The Beginnings of Language

How your baby learns to communicate

Even though the first 'mum' and 'dad' you hear from your baby are really exciting when you first hear them, those words have been developing in your baby's brain long before they're said. And as parents, you've been playing a big part in immersing them in language, just by speaking to them regularly.

Babies are receptive to language, and drawn to speech from an early age. We know that newborns prefer to listen to someone talking over artificial sounds. Even before children are born, they're listening, even if the sounds are muffled. But while it seems like there's a lot going on, the way language develops for babies is actually quite predictable.

Hearing first in the early months.

The first thing children will learn is how to master the sound system of their family's language. This starts to happen as your baby hears people talk, and starts to become familiar with the patterns and speech sounds around them. This is how they discover words, like their own name. In fact, children as young as 4 ½ months have been shown to recognise the sound patterns of their own name.

You may have noticed that there's a particular way adults simplify their speech for young children. It's usually slower, exaggerated speech, which is delivered with a warm emotional tone. This is called Infant-Directed Speech (IDS), and is also known as 'motherese' or 'parentese'. While it might just sound like baby talk, IDS actually appears to help draw baby's attention to speech – and the evidence shows that they prefer it to adult-directed speech.

The first sounds

In their early months, babies are preparing to talk. You'll find that their sounds are quite limited at the start. But this starts to change at around 6 to 8 weeks of age. This is when babies start to coo, and make long vowel sounds. At this point, they're also starting to gain motor control over their vocalisations – and this is when we start hearing grunts, squeals, etc. One of the more interesting things about this phase is that it's when babies realise that their vocalisations cause others to respond, and they begin having 'conversations' with their parents.

Then, at around 7 months, babies start to babble – and it's a major milestone. Over time, you'll see that their babbling becomes more varied, with longer sequences, and it begins to take on the rhythm, sounds and patterns of what they hear daily.

You'll also notice that babies will start having 'conversations' with parents by 'turn-taking', something that is encouraged by games like peekaboo with parents. This is when your baby will start to use gestures, like pointing, and showing and offering things to others.

And babies start understanding the meaning of words very early. We've seen through research that 6-month-olds look toward the appropriate person when they hear highly familiar words (e.g. "Mummy"), and this also applies to even more complex words (like body parts). Basically, our babies understand a lot more than they can say in these early days.

The first words

It's normal to hear children say their first words from 10 to 15 months of age. Most often, you'll hear them saying words about familiar people, objects and events from daily life.

They begin using words one word at a time to express a whole idea. Experts know this as 'the holophrastic period'. It's best summed up by children wanting to talk about things but not having the words to express them. A similar strategy that might be used is known as 'overextension', where the child might use a word in a broad context – like calling every man 'Daddy'.

By about 18 months, children typically can say around 50 words – and they're rapidly able to say more. And as adults, we help this process with repetition, naming objects that are the focus of a child's attention, and playing naming games (e.g. "Where's your nose?"). And we know that the sheer quantity and complexity of language that children are exposed to makes a difference: e.g. children whose mothers talked more to them at 18 months were faster at recognising words at 24 months than children whose mothers talked less to them at 18 months.

The first sentences

You'll find that most children begin to bring words together to make simple sentences by the end of the second year. These are usually two-word utterances (e.g. "more milk"). Some children converse this way for a while, and others quickly move on to sentences consisting of three or more words. Once children are producing four-words in one go, usually around 2 ½ years of age, this is where they start to produce complex sentences (e.g. "Can I do it when I get home?"). At around three years of age, you can expect kids to start talking about past events.

Further development.

From 5 or 6, our children will continue to develop their skills into adulthood – it's just that from now, the changes just won't be as dramatic. At school age, our children become better at thinking about what they're saying or what's being said to them – and are able to speak in more complex ways. As they grow, their reflective skills will help them learn multiple meanings of words, jokes, puns and riddles – which are always popular. They'll also be able to understand the meanings of words by hearing them defined, which is another way for them to expand their growing vocabulary.

When things aren't normal.

Everyone learns differently, and children use different strategies when they're learning. The fact is, some children will speak late – even very late – and if there are no signs of other developmental issues, you shouldn't worry about this too much.

The issue is if your child doesn't understand you as a first point. It could mean that they're not hearing well or have cognitive difficulties – and if you suspect this might be happening, this is the time to get in touch with a professional. In New Zealand, all children are entitled to free health and development check-ups through the Well Child Tamariki Ora programme (see Topic 19 – Physical Milestones; Ministry of Health, 2015). This care is provided from birth to age 4-5, and involves regular developmental health checks (including language development), vision and hearing screening, and support for parents / caregivers in raising their child. Your child's Well Child provider or doctor is your first port of call if you have concerns about a delay in language development.

Summing it up.

