Is My Child Ready to Start Talking?

Before the development of first words, children need to be using and pairing prelinguistic or “pre-language” acts consistently. Prelinguistic communication includes meaningful use of gestures, imitation, vocalizations, and eye contact to communicate. Children must also achieve: joint attention, shared enjoyment, communication intent, persistence, and social referencing before being able to use verbal language functionally to communicate.

What Does That Mean?

  1. Joint Attention: a child’s ability to follow eye gaze, point, or gesture from a person which leads to both the child and communication partner paying attention to the same object
  2. Shared Enjoyment: when a child shares a feeling with another person, for example, a child hears a funny noise, begins to laugh, and then looks to communication partner to laugh with them and confirm they enjoyed the noise as well
  3. Communication Intent: a child’s ability to use purposeful forms of communication (gestures, vocalizations, eye contact) to get a message across to someone
  4. Persistence: a child’s ability to continue communication attempts when their message is not being conveyed, for example, if a child is vocalizing “uh uh uh” and gets no response and they then lift their arms up to signify they want to be picked up
  5. Social Referencing: a child’s ability to pick up messages from people around them to help guide how to act appropriately, for example, a child looks at communication partner to see if it is okay to crawl down the stairs (children should be aware of cues others are giving, such as a scared facial expression)

How Prelinguistic Skills Develop

As soon as a baby is born they begin looking and listening. Babies watch their mother’s faces and begin to discriminate and recognize which faces are important.  Eye contact allows babies to learn and gain information about language from their caregiver’s mouth and face. Additionally, listening helps babies to recognize important voices which they begin responding to. Babies and children who do not have good eye contact will have less opportunities to hear the words and language being used and less opportunities to attach meaning to these words.

From birth, babies are also building up the understanding that facial expressions and gestures carry meaning. Babies begin smiling at around 6 weeks of age. This continues to foster social interactions because adults will initiate more communication with responsive babies. By 3 months of age babies start to show anticipation and excitement at the sounds/words associated with different situations. These can include approaching voices, dog barking, running bathwater, etc. Turn-taking and copying develops between 6-9 months, where babies are able to copy hand motions such as clapping and vocal sounds such as “bababa” or lip smacking. Joint attention develops between 9-12 months where children begin pointing to show others events or objects which are of interest. This further reinforces and encourages adults to engage with the child by naming these objects and events and expanding the information they provide.

What Happens When Prelinguistic Skills Are Not Present?

Children who have difficulty with joint attention will have fewer opportunities to learn about things in their environment. Children learn and attach meaning to words by looking at what an adult is showing them and talking about what they are seeing. Non-verbal and verbal language remain intertwined throughout all language learning processes. Meaningful verbal language will not develop without first, the development of prelinguistic skills. Children who are not developing prelinguistic skills appropriately may not do these things:

  • Give eye contact
  • Respond with a smile
  • Use different vocalizations to indicate different emotions
  • Babble
  • Copy facial expressions or gestures
  • Use vocalization or gesture to gain attention
  • Attempt to show you things in their environment
  • Enjoy others participating in their play

How To Promote These Skills

  • Encourage Eye Contact
    • Get face to face with your child and position toys at eye level
    • Sit across from your child when reading and hold books near your face
    • Hold desired objects close to your face and do not give them to your child until they look at you to “request” it
    • Play peek a boo
  • Use Gestures
    • Wave hi/bye
    • Point when you say look to show your child what they should be looking at
    • Shake head “yes” or “no” when using these words
  • Practice joint attention – If your child has difficulty following your point, start with your finger close to their eyes and draw it out to the item you want them to look at
    • Point to and label items in books
    • Point out different things within your environment and encourage your child to look at them
    • Follow your child’s gaze and talk about what they are looking at

If your baby is not using these prelinguistic skills consistently by 10 months of age, you may want to see a speech-language pathologist to help promote your baby’s pre-language skills as they are necessary precursors for spoken language.