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How to help your baby learn to talk

It’s natural for your baby to learn to talk, and he needs your help. Your interaction with him through talking, listening and playing, makes all the difference to the way he learns to talk. When you talk to your child, you give him a head start in life.

Speech deprivation
We know what happens to children when no one talks to them. Sadly, we sometimes find children who’ve grown up without any conversation or play. Scientists have been able to study a small number of these unfortunate children in detail.

Genie was a ‘wild child', severely neglected by her parents. Her father hated children and terrified her mother into ignoring her completely, apart from giving her some basic food. Rescued at the age of thirteen, Genie learned to talk a little, but she never managed the kind of language skill most children show by the time they’re five years old.

Language development
Most language development happens in the first three years of life. Until the age of ten, the brain has a ‘critical period’ for developing language, especially grammar. After this age, your child may struggle to learn to talk. That’s one of the reasons why children pick up a new language easily if they move to a different country, while adults find it far more difficult.

Your baby has good hearing at birth and he likes to turn towards a familiar sound. He quickly learns to recognise your voice and relaxes when he hears you talking to him.
New parents find they can soothe their baby by talking or singing quietly.

Hearing problems are a key reason for delayed language development. Many babies undergo hearing checks soon after birth, so problems are usually picked up straight away. You should mention any worry you have over your child’s hearing to a health professional as soon as possible.

First communication
Your baby depends on you to keep him alive, warm and comfortable. His first cries are the only way he can communicate with you, and he cries with a sound that you just can't ignore. Parents are right to use his cries as a signal that they need to look after him.

In the early days and weeks, you might notice your baby uses slightly different cries for a variety of purposes. He may have a hungry cry, for example, that’s different from the cry he uses when he’s uncomfortable. By three months, he knows he can use his voice to tell you when he’s pleased or unhappy; excited or tired, and from now on you hear plenty of coos, gurgles and shouts.

You’ll see rapid development during your baby’s first year. At six to nine months of age he understands if you say “no” or “bye-bye” and he returns your wave. His understanding grows so fast that by the time he reaches two years old he understands 200 words and more.

His first year lays the foundations for speech development. At around one year of age, he may say his first word. He may start with “da-da” or “ma-ma”: a direct development from the ‘play’ stage of babbling with sounds.

Babbling starts at around six months old. He produces a grand repertoire of speech sounds, which he puts together in a sing-song way, that sounds like ‘real’ speech.

He enjoys playing with string of sounds, “pa-pa-pa” and “ma-ma-ma”. He'll use all the sounds of every language on the planet. Your reaction to this game, as you talk back to him, helps him learn to use some sounds more often. Gradually he drops sounds that don’t feature in your language.

First word
His first word develops from his babbling. Often, he starts with “da-da” or “ma-ma”. The words are easy for him to say, and as he notices your pleased response to these first “words” he uses them more and more.

It doesn’t take him long to begin putting words together in little phrases and sentences. He starts with linking two words at a time, and may say, “da-da gone,” in his second year. He gradually increases the length and complexity of his sentences, until by the age of five he uses mature language structures.

He still makes plenty of mistakes, though, as he grapples with the difficult issues of marking past and future tenses, mastering pronouns such as his, theirs and mine and learning to ask questions and use negatives.