Animation: This Is How Your Baby Learns to Talk
Learn how yor baby starts to develop language, and what you can do to help them as they start to talk
6 min read
Whatever you want – your daily caffeine fix, the volume turned up on the TV, or confirming your long-overdue wax – you simply open your mouth and ask for it. That’s because our language skills are highly developed. You probably don’t even remember a time when you couldn’t talk.
But your baby needs to learn these essential skills. Although pre-programmed from before birth to learn language, it’s a long process.
In this guide, we’ll explore speech and language development in babies aged 0-18 months. Have a look at how your baby learns to talk, language development milestones and how you can help boost your baby’s language skills.
In a hurry? Jump straight to the animation on how you can help your baby talk.
Why is language development so important?
Language development is about more than learning to talk. Although that will be helpful in improving your understanding of your child (no more trying to work out why they’re crying!), language skills are about more than talking.
Research suggests that a child with well-developed language skills will enjoy greater outcomes later in life. Not only in terms of their language abilities, but also their social skills, literacy achievement, school readiness and academic performance.
Language development is critical in helping your child develop social and emotional skills, like empathy and cooperation. It also helps them build relationships with you and everyone around them, including teachers and other children.
How does my baby learn to talk?
Us humans are smart: your baby is born ready to develop language. Imagine your baby’s brain is like a sponge. It’s constantly soaking up new information. There are certain times when your baby’s brain development is more sensitive. This means a time when experience plays an important part in developing a certain brain function, like language skills.
Although language skills develop across a huge period, its foundations are in your baby’s earliest experiences. Research suggests that both the quality and quantity of your child’s language experiences before they turn three shape their language abilities.
Plus, research shows that the vocabulary and verbal ability of a two-year-old is strongly related to how much talking their parents did with them from birth. Those who were spoken to more often, performed better.
Basically, your baby will learn to talk from listening to you and everyone around them. Babies need to learn how language sounds before they can learn how to speak. Talk to your baby as much as you can.
Another way your baby’s language develops is through how responsive you and their family are to them. However your baby reaches out to interact with you, you should recognise and response to it.
These positive interactions build and strengthen baby’s brain. Whatever the noise – a coo, gurgle or a cry – respond to it. Ask them what they see or agree that fluffy penguin is nice to suck. In this way, your baby will begin to understand how conversations work: they say something, you reply, and so it continues.
Baby language development milestones
Your baby will be communicating from their very first day on this planet. When they’re born, they’ll probably scream. Not only are they beginning to breathe, but they’re also learning to coordinate the movement of their vocal cords. Before they can talk, they’ll need to develop this control plus coordinate their tongue and mouth.
From 1-3 months old, baby will cry and coo.
From 4-6 months old, baby will sigh, grunt, gurgle (think “ooh” or “ah” noises), squeal, laugh and make different crying sounds.
Between 6-9 months, baby will babble in syllables, squeal with joy, scream with frustration and start copying sounds and tones, like a cough or “brr” noise. The babbling will include sound combinations, like “bah-bah-bah” and “no-no”. This babbling will be pretty constant!
By around 12 months, your baby might:
- Respond to common words like “no” or “bye bye”.
- Know the names of familiar things, like mama or teddy.
- Show you objects to get your attention.
- Start to use single words.
- Take turns in conversations by babbling, like repeating “mumma mumma”.
- Use their words and gestures to be social, to ask and to show.
- Enjoy listening to songs and nursery rhymes.
Around 18-24 months, your child will know and use around 50 words.
How can I help my baby learn to talk?
There are plenty of ways you can encourage your baby to talk. Try:
- Getting face to face with baby.
- Reducing background noise when playing and talking with baby, like turning off the TV.
- Copying your baby’s babbling and taking turns in a conversation.
- Talking to your baby when doing things together, like at bath or meal times.
- Making faces and noises and talking about what you’re doing from the day they’re born.
- Playing interactive games like peek-a-boo.
- Singing nursery rhymes.
- Looking at books. To begin with, you can talk about what you can see rather than reading the words.
- Talking slowly and clearly, using short, simple sentences.
Language development in a bilingual baby
If you’d like baby to know more than one language, thanks to their sponge-like brains they’ll pick them up quicker than us adults.
The language (or languages) your baby learns are influenced by the languages spoken with them. Whether they grow up using Te Reo Māori, English, NZ Sign language, or something else doesn’t depend on their genes, but on the language(s) they’ve repeatedly experienced.
By 10 months, your baby will know the general characteristics of their native language. But they may not yet respond to a foreign language. If you’re raising your baby in a bilingual household, this is important to remember.
But a child raised as bilingual isn’t any more likely to have speech issues than their one-language-speaking counterparts.
When should I be worried about my baby not talking?
Like with everything in your child’s development, your child will develop at their own pace. If you’re worried, talk to your doctor or Plunket nurse if:
- By 12 months, little one isn’t trying to communicate with you (using sounds, gestures and/or words), especially if they need help or want something.
By 18 months, you might have a little chatterbox. If you want to understand what’s happening next in their language development, see our guide for toddlers (1-3-year-olds).