According to my mother, I started speaking in full paragraphs soon after my first birthday. My own children started talking early as well. At three months of age, my daughter could say, “love,” “goo-gohl” (good girl), and “hello.” She engaged in a frustratingly one-sided conversation with art on our wall by saying, “hello,” repeatedly to it, but when she received no response, kicked the wall beneath the art. My son was even earlier. His first word was “hello” at five weeks old, before he started trying to mimic us saying, “I love you.” Five weeks. Our pediatrician flat out refused to believe us, despite three witnesses to his speaking. We never adequately caught him on video to prove it to her.
At five weeks, and likely at three months, such sounds are mimicry and not a sign of a comprehension of intent. However, it is remarkable, in that few people report similar experiences. Though recently, a video of a seven-week old infant saying, “Hello” became viral and was shared on ABC News.
A mother of two at an Indian buffet who heard my son speaking in his first months insisted it was purely a genetic trait, but I’m not convinced. I think genetics help, but an infant’s ability to absorb and mimic speech is something I believe stems more from a specific environment during those early weeks. Consider this my hypothesis. Without a formal lab to test it, we’ll consider data from other sources beyond my own household.
Before I explain the environment in which both my children found themselves at birth, I’d like to say to all parents concerned about their child’s speech development: all children are different. Each child picks up certain traits faster than others, and delayed or absent speech in the first year isn’t a sign there’s something wrong with your child. In general, most children are speaking full sentences by two or three years.
Whatever your own child’s development, I make no judgments, only offer potential aids to assist in your relationship together through spoken language. That being said, this may be of help to those with newborns who wish to give them a potential boost to their speech development.
Finally, I am not a medical practitioner or speech therapist. Please refer to the links that show scientific studies to support my claims.
PRENATAL SPEECH ACQUISITION
As you may already know, language is already being acquired in utero during the final trimester of a pregnancy. Having conversations with others, talking to your belly, or singing songs will all be a part of the early acquisition of language skills. During my pregnancies with both children, I talked a lot to the people close to me, gave tender little speeches to my squirming belly, and sang songs I enjoyed to help us both get to know one another.
At birth, I insisted they be laid on my belly until the umbilical cord stopped pulsing, and then, when the umbilical cord was cut, I began nursing them, making full eye contact, and introducing myself. Once acknowledged, they were given to their fathers for a similar meeting.
During the early days, we all spoke softly, explaining everything we were doing around them. The idea that a baby needs to hear 10,000 words a day from adults (or older children) is gaining ground in language research. To this day, I explain a lot of what I am doing, almost narrating my own life and his, in order to give my two year old a sense of the world around him, basic daily life, and clues about more complex mechanics. At a year old, he knew left from right because every time I put on socks, shoes, or washed his limbs, I’d say something like, “Time to put your left shoe on your left foot. Can you show me your left foot?” I talked to him about where we were going on each trip out, and pointed out landmarks, which he can now point out himself, regardless of whether we take a standard route or not.
This level of communication not only teaches them key words for their basic vocabulary, but also encourages cooperation on their part because they know what’s about to happen, are asked to participate, and can make choices about how to act. There are certainly times now, when I ask my toddler to do something, and he says, “No” or “Nope,” and others when he’s reluctant, but sees the necessity and, like his teenage sister says, “Fiiiine,” complete with huff. He speaks in full sentences, but when he goes into paragraphs, his thoughts get jumbled and his speech mumbled. Nevertheless, we’re quite enamored of his efforts to communicate with us with the same amount of depth and thought as we communicate with him.
SINGING & MUSIC
Some of you are going to groan. Some of you don’t think you can sing. You’re not musical. You don’t think you have a good voice, or you’re not good at rhythm.
Every able-bodied person can learn. Everyone can find a rhythm, because our hearts beat one constantly. Like all things, it takes practice and sometimes training, though I’ll admit, some people start off with a stronger talent or advantage in this area, such an advantage isn’t required to learn. Give singing simple children’s songs a try. Or sing your favorite songs to them, to share your favorite music. And barring all of that, play music for them.
My children have grown up with my singing. Daily I sing to them: lullabies, pop and rock songs, children’s songs (ok, not to my daughter anymore), songs from musicals, and if I’m feeling ambitious, operas, too.
We make up tunes together. We get songs stuck in our heads and share them with each other (sometimes as punishment, sometimes seeking help to get them to stop). Almost every day one of us will say something, and it’ll spark a song. It’s like we live in a musical; thankfully, my partner doesn’t seem to mind (he likes operas, but hates musicals — go figure).
Why is singing important? Singing accesses different areas of the brain than speech does. Music therapy, especially singing therapy, is being used to treat and slow Alzheimer’s, to help people with brain injury recover, and helps anyone at any age better acquire a language whether their native tongue or a foreign one.
If you really, truly cannot sing (and this really ought to only apply to deaf and/or mute individuals), play music for your children. Play it for them, mouth the words, tap or clap the rhythms, and use hand movements to emphasize words (e.g. The Itsy-Bitsy Spider) or teach lessons. Bonus points if you know ASL and can sign along with the song.
If you’re embarrassed by your voice, keep in mind, this is for tiny beings who won’t be judging you on talent or skill, they’ll just love interacting with you.
Whether you use American Sign Language (ASL), Signed Exact English (SEE), or some signs you picked up from a book like Signing with Your Baby or Baby Signs, having some common words to teach using sign can give your child a big boost toward communicating more effectively with you.
All children tend to have difficulty the first two years with not being understood because while their internal vocabularies are quite broad, their practiced ability to speak even a fraction of their learned words will be limited to varying degrees. That inability to get their brains to make their mouths move the way they need to can lead to a lot of frustration for them, and frustration leads to lots of tears.
One great assistant from the beginning is some form of sign language. Even if you only learn and teach them a handful of “baby signs” like milk, sleep, water, food, diaper, hug, mama, dada, etc., they’ll feel more empowered when pre-verbal to ask for what they need. The more words you’re able to both sign AND say or sing, the more they’ll have to work with as they navigate the complexities of their own oral anatomy.
BE PART OF DISCUSSIONS
Often times, my partner and I discuss and negotiate things in front of the children. We want them to see how to have discussions between us, come to agreements, and take action. Whenever appropriate, we include our children in discussions, especially the smaller things like what to have for dinner, where we might go for a weekend outing or weekday field trip, and many other small choices. At about six months old, I started asking both children what they wanted to wear and gave them two options. This allowed them to learn differences of identifying similar things using descriptive words, while also encouraging them to make and trust their own choices.
With small children, of course, their choices are limited to things you’ve already decided in advance are appropriate to the situation. For instance, if it’s cold outside, I offer my son shirts with long sleeves and pants or skirts that reach his ankles. He gets to choose the color of socks to go with his outfit, etc. Given time, they start to make bigger choices, eventually outside the range of our own predetermined “safe” zones. My daughter certainly is making far more broad choices at 15 than her brother at 2. These choices are sometimes far outside my own comfort, but so long as they’re not harmful to her or others, I allow her to act on them and learn from them as need be.
Being witness to adults talking about complex issues and coming to resolutions trains children how they can one day take them on themselves, while allowing active participation in simpler discussions helps solidify learned communication skills and expands on abilities they’re only beginning to grasp.
What about your own family? Did your children start speaking early? Were any of them delayed?