The phrase “speech and language skills” refers to the ability to understand language and produce speech.
Prior to language development, or the process through which these skills are obtained, children must learn to hear as infants in the womb.
Brain development is shaped in large part by early sensory experiences.
Being exposed to language in the environment is critical for a child to develop their speech and language skills.
Speech and language function may be assessed through testing.
Children may experience physiological challenges that can affect speech, like a cleft palate; or learning disabilities, like dyslexia.
Defining Speech and Language Development
Language development refers to the acquisition of skills that are related to speaking to and understanding others – or more generally speaking, communication.
To understand how children begin to express themselves and understand others, it’s essential to start with the fundamentals. How do human beings make sounds and exchange information and ideas with one another? There are three key definitions to consider.
Voice: the sound produced by humans (and some other animals) using the lungs and the vocal folds in the larynx, or voice box.
Speech: the expression of our thoughts, feelings and ideas using our mouths and the sounds it makes; and coordinated muscle action in the head, neck, chest and abdomen
Language: a set of rules we share to allow people to express their ideas meaningfully. Language can be expressed verbally or making gestures, like blinking.
Sometimes, hearing problems can delay the development of voice, speech and language skills. A simple checklist can assess your baby’s hearing and communicative development.
Your doctor may use the following words in reference to possible hearing difficulties:
- Audiogram: a chart that shows how well someone can hear
- Audiologist: a person who tests and measures hearing
- Earache: pain inside the air
- Otitis media: middle ear infection
- Otolaryngologist: a doctor who treats diseases and problems of the ear, nose and throat
- Otologist: a doctor who treats diseases of the ear
- Paediatrician: a doctor who takes care of infants and children and who treats their diseases
- Speech and language pathologist: a health professional trained to evaluate and treat people with speech or language disorders
Understanding Speech and Language Development
From birth to the age of three, the brain is undergoing an intense period of development! It’s also the most active period for acquiring speech and language skills. A world rich in sounds, sights and consistent exposure to the speech and language of other people help infants and children to practice these skills for use as they grow.
The very first sign of language development is when an infant cries for food, comfort and companionship. Babies also begin to recognise the voice of their mother or primary caretaker, including other sounds in their environment. As they grow up, babies begin to understand and sort the speech sounds that make up the words of the language they’ll eventually speak in. By 6 months, most babies will recognise the basic sounds of their native language.
From here, development will generally follow a trajectory that is outlined by developmental milestones. These are markers that indicate what skills are typically acquired by children at a specific age, as compared to other children of the same age and profile.
Improving Speech and Language Skills
There are several activities that can support the development of speech and language development in your child. Some of these depend on a child’s age range and ability. Some examples of these are:
- Imitating a child’s noises to start a “conversation”
- Interpret what your child is trying to say – for example, when they point at an apple say “you want an apple!”
- Expanding and recasting, or elaborating – for example if they say “car”, you say “a big red car”
- Commenting and describing, or giving a play-by-play of what a child is doing
- Eliminating negative self-talk, or refraining from harshly correcting a child’s attempts
- Being quick with contingent responses, or responding immediately to all attempts to communicate
- Balancing turn-taking, or make sure your child gets a turn to speak or gesture
- Labelling things, or prepare children for speech by labelling items in their environment aloud
- Limiting “testing,” or testing a child on speech and sounds when they already know the answer
- Labelling praise, or reinforcing good behaviour by detailing what is good about what they’ve done
- Read silly stories with funny voices and sound effects
- Ask your child questions about what they like and don’t like
- Use simple games to introduce letters, numbers and shape words
- Use everyday experiences to introduce new words and explain their meanings
- Enjoy singing songs together and other types of music
- Treat ear infections thoroughly to prevent hearing loss or damage
Supporting Your Child
If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult your paediatrician.
Between 6-8 million people in the USA alone have some form of language impairment. If you think your child is struggling with their speech and language development, speak to your GP or community paediatrician. Your doctor might refer you to a speech and language pathologist, a professional who is trained to evaluate and treat people with speech or language disorders.
They might also recommend therapy or suggest further evaluation by an audiologist (a professional trained to identify and measure hearing loss) or a developmental psychologist (a professional with special expertise in the psychological development of infants and children).