Babies learn language and conversational skills before they speak their first word. Here’s how your baby will learn to talk
They’ll start by babbling
Babies from the UK to Mongolia all babble in just the same way. It’s only as they start speaking words that their languages become different.
As your baby starts babbling, you can keep having conversations without words. From now on though, you’ll really need to make space for them to babble back to you. You might find they have a lot to say – so always give them time to respond.
Speaking baby talk
Most mums and dads find that the way they speak to their baby will be quite different to the way they speak normally to other adults, or older children. This is fine.
Some people call this baby talk ‘motherese’ – and it can sound a bit like speaking to a pet! You use a higher voice – more sing-songy. Baby talk, or motherese, is fine and lovely. It’s nice to think that we can be fluent in a whole other communication system and that your baby needs you to learn their ‘mother tongue’.
Some people speak to their babies like adults and don’t approve of baby talk. Your baby will love to hear you speak, whether your speech is adult-like or in baby talk, but motherese naturally engages them. The main thing is to communicate as much as possible and give them time to answer. Remember that it’s easier for your little one to learn simple words first.
You will find that you will almost instinctively say new words (especially nouns), three times in three consecutive sentences. For example: 1) “Look at this lovely apple on the tree!” 2) “Should I pick the apple for you?” and 3) “Let’s go and make a delicious apple crumble with this for your dinner, shall we?”
When we speak there is no natural beginning or end to words, just a stream of sound. By saying things three times your baby begins to pick the word apple out of the stream of sounds you are making.
What sort of things are good to chat about?
You can have a ‘conversation’ by guessing what your baby’s response is.
Ask questions: “Are you hungry? Yes? Great – let’s make something to eat.” “Wasn’t that a fun trip? I thought you’d like going on the bus,” and so on. Taking turns is a great way to learn the natural flow of conversation. Through turn-taking you’re teaching your baby the structure or idea of a conversation, which they’ll follow as their vocabulary expands.
If you feel odd talking to someone who’s not responding, just stick to describing what’s going on: “Here we are at the parking meter – I’m looking for my purse – here it is – I’m going to pop the money in now!” It may sound crazy to you, but your baby will be listening – they’ll hear your voice and they’ll also be starting to learn all the words you’re using and repeating.
From about six months onwards, your baby will be able to look towards something you’re pointing at – so point things out, let them follow your gaze, and describe what you’re looking at. This interaction is an important communication tool, as vocabulary is just a small part of language.
Reading to your baby
Read, read, read! Babies love being read to and it’s so lovely to sit with a big, thick-paged book they can touch, bite, kiss and help turn the pages. Starting early will help your baby develop a life-long love of reading.
By repeating words from a favourite story over and over again, your baby will also start to learn those words and develop their own vocabulary.
Starting to actually talk
Around their first birthday, your baby may start to articulate the words they already know in their mind. Their first word will almost certainly be some form of ‘Mamma’ and ‘Dadda’, and then probably something to do with milk or food!
Once your baby can say around 100 individual words, they’ll start to put simple sentences together. This normally happens around the age of two.
Developing your baby’s vocabulary
You can help your baby develop their vocabulary by talking to them a lot, and trying to use simple words over and over again.
Start with simply pointing things out: “There’s a bus”. As they get older, make the sentences more complicated: “There’s a red bus”. Then: “That big red bus is going very fast, isn’t it?”
Make sure you give them time to answer.
Try not to have too much background noise – so switch off the TV when you’re having a good chat.
If they say a word and get it wrong, don’t correct them. Just say it again as part of your answer and use it correctly.
Use short and simple sentences.
Will dummies prevent my baby learning to talk?
Restrict the use of the dummy – if they have something in their mouth, they won’t be talking!
What if I’m worried my baby isn’t developing their speech?
If you are worried your baby isn’t progressing well, talk to your doctor or health visitor and ask to be referred to a speech and language specialist and have a hearing test (things like glue ear can delay language because your baby can’t hear well). Remember every baby develops differently. Often, younger siblings with chatty older siblings won’t speak until they’re much older – even around three. It’s simply because they don’t have to – because the older children do it all for them!
It’s easiest if one parent talks one language and the other talks the other. This will, of course, all get muddled up when there are older siblings involved (though they will generally speak the language of the country they are living in). Don’t be surprised if your child listens to you in your language and then replies in the language of the country/preschool they are in, for example, English in the UK. They are trying to consolidate the language of the population they live among (not rejecting your mother language), but they will generally be able to speak several languages – which is amazing. However, speak to your child’s health visitor if you have any concerns about your child’s language.
Sing to your children as well as talk, in all their languages, since the rhythms are often very different. Your child can also enjoy a larger range of songs, nursery rhymes and stories if you include all the language traditions.