How Babies Learn to Talk

The process of language development in children—and what you can do to help.

mom reading to baby
Photo: NolteLourens/

When my daughter, Mira, was a newborn, I often thought I was losing my mind. It was Michigan, it was winter, and I was desperate for human contact. So desperate, in fact, that I started talking constantly. These conversations were always one-sided and the topics far from intellectual: "Do you have a stinky diaper? You do!" Then there was the way I said it: the high-pitched baby talk and the way I referred to myself in the third person. What was I doing?

What I was doing, I learned later, was helping Mira build her vocabulary and modeling the skills she'd need to join me in conversation. It's part of why now, at age 3, she's telling me stories about her day in addition to talking in sentences.

Filling your daily life with language is the best way to encourage your child's speech development. Even before he can converse with you, "talk about the people and objects that have captured his attention," says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "When he babbles, respond as if you were having a conversation."

When your baby does start using his first words—generally by his first birthday—you might not immediately understand what he's trying to say. Repetition helped Tami Robinson's daughter Ava, now 2. "She would say 'ba-ul', then we would repeat what she said, and she would say it better—'bot-tle,'" says Robinson, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Paul recommends elaborating on what your child says to keep the conversation moving. For example, if she says "bottle," you could respond with, "Oh, you want the bottle with the milk in it that's on the counter."

Reading to your baby will also boost language development, even if she can't understand a word. Babies are hearing the rhythm of language, and they love the sound of your voice, so they're getting comfort and attention. In fact, a 2006 study in the journal Child Development showed that babies who are read to have greater language comprehension, more expressive vocabularies, and higher cognition scores by age 2 than those who are not read to.

Common First Words

With their first words, babies are trying to satisfy a need. That's why "more," "up," and, of course, "Mama" are among the first to be uttered, says Paul. First words are also used to label objects such as "dog" or "book," to be social with a "hi" or "bye," and to express discontent with an all-too-quickly learned "no." At this stage, there is a disconnect between the number of words a child understands and the number he can utter. "By the time they say their first word, they may understand 25," says Michelle Macias, M.D., director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "By the time they're a year and a half, they understand 50 words but may use only 8 to 10."

By age 2, children are combining action and subject to create two-word phrases such as "want juice," "no more," and "Mommy shoe." But parents will still need to do some deciphering. For example, "Mommy shoe" could mean "That's Mommy's shoe" or "Mommy, get my shoe."

By 3, kids should be using three-word combinations that typically include a subject, a verb, and a location. At this point, though, words like "the" and pronouns are beyond them. For example, your child might say "baby sit car" instead of "I am sitting in the car," says Paul. At this age, children also learn the difference between contrasting words such as "tall" and "short" and start adding adjectives as they describe a "big" ball or "blue" shirt.

baby talking
Brian Maranan Pineda

Grasping Grammar

Along with sentence construction, grammar is another pillar of language development. At some point between the ages of 2 and 5, kids will add prepositions and conjunctions such as "on" and "that" to their sentences. They'll master the tricky rules of pronouns and differentiate future and past tenses. Making mistakes is how children fine-tune these skills. For example, when a child learns that -ed indicates the past tense, you might hear sentences such as "We wented to the store."

Don't be surprised to see your child's vocabulary grow exponentially through her first few years. This is because her growing brain is biologically programmed to absorb new information. "Between ages 2 and 3, it takes very few exposures to a word before children start to use it in their own speech," Paul says. It's a process called fast mapping. In contrast, "Imagine how many exposures it would take us, as adults, to learn new words in a foreign language."

Fast mapping does have its drawbacks, especially if the process helps your child pick up a word he heard you howl out when you slammed your finger in a drawer. "Try not to react or respond to inappropriate language," Paul says. "If they get a huge response, whether it's negative or positive, they're more likely to repeat the undesirable words."

Spotting a Delay in Speech

When it comes to language development, "there is a very broad range of normal," says Dr. Macias. So while one 3-year-old is telling detailed stories about his day, another might still be using only simple three-word sentences. Another way to judge how your child is progressing: the extent to which other people can follow what's he's saying. Parents often understand much of what their children are trying to say, but it may sound like gibberish to outsiders. As a rule, Dr. Macias says, strangers should be able to understand half of what the child is trying to say by age 2, three quarters by age 3, and by age 4, there should be no confusion—speech should be pretty clear.

As long as your child's language development is progressing and he's hitting the age-related targets, there's usually no cause for alarm, says Dr. Macias. But if he's not hitting the typical milestones for his age, or you suspect a delay for some other reason, talk to your pediatrician. "The earlier we catch it, the better the outcome," Dr. Macias says.

Starting with her first cries, your baby yearns to communicate. Sure, she wants you to know that she'd like a dry bottom and a full belly. But what she wants most of all is a stronger bond with you—something you'll feel every time you hear a sweetly cooed "Mama" or the heart-melting "I love you." Value these kinds of exchanges, and pat yourself on the back for having helped your baby learn to express herself.

Speech Development Milestones

Birth to 3 months

  • Makes pleasure sounds, such as cooing
  • Smiles when he sees you
  • Quiets down when spoken to and recognizes parents' voices

4 to 6 months

  • Makes speech-like babbling sounds, with lots of "p" "b" and "m" sounds
  • Has lots of different sounds for excitement and displeasure
  • Makes gurgling noises while playing

7 months to 1 year

  • By his first birthday, has one or two words ("Mama," "Dada," "bye-bye")
  • Recognizes words for familiar items such as book, cup, and juice
  • Responds to requests such as "Come here" or "Want more?"

1 to 2 years

  • Says more words each month
  • Uses two-word sentences such as "What's that?" and "No more"
  • Follows simple commands ("Roll the ball") and answers simple questions ("Where is your doll?")

2-3 years

  • Has a word for almost everything
  • Uses two or three words to ask and talk about things
  • Understands differences between "big" and "small," "up" and "down," etc.

More Communication Modes

Sign language is an effective way of helping babies as young as 6 months learn to communicate, says Monica Beyer, author of Baby Talk: A Guide to Using Basic Sign Language to Communicate with Your Baby: "You use signing to bridge the communication gap to spoken word from the things they are thinking but can't say."

Here are some tips for teaching your baby to sign:

  • Wait to start until baby can sit up on his own.
  • Be consistent. You can use American Sign Language, come up with your own signs, or use signs your baby creates.
  • Use the sign before or during the activity. Repetition is key.
  • Be patient. Signs introduced between 6 and 9 months might not be imitated until 7 to 12 months.
  • Don't worry that signing will delay oral communication. In fact, studies show that signing helps build vocabulary and encourage language development. Signing also helps limit the tantrums that result from failed attempts at communication. "My kids developed the ability to sign first instead of launching into hysterics," Beyer says.

How Reading Helps Language Develop

Hand your 6-month-old a board book, and he's more likely to gnaw on the pages than look at them. And reading to a newborn—he's not going to get it, so is it worth the time? The short answer is yes, says Caroline J. Blakemore, coauthor of Baby Read-Aloud Basics. Reading to your child—even if he doesn't seem riveted by the story, at least not yet—improves listening skills, attention span, and memory, Blakemore says. It also helps children understand the meanings of words and learn uncommon ones.

"Compared with ordinary talk between a child and parent, children's books have three times more rare words," she adds. Consider the word "cocoon" in Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillarthere's a word you probably don't use every day. (Same goes for "caterpillar," for that matter.) In fact, by age 4, children who are read to are exposed to 32 million more words than children who haven't been exposed to books.

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