Rather, this is a normal stage and means that the child is developing strong language skills. When a child has strong language skills in their first language, it helps develop strong language and literacy skills in both their first and subsequent languages.
Q: Can my child learn a second language using DVDs or audiotapes that advertise second-language learning through video exposure?
A: Our studies show that TV or audio presentations will not, by themselves, allow foreign language development in a very young child, but that human interaction during play and reading with someone who speaks a foreign language is an excellent way to learn that language.