  • What: Your baby will be very receptive to language and speech from very early on – and it usually happens in a fairly predictable way.
  • How: Babies learn how to speak by hearing others talk, or seeing people sign. Face to face is the best way for children to develop their communication skills – along with having 'conversations'. The slow, exaggerated warm tone we speak to babies in (known as infant directed speech or IDS) really helps in the development process.
  • When: There are different stages of development – but babies as young as 4 ½ months have been known to recognise the sound of their own name. As they grow, your child will be able to say around 50 words by 18 months, and by the end of their second year – they should be able to speak two-word sentences.
  • Issues: If your child is a late talker and there are no other signs of developmental problems, you probably don't need to worry. But, if your child isn't understanding what you're saying, they may have a hearing problem or cognitive difficulties, in which case you should seek professional advice.

How to help your child talk.

  1. Talk, talk, talk with them! The number of words children know is related to the number of words they hear.
  2. Start talking as soon as they're born – the simple fact is they love your face and they love your voice. Use simple language and a warm loving tone. Turn down any background noise and copy the noises your baby makes to turn it into a 'conversation'.
  3. Create a language-rich environment – Sing, talk and read to your baby.
  4. Use Infant-directed speech, or 'motherese' – it's the most effective way to encourage your baby to talk and is naturally how most of us speak to babies
  5. Read to them from a young age – It's never too early to start. Young children who are read to regularly experience multiple benefits including improved literacy development, social-emotional gains and even an increased likelihood of academic success. They also have a larger vocabulary, increased letter name knowledge and are more successful at decoding words. (They also love it!)
  6. Talk about the world around you. Include your child in everyday activities and speak about what's happening (e.g. where you are going today, the ingredients as you bake a cake, and so on.) You can even be as specific as telling them exactly what you're doing, like "I'm filling up the bath," etc.
  7. They understand more than they can say. So it's always best to be aware of what you and others are saying and how you are saying it when you're around them.
  8. Let them find the words. As tempting as it can be, try not to jump in and tell them the word they're searching for. Focus on what they are saying, rather than how they are saying it. It won't be perfect and that doesn't matter. Don't expect them to get pronunciation, context, tense, etc. right the first time (or second, third or fourth times either realistically).
  9. Their hearing can affect how they learn. If your child has an ear infection or you are worried about their hearing for any reason, speak to your doctor or Well Child provider – it's important for their language development.
  10. Actions speak loudly too. If your child doesn't have many words yet, encourage them to use actions to communicate. Ask them to bring you the book they want, or wave goodbye to people. Singing and doing actions to songs like 'Wheels on the Bus' is also great.
  11. Baby sign language. Some people believe it makes their baby smarter, but there's not a lot of evidence to suggest it helps language, literacy or cognitive skills in hearing babies. That said, it's important to learn to understand your child's gestures.
  12. Play simple games. Games like peakaboo are great for development. Alternating between an active (talker) and a passive (listener) role in 'peekaboo' helps to establish interactive routines like those required in conversation.
  13. Repeat words. Repeating words, naming objects, and playing naming games (e.g. "Where's your nose?") will help your child to expand their vocabulary from about 18 months onward. This should be fun for you and the baby, not forced and school-like.
  14. Get on their level. Literally – it's always better if you can be face-to-face when you're having a conversation with your child.
  15. Respond to single words. By the time they're two, your child will be able to say around 50 words and understand at least 200 words. Try responding to single words they say by repeating the word back to them in a full sentence. For example, if they say "Truck!" you might say "Yes, there's a big yellow truck."
  16. Let your child practice two-step instructions. This is great for two year olds and up. For example, you might ask them to "Please put this book away and bring me your shoes".
  17. Listen to your child. Let them know that what they say is important to you. You won't always understand them, so it's ok to say, "I'm sorry but I don't understand. Can you show me?"
  18. Treat your child as an equal. When you're talking with your child, ask their opinion about things, and take the time to answer their questions in a thoughtful way.
  19. Correct them gently. If your child gets something 'wrong', say it back to them correctly rather than pointing out their mistake or asking them to say it again, properly. (For example, if your child says, "I goed there."; you say, "Yes, you went there.")
  20. Model good communication skills. For example, if your child says, "Want milk", you might say, "May I have some milk please? … Of course you can!"
  21. Make language fun! Make up silly words that rhyme, sing funny songs, or invent wild and imaginative stories – or songs - about them or their soft toy. Get creative!


Raising Children has some helpful tips on fostering communication skills for pre-schoolers in their 'Early Learning Matters' stories.

Kidshealth NZ - communication development from birth to 5 years, including milestones, plus information on hearing and communication problems (e.g. stuttering) and where to go for help.

Produced by the Ministry of Education in New Zealand. Much More than Words provides information about children's communication development so you can support them.

The Zero to Three website has good material on early language and literacy, including tips and tools for parents, plus a selection of booklets on fostering language development, reading and writing.

If you live in New Zealand and are concerned about your child's communication: Talk to someone else who knows your child well, for example, your child's teacher, doctor or a close family member. If you are still concerned, call the Ministry of Education at 0800 622 222 or check the Ministry of Education website for your local Ministry of Education office