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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

The Early Years: Worried that your child isn’t speaking yet? Here are some reasons

If your child is not cooing, smiling and babbling by three to six months, not responding to name and sounds in the environment and does not understand or wave bye-bye by six to nine months, then that is cause for concern.


Updated: October 18, 2019 6:30:39 pm
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By Abha Ranjan Khanna

A lot of parents, extended family are worried about when a child should start speaking…my friend’s mom was worried because the child chose to gesture rather than speak. It’s also a problem in multi-lingual families. So, is there really a right age, is it different for boys and girls, and when should one get worried or go to a speech therapist?

This is a common query. I had written about ‘How to stimulate speech and language in the early years‘ in The Early Years. This article explained the developmental sequence for speech, hearing and understanding in children 0 – 1 year of age.

However, I will answer the above queries in today’s article. The first concern:

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A lot of parents, extended family are worried about when a child should start speaking.

Your baby’s first cry is indeed his/her first communication with you! So, babies are born talking. The first meaningful word emerges between eight to 15 months. Therefore, if your child has no expressive language words by the time he/she is 16 months old, then it is time for concern and you should discuss this with your paediatrician.

An extensively used set of criteria for Late Language Emergence (LLE) is an expressive vocabulary of fewer than 50 words and no two-word combinations by 24 months of age (American Speech- Language -Hearing Association-ASHA).

The child chose to gesture rather than speak

Gestures are an important part of language development. Your one-year-old might still be communicating with gestures such as pointing at pictures or at something he/she wants. Gestures become more elaborate and complex over this year as toddlers use them to imitate actions, express themselves and play.

Make the connection between gestures and language by using a running commentary such as, “Do you want a drink?” (when your child points to the refrigerator), then wait for a response. Then say, “What do you want? Milk? OK, let’s get some milk.” Such behaviour encourages kids to respond and participate in conversations.

Your child’s vocabulary will grow quickly, but pronunciation isn’t likely to keep pace. By two years of age, most kids are understandable only about half the time. But make sure to emphasise the correct pronunciations in your responses. Your child will love and enjoy “Gesture Rhymes/play” such as ‘Pat-a-cake’; ‘Peekaboo’; ‘Head, shoulder, knees and toes” and so on.

Multilingual families and speech development

Just as monolingual children may have a speech and language delay, bilingual children may also have a delay. However, if a bilingual child has speech and language delay, it is not because they are bilingual. A bilingual home environment may cause a temporary delay in the onset of both languages. The bilingual child’s comprehension of the two languages is normal for a child of the same age, however, and the child usually becomes proficient in both languages before the age of five years.

While it may seem easy for a child to learn multiple languages, exposure and consistency is important. Therefore, by adding too many languages at once, you risk not having enough exposure to each of them. This could mean your child can speak three, four, five or even six languages, but is not actually fluent in one of them.

Another worry parents of bilinguals have, is when their children mix the two languages when they are speaking – please relax, all is well because by age three they will have figured out which words belong to which language.

So, is there really a right age?

The answer to this is “YES”! If your child is not cooing, smiling and babbling by three to six months, not responding to name and sounds in the environment and does not understand or follow simple commands or imitate simple gestures like wave bye-bye by six to nine months, then that is cause for concern.

Children should/must meet these language milestones during this period:

· Saying several words by 15-18 months of age (water; mum; dad; doggy; meow; milk; hi).

· Pointing to familiar people, objects, and some body parts by 18 months (where is: daddy; Bhayya; ball; table; shoes).

· Saying 50 or more words by two years of age.

· Putting two words together to form a sentence by age two (give me; let’s go; want chips; my ball).

· Following two-step commands by age two (take off your shoes and put them in the shoe rack; go to your room and get the ball; open the box and take out the blocks).

Also Read| When does a baby smile for the first time and why?

Is it different for boys and girls?

Are there any differences in the development of boys’ and girls’ brains? Yes, but they are subtle, and a product of both nature and nurture.

Sex differences in the brain are reflected in the somewhat different developmental timetables of girls and boys. By most measures of sensory and cognitive development, girls are slightly more advanced: vision, hearing, memory, smell, and touch are all more acute in female than male infants. Girl babies also tend to be somewhat more socially attuned – responding more readily to human voices or faces or crying more vigorously in response to another infant’s cry – and they generally lead boys in the emergence of fine motor and language skills.

Boys eventually catch up in many of these areas. By age three, they tend to out-perform girls in one cognitive area: visual-spatial integration, which is involved in navigation, assembling jigsaw puzzles, and certain types of hand-eye coordination. Males of all ages tend to perform better than females on tasks like mental rotation (imagining how a particular object would look if it were turned 90 degrees) while females of all ages tend to perform better than males at certain verbal tasks and at identifying emotional expression in another person’s face.

It is important to emphasise that these findings describe only the average differences between boys and girls. In fact, the range of abilities within either gender is much greater than the difference between the “average girl” and the “average boy.” In other words, there are plenty of boys with excellent verbal skills, and girls with excellent visual-spatial ability. While it can be helpful for parents and teachers to understand the different tendencies of the two sexes, we should not expect all children to conform to these norms.

(The writer is an occupational therapist.)

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