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 on with other people. If you think about how hard it is for adults to learn a different language you can get some idea of what it is like for an infant to learn to speak from having no language at all. Language and speech, like other development, take place 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.
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 and carers 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.
- 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 obey simple requests such as 'Give me the ball'.
- There is much babbling in the children's own jargon.
- The first single words appear e.g. 'No, Dad, Dog'.
- Children can point to things that they know when they are asked to.
- Children know their own names and respond to them.
18 months to 2 years
18 month olds can know and use six or more words. Two year olds may have 100 or more words. Many of the words may be unclear but the parent or carer can tell what is meant.
- Two year olds can say their name.
- They can ask for simple things that they need e.g. 'Drink'.
- Children start to join words together e.g. 'Daddy home', 'All gone'.
- They copy the last part of sentences.
- They try out different speech sounds and make mistakes.
3 to 4 years
- Children begin to ask 'What?' and 'Why?' questions.
- They use sentences with three or four words.
- They begin to separate the truth from make-believe.
- They can talk about 'Yesterday, Now and Tomorrow' and know what they mean.
- 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.
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.
- They ask 'When?' questions.
- They can talk about imaginary situations e.g. 'I hope...'
- They still mix truth and make-believe.
- They like to tell stories.
- They can hold conversations with their friends and parents.
- They will be able to say their name, age and address if they have been taught this.
- 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.
- Name things and talk about what you are doing. Use simple words and sentences at first with an emphasis on key words.
- Read books with your baby
- Have conversations with your child at some stage every day.
- Listen with interest when your child is talking to you. Don't interfere or correct your child's speech.
- Answer questions simply and clearly.
- Allow your child time to get out what she wants to say.
- Talk about pictures in books, and name things in the pictures.
- Sing songs and read rhymes with enthusiasm.
- Take your children to the local library and read some stories to them. Then you can borrow or buy the ones that they particularly enjoy.
- Give a younger child a chance to talk without being interrupted by older brothers and sisters.
- If your child is stumbling over words because he is excited suggest that he tell you slowly. Then listen to him carefully.
- 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 the time she is one month old.
- does not turn her head to a noise or voice by three months of age. 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 have any concerns at any stage about your child's speech, talk to your local child health nurse or your Doctor. Your child may need to see a Speech Pathologist (through local Community Health Centres, Hospitals that provide services for children, or privately).
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:
- Language development needs listening and talking.
- Use simple language.
- Sit or kneel down so you are on your child's level when she is talking to you.
- Spend time reading simple stories and rhymes, looking at picture books and singing songs.
- Help your child to notice road signs and billboards.
- Learning language is important. It should also be fun.
- Parent Helpline: Tel 1300 364 100
24 hours a day, 7 days a week 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
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.
For other Parent Easy Guides including: Milestones, More than reading and writing, Growing and learning in the family, Why stories are important, Right from the start, Living with babies.
Written in partnership
Children, Youth and Women's Health Service, and Parenting SA
Related Parent Easy Guide (Parenting SA website - PDF format.)
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.