Home › Health Topics › Growth & Development > 

Learning to talk

development; needs; talk; communication; delay; delayed speech; speech; communicating; language; talking; bilingual; bilingualism; ;

Learning to talk is one of the most important steps that young children take. It helps them make sense of the world, to ask for what they need and to get along with other people.

Language and speech development starts at birth and progresses quickly through the early years and beyond. As with other learning, it happens at different rates for different children.


The content of this topic comes from a Parent Easy Guide developed by ParentingSA. Parenting SA is a collaboration between the Women's and Children's Health Network and the Department of Education and Child Development, South Australia.

Content of this topic

Steps in learning to talk

The early months

Long before they can speak, babies are listening to their parents and carers. They begin to make little noises and sounds which come before speech. If parents imitate these, it is as if they are talking to the baby. This is the beginning of your baby learning to talk.

By responding to your baby's needs when she cries, you show that you have heard her and that she matters. This is the start of communication.

8–12 months

  • The early little noises turn into babbling e.g. 'Da-da-da-da' and 'Ma-ma-ma-ma'.
  • Babies begin to learn what some simple words mean even though they cannot say them, e.g. 'Mummy, Bottle, No'.
  • There may be one or two single words.
  • Babies wave 'Bye-bye' when asked.
  • They respond to simple questions, e.g. ‘Where’s Daddy?’

12–18 months

  • There is much babbling in the children's own jargon.
  • The first single words appear e.g. 'No, Dad, Dog'.
  • Can point to things they know, e.g. objects and body parts and respond to familiar requests, e.g ‘Come here’.
  • Children know their own names and respond to them.

18 months to 3 years

  • From 18 to 21 months children may use 15 or more words, name some objects and talk more clearly.
  • Two year olds can say their name and ask for simple things, e.g. ‘Drink’.
  • Children may copy the last part of your sentences and try out different speech sounds.
  • By two years children start to join two words together, e.g. ‘Daddy home’, ‘All gone’, and by two and a half years use short sentences, e.g. ‘Look Mummy dog’.
  • Two and a half year olds realise language can get others to respond.

3 to 4 years

  • Children begin to ask what, where, who, when and why questions, and understand what, where and who.
  • They use sentences with three or four words.
  • They begin to separate the truth from make-believe.
  • Their speech should be understandable most of the time.
  • They are likely to talk to themselves as they do things.
  • They can learn and join in simple rhymes and songs.

Learning to talk is important and should be fun. The best thing parents can do is talk with babies and young children often.

4 to 5 years

  • Children learn to adjust their language to the situation they are in. For example: They talk differently to their parents than they do to their friends.
  • By four years children should have over 1500 words and use sentences of at least four or five words.
  • They can talk about imaginary situations e.g. ‘I hope...’
  • They still mix truth and make-believe and like to tell stories.
  • They can say their name, age and address if they have been taught this. They understand colours and shapes.
  • Four year olds enjoy making up words for fun and using toilet words, e.g. 'poo', 'bum'.
  • Their speech is clearer but they still may not be using 'th', 'r', 'z', 's', and 'v'.

What parents can do

  • Talk to your baby right from birth and imitate her sounds.
  • Read books with your baby
  • Name things and talk about what you are doing. Use simple words and sentences at first with an emphasis on key words.
  • Have conversations with your child every day.
  • Listen with interest when they talk to you. Don’t interfere or correct their speech. Don’t let older brothers or sisters interrupt.
  • Answer questions simply and clearly.
  • Allow your child time to get out what they want to say. If they are stumbling over words suggest they tell you slowly - then listen carefully.
  • Sing songs and read stories or rhymes with enthusiasm. Talk about the pictures and name things in them.
  • Take your child to the local library and read stories to them - borrow or buy books they really enjoy.
  • Get down to eye level with your child when teaching a new word so they can see your lips and hear the word clearly. Be at their level when they are talking to you.
  • Get down to eye level with your child when teaching a new word so he can see your lips and hear the word clearly.

For children with a severe hearing loss, it is most important that their hearing loss is recognised before six months of age.

Be concerned if your child

  • does not react to loud noises by one month old.
  • does not turn her head to a noise or voice by four to seven months. Hearing problems often cause speech difficulties.
  • does not start to make single sounds, e.g. 'ba ba' by eight or nine months.
  • does not babble or make other sounds when someone talks to her by twelve months.
  • is not starting to say single words by twelve months.
  • does not understand simple instructions by two years.
  • frequently repeats sounds or part-words, e.g. 'Wh-wh-where's my ba-ba-ball?'
  • lengthens sounds or gets stuck on words, e.g. 'm-m-m-m' or da-a-a-a-ad' See Stuttering
  • is embarrassed or worried when speaking.

If you are concerned about your child's speech, talk to your local child health nurse or your Doctor. Make sure he has had his hearing checked. Hearing problems often cause speech difficulties. Your child may need to see a speech pathologist.

Bilingualism and raising bilingual children

‘Bilingualism’ means being able to use two or more languages. Over half of the world’s population is bilingual. In Australia, an increasing number of children are growing up in homes where more than one language is spoken.

Raising bilingual children has lots of benefits, such as creating strong family and cultural bonds. The way you support bilingualism in your family depends on your family situation and the languages you use at home.

To find out more about this, have a look at:

Contacts in South Australia

  • Parent Helpline: Tel 1300 364 100 for advice on child health and parenting
  • Child and Family Health Centres: Tel 1300 733 606
    9am–4:30pm, Monday to Friday to make an appointment at your local Centre


Parenting SA For other Parent Easy Guides including ‘Milestones’, ‘Why stories are important’, ‘More than reading and writing’ and ‘Growing and learning in the family’, Why stories are important, Right from the start, Living with babies.

Raising Children Network For information on raising children including bilingual children www.raisingchildren.net.au 

Books for parents

  • There are many books for parents about helping children learn to talk. Perhaps you could talk with the children's librarian at your local library.

Books for children

  • Babies and young children need books with large realistic pictures of things that they know.
back to top

The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

Home › Health Topics › Growth & Development >