The importance of speech and language development in a child's early years

by the Speech Language and Audiology Association of Trinidad and Tobago

What are speech and language?

Speech and language are tools that humans use to communicate or share thoughts, ideas and emotions. Language is the set of rules, shared by the individuals who are communicating, that allows them to exchange those thoughts, ideas or emotions. Speech involves speaking - one way that a language can be expressed. Language may also be expressed through writing, signing, or even gestures in the case of people who have neurological disorders and may depend upon eye blinks or mouth movements to communicate.

While there are many languages in the world, each includes its own set of rules for phonology (phonemes or speech sounds or, in the case of signed language, handshapes), morphology (word formation), syntax (sentence formation), semantics (word and sentence meaning), prosody (intonation and rhythm of speech), and pragmatics (effective use of language).

How do speech and language normally develop?

The most intensive period of speech and language development for humans is during the first three (3) years of life, a period when the brain is developing and maturing. These skills appear to develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.

Increasing evidence suggests that there are “critical periods” for speech and language development in infants and young children. This means that the developing brain is best able to absorb a language during this period. The ability to learn a language will be more difficult, and perhaps less efficient or effective, if these critical periods are allowed to pass without early exposure to a language. The beginning signs of communication occur during the first few days of life when an infant learns that a cry will bring food, comfort and companionship. The newborn also begins to recognise important sounds in his or her environment. The sound of a parent’s voice can be one important sound. As they grow, infants begin to sort out the speech sounds (phonemes) or building blocks that compose the words of their language. Research has shown that by six (6) months of age, most children recognise the basic sounds of their native language. 

As the speech mechanism (jaw, lips and tongue) and voice mature, an infant is able to make controlled sounds. This begins in the first few months of life with “cooing,” a quiet, pleasant, repetitive vocalisation. By six (6) months of age, an infant usually babbles or produces repetitive syllables such as “ba, ba, ba” or “da, da, da.” Babbling soon turns into a type of nonsense speech (jargon) that often has the tone and cadence of human speech but does not contain real words. By the end of their first year, most children have mastered the ability to say a few simple words. Children are most likely unaware of the meaning of their first words, but soon learn the power of those words as others respond to them.

By eighteen months of age, most children can say eight (8) to ten (10) words. By age two (2), most are putting words together in crude sentences such as “car go.” During this period, children rapidly learn that words symbolise or represent objects, actions and thoughts. At this age they also engage in representational or pretend play. At ages three, four and five, a child’s vocabulary rapidly increases, and he or she begins to master the rules of language. 

baby girl speechThe most intensive period of speech and language development for humans is during the first three years of life, a period when the brain is developing and maturing

What are speech and language developmental milestones?

Children vary in their development of speech and language. There is, however, a natural progression or “timetable” for mastery of these skills for each language. The milestones are identifiable skills that can serve as a guide to normal development. Typically, simple skills need to be reached before the more complex skills can be learned. There is a general age and time when most children pass through these periods. These milestones help doctors and other health professionals determine when a child may need extra help to learn to speak or to use language. 

How do you know if your child is reaching the milestones? 

Informally, parents often know their child is not speaking/communicating like other children the same age. If in any way concerned, parents should consult with their paediatrician for guidance.

What should I do if my child's speech or language appears to be delayed?

You should talk to your family doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s speech or language development. Your doctor may decide to refer you to a speech-language pathologist/therapist/clinician, a health professional trained to evaluate and treat people who have speech, language, voice or swallowing disorders (including hearing impairment) that affect their ability to communicate. The speech-language pathologist will talk to you about your child’s communication and general development. He or she will also evaluate your child with special speech and language tests. A hearing test is often included in the evaluation because a hearing problem can affect speech and language development. 

Speech-language pathologists/therapists/clinicians assess, diagnose, treat, and help to prevent disorders related to speech, language, cognitive-communication, voice, swallowing and fluency. They work with:

  • people who cannot make speech sounds, or cannot make them clearly;
  • those with speech rhythm and fluency problems, such as stuttering;
  • people with voice quality problems, such as inappropriate pitch or harsh voice;
  • people who have problems understanding and producing language;
  • those who wish to improve their communication skills by modifying an accent;
  • those with cognitive communication impairments, such as attention, memory, and problem solving disorders;
  • people who have oral motor problems causing eating and swallowing difficulties 

Speech-language pathologists/therapists/clinicians develop an individualised plan of care, tailored to each patient's needs. For individuals with little or no speech capability, speech-language pathologists may select augmentative or alternative communication methods, including automated devices and sign language, and teach their use. They teach patients how to make sounds, improve their voices, or increase their oral or written language skills to communicate more effectively. They also teach individuals how to strengthen muscles or use compensatory strategies to swallow without choking or inhaling food or liquid.

Speech-language pathologists often work as part of a team, which may include teachers, physicians, audiologists, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation counsellors and others. Speech-language pathologists in schools collaborate with teachers, special educators, interpreters, other school personnel and parents to develop and implement individual or group programmes, provide counselling, and support classroom activities. 

About the author

The Speech Language and Audiology Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SLAATT) is an independent organisation formed by speech-language therapists and audiologists who work on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. SLAATT was formed in 2009 to raise awareness and provide advocacy, promoting the professions of speech-language therapy and audiology. There are twenty-eight (28) Speech-Language Pathologists/Therapists/Clinicians licensed to practice in Trinidad and Tobago, under the Council for Professions Related to Medicine. Many are members of the Speech Language Audiology Association of Trinidad and Tobago. For more information, visit SLAATT's website www.slaatt.com or Facebook Page.

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