Language development actually begins in utero, when even as a foetus, the baby learns to recognise the voice and speech patterns of his mother. As a newborn, a baby’s communication is solely accomplished by crying. S/he communicates his/her discomforts in this way, whether s/he is hungry, whenever s/he is wet or has soiled him/her-self or discomfited in any other way. S/he then learns to smile when s/he sees his/her parents, his/her bottle or any object or movement that captures his/her curiosity. S/he learns that his/her sounds bring satisfying results. His/her crying gets him/her food and company and his/her gurgles make the faces around him/her smile which is a pleasant sight for him/her.
Language development is different for every individual but by the time s/he is about six months the baby will be making sounds like ba-ba, da-da etc. along with his gurgles and coos. S/he is listening to the people speaking around him/her and beginning to learn the sounds, rhythm and flow of the language being spoken. By the time s/he is nine months s/he will understand the meaning of words like ‘no’ and ‘bye-bye’. S/he may begin using words to call mamma and dadda by the time he is a year old. S/he may also begin to listen and obey commands like ‘please put that down’.
Babies usually have a small vocabulary of words by the time they are eighteen months of age. In bilingual homes however, language development may take longer than usual if more than a single language is spoken at home. Once they start speaking though, babies from bilingual homes progress fast and learn both languages quickly. Babies at this age will try to repeat sounds that they hear and complete sentences that they hear regularly, like speak the last word in rhymes and songs. Their pronunciation may not be perfect at this stage.
By the time they are two years old, a baby is able to use words to form short meaningful sentences to convey their thoughts. They may say things like ‘Want milk’ or ‘Out play’. This is when they are learning that words mean more than just the name of things and can be used to ask for things and to refuse things too.
Between the ages of two and three, language development happens very rapidly and a baby who at the age of two knows 20 to 200 words will have developed a vocabulary of a 1000 words. They will be able to speak in sentences that are three or four word long and are also able to follow two part commands like ‘Please get your shoes and put them on’ or ’Pick up the toy and put it in the bin’.
To encourage the baby to speak more and help them to learn language faster, talk to them as much as you can. Initially s/he may not understand the words, but s/he will do so as time goes on. Studies have shown that babies who have more speech directed at them learn faster and more than babies who do not have as much directed speech. Narrating events as they occur is a good way of keeping up the chatter. Babies love it when you talk to them. ‘Now we are taking off our clothes and will have a bath in nice warm water’, ‘What a bright red shirt’ everything is a topic of conversation with a baby and they learn from every interaction.
Reading to babies from an early age is another way of having them hear and learn new sounds and words. Not only does this help with language development, it may also inculcate an abiding love of books in a child that lasts a lifetime.
Although different babies develop at different rates, if a baby does not respond to sounds around him/her, or does not make sounds as the milestones indicate, s/he may have a problem in hearing, or a speech or language disorder. A doctor should be consulted if any problem is suspected so that it can be diagnosed early. Treatment is more effective the earlier a problem is identified and intervention carried out.