The birth of language

Baby talk evolves dramatically as infants grow to toddlers.
A state-funded program aids parents in these crucial months.
Saturday, April 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:53 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Jessica Harris and her 16-month-old daughter, Josephine, play together in their home on March 9. Harris helps Josephine develop language skills and encourages her to speak more by playing games and mimicking sounds that Josephine makes.

It’s a familiar scenario: A mother just inches away from her child’s face, speaking in an animated voice with exaggerated expression. Reactions to this type of behavior range from laughter to annoyance, but experts say it can encourage a baby’s linguistic development.

The state-funded not-for-profit is a parental support program that offers educational sessions and parent-child activities. It is available for families during pregnancy and until a child is 5 years old.

How to evaluate a child’s verbal development

Parents can use their powers of observation to detect signs of linguistic problems by using this simple check list. It’s important to keep in mind that development varies, and some children are just late talkers. If the results raise a concern, contact a speech/language pathologist. According to, the following signs indicate a need for consultation with an expert: • no babbling, pointing or gesturing by 12 months; • no single words by 16-18 months; • no two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months; • and any regression in language or social skills at any age.

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Jessica Harris, a new mother, said Parents As Teachers helped her understand what to look for and expect in her 16-month-old daughter, Josephine.

“When Josephine started making noises and sounds, I would mimic her and use a lot of repetition,” Harris said. “I would talk to her constantly and make eye contact whether she was responding or not.”

Josephine said her first word, “baby,” when she was just 7 months old.

The sooner a parent starts talking to their child, the better, Traub said. Nevertheless, children develop at different rates. Speech pathologists say most babies start saying “true words” — words with meaning such as “momma” and “da da” — by the age of 12 months.

Belinda Masters, coordinator of Parents As Teachers for Columbia Public Schools, said the single best indicator of a child’s linguistic development is how often their parents talk with them. “It’s great to see parents at the grocery store having a conversation with their child,” Masters said. “Parents don’t have to be embarrassed.”

She said that one of the best exercises a parent can perform with their child is “parallel talk,” which is a running commentary of a child’s actions.

Parents can also look for signs that their child is not developing appropriately. By 24 months, for example, children should have two-word spontaneous phrases and/or 50 or more words in their vocabulary.

Other children are classified as “late talkers.” According to physician Marilyn Agin, a “late talker” is a child 18 to 20 months old who has fewer than 10 words, or 21 to 30 months old who has fewer than 50 words and no two-word combinations such as “momma car.” These children display age-appropriate development in other areas such as comprehension, play and motor or cognitive skills.

Although some of these “late talkers” may eventually develop a language problem, speech pathologist Kathy Brady said others will catch up. Brady, a doctoral student in MU’s Communication Science and Disorders Department, is researching word learning in preschoolers and works as a speech pathologist with students at the Southern Boone County School District.

When parents assess language development, they should also take into account their child’s overall communication intent, Brady said. Key areas to watch for include playing in a symbolic way, engaging in joint attention with a caregiver (i.e., looking at pictures in a book while a parent reads), and communicating for a variety of reasons (to comment, to request, to protest, etc.). If a child is demonstrating these behaviors and still cannot talk, however, there may be underlying issues.

Carol Long, a former special education teacher of 14 years, recalled a student who had recurring ear infections, a chronic medical condition that affected his speech and language skills. His parents eventually determined the root of the problem was from allergies when the family replaced carpeting in the home with hardwood floors.

It is critical that a parent detect linguistic problems at an early age.

“To me, if you feel like there is a possible problem and you’re not getting answers from one doctor, go to see another pediatrician,” Long said. “Children need to hear correct sounds in order to make words.”

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