All children have something to say, however some children start talking later than expected. Children usually say their first words between 9 and 16 months, with the average being around their first birthday. Often, the first word is “Mum” or “Dad” but it can be anything, for example, pointing to a dog and saying “woo-oo” to imitate the dog barking. It doesn’t need to be pronounced correctly and can be an own word (e.g. the child says “baba” for “bottle”), but as long as your child uses it consistently to refer to someone or something, it is a proper word and it counts!
Between 12 months and 18 months, vocabulary grows gradually. Then, at around 18 months, language often “takes off”: vocabulary grows exponentially, leading the child to combine words in short phrases, for example “Mummy gone”, “Doggy here”, “Big Teddy”. For some children, language can be slow to develop and parents notice that their child’s vocabulary remains limited and does not appear to grow at the same rate as their peers. There are many reasons for it, and it is always recommended to seek professional advice from a speech pathologist specialising in early language. It is also a good idea to target vocabulary more specifically. A good strategy is to begin by selecting 10 words that you would like your child to use and to focus on those words more specifically.
How to choose your target words? Think of using powerful words, i.e. words that are going to give your child results. For example, if your child loves books and is constantly reaching for them at home, it makes sense to put the word “book” on your list of target words. By using that word, your child is likely to get a response from you: you might help him get the book or, better still, read him a story and this positive response will, in turn, encourage him to use that word again.
Choose words that are not too hard to pronounce. Your child may have a fascination for dinosaurs, but perhaps “Stegosaurus” is a bit of a stretch for now. “Dino” might be easier to pronounce. It’ll always be time to fine tune your vocabulary later. Sounds that are easier for young children to pronounce are m, b, p and w. Words that duplicate the same syllable are also easier, e.g. Mama, Dada, baby, bubbles.
Think of using a wide range of words, not just nouns. Nouns are labels for objects, animals and people, for example: car, baby, dog, Mum, milk, Danny. If you want your child to be able to combine words in sentences, you’ll also need to teach:
Actions (verbs): eat, run, hop, sleep, drive, sit.
Words that describe (adjectives): big, tall, cross, happy.
Locations (prepositions): there, here, up, on, under.
Social words: bye-bye, nigh-night, hello, thank you, ta, no.
Early pronouns: me, mine, my.
Below are two checklists of early words for you to download. One is in English, the other one is in French. Check to see how many words your child already has. Keep ticking as their vocabulary progresses.
When teaching your child new words, think of the following principles:
Recognise your child’s communication attempts. They may not be using words, but they are saying something nonetheless. When a child points to a dog or a car, they could be trying to say “Look Mum, a dog!” or “That’s our car!” When they reach for an object and look at you at the same time, perhaps they are saying: “Help me get this” or “I want an apple”. What word would they use if they knew it? Could it be “apple”, “open”, “mine”? This is your opportunity to teach them the word: come down to their level, make eye-contact and model the word they could be using in that situation.
Take a bit of time before responding to your child's requests. Make them work for it a little bit! Parents understand their children's needs and it is natural to respond quickly. By waiting a little bit, you give your child an opportunity to interact with you, verbally or non-verbally. For example, if your child is trying to open the door, don’t open it straightaway. Get closer to them and wait expectantly. If the child makes eye-contact but doesn’t say anything, model the word they could be using (see previous point). If they say the word, all the better! Praise them and respond to their request.
Keep it simple. Model a few words, not too many and keep your sentences simple.
Pause to give your child time to say or repeat a word and avoid doing all the talking yourself. It’s easy to do, believe me, I’m a terrible offender at this!
These are simple but powerful strategies that can make a real difference and help your child’s language. If you have concerns about your child’s language, speak to your child health nurse, your GP and, of course, a speech pathologist.
Looking for language tips, activities and ideas? This blog is for parents, speech pathologists, teachers, educators and anyone with an interest in speech and language.