Helping Baby Learn to Speak
DAMON gurgled with pleasure as his aunt picked him up and sat him on her lap. While being gently rocked, he voiced a happy “Ahhh.” His aunt, a student of speech therapy, softly repeated his “Ahhh” sound. He reacted to the sound ‘coming back to him,’ which pleased his aunt. And she was even more pleased when he said “Ahhh” again.
The infant liked the “game,” and they played it for some time. But to his aunt the “game” meant much. She knew that at an early age he had begun “sound imitation.” This was a strong indication that his mind was alert, his hearing was good and that he would someday speak clearly.
Listening to the jabber of small infants, is that not a waste of time? True, many babies just eventually “start talking on their own,” or so it appears. However, in the last twenty years, the study of speech development in children has revealed a great deal. Today the “babbling” of babes and the attention parents (and any who look after infants) should pay to such is not taken lightly by many doctors and speech specialists.
Is such concern misplaced? Consider the effect on the entire personality of some who from childhood developed speech defects:
“[At the restaurant] I wanted coffee and rolls, but I ordered milk and oatmeal because I knew I’d stutter hard on those other words and I didn’t want the old lady who waited on me to feel sorry for me. I hate oatmeal.”
“Even when I was a little girl I remember being ashamed of my speech. And every time I opened my mouth, I shamed my mother. I can’t tell you how awful I felt. If I talked, I did wrong. It was that simple. I kept thinking I must be awful bad to have to talk like that.”
“My father wouldn’t ever listen to me when I stuttered. He always walked off. I finally got so I’d say everything to him by having mother give him the message.”—Speech Correction.
The adults quoted above would be the first ones to tell you how important it is to know how to help your child speak correctly. Further, this is not a matter to consider when the child starts school (in most countries around age six) but, rather, from infancy. For if there is one point on which most authorities agree it is that the treatment of the baby during the first four years is crucial in speech development and, thus, many claim, in thinking ability.
However, before we investigate the development of speech, we face the question: What talking “equipment” and inclination does a normal newborn babe have? Research answers: “A miraculous abundance of provisions!”
The Multiple Miracle
The word “miracle” might seem exaggerated. Yet speech (the sounds, breathing pattern) and language (what the sounds stand for) are very complex interrelated systems.
In fact, the coordination alone is a marvel. Saying one short, two-syllable word can require twenty different adjustments of the lips, tongue, larynx and jaws. These twenty delicate adjustments must be made precisely, in correct sequence, in about one fourth of a second. This would mean that each movement takes place in about one one-hundredth of a second. And it is all completed automatically!
A second miracle is the variety in sounds and when we are capable of making them. Babies the world over, report speech specialists, within the first few months of life may produce all speech sounds that the human vocal system can manufacture: “. . . French vowels and trills, German umlaut and gutteral sounds, and many that are only describable in phonetic symbols.” So, universally, newborn infants quickly develop the potential of a full range of sounds, but their environment (local language, noises they hear) affect which ones they tend to use.
Such evidence argues strongly against the evolutionists’ position that “by accident, primitive man probably produced audible speech sounds.” (The Psychology of Communication, p. 16) To the contrary, it declares that speech is an “inborn miracle.” A Creator gave babies the equipment, desire and predisposition or tendency to talk.
This view is further supported by scientific studies that indicate that infants everywhere demonstrate remarkably similar patterns and stages of speech development. Besides recognizing speech as a “gift” to cherish, learning about these patterns and cooperating with them are positive steps that you can take to help a baby.
From First Cry to First Word
Below are listed the stages through which many speech specialists believe that all “normal” children proceed on the way to speaking sentences or groups of words. However, it is good to insert a note of caution here.
“Normal” simply means that this is what most children are doing within the time noted. But no child is a statistic or an average; every child is very much an individual. Thus while all children who speak normally usually go through this pattern, the age at which they do so may vary considerably.
Also, recognize that heredity is believed to play a role. So, in some families speech begins later than in others. Keeping these factors in mind, let’s follow the pattern from first cry through first words:
1. From birth through the first month or so the baby’s sole vocalization will be crying with little difference in tone no matter what the reason for the discomfort. Then, usually, from the fourth through about the sixteenth week the baby will “coo” and make “laughing” noises. He will produce some (mostly vowel) sounds. The crying will take on differences in tone. (Yes, mother is not just learning what baby means when he cries, baby is varying the tone when he cries.)
2. At or around the twentieth week what is called “babbling” begins. The baby will string together “chains” of one-syllable sounds that often are the repetition of similar sounds. The child usually enjoys making these and they will include some consonant nasals (such as m, n).
3. From the sixth month through the ninth the infant’s babbling will lead into what is called “sound imitation.” This starts as “self imitation,” that is, the child repeats the sound he himself made. Later he will begin repeating the sounds that an adult or another child makes to him. (As in the example at the beginning of our article.)
4. During the tenth through the twelfth months the baby may begin actually to say short words, but normally this is simply repeating what adults have said; it is still imitation.
5. By the eighteenth month the infant will have a vocabulary of from three or four to fifty words and will increasingly show by voice inflection that they mean something, they identify something. At this time the child may begin to use two-word utterances.
Usually little girls will start speaking slightly ahead of little boys. And, as noted earlier, the individual child may linger at one stage and then rapidly go through another. However, speech specialist Dr. Jon Eisenson contends: “Most children who are going to talk, perhaps up to 90 percent of them, say their first words by 15 months.”
Now in considering these stages perhaps the most important thing to note is: Children learn to speak by mimicking those around them. Thus you play a major role in helping your child at each new level.
How to Help
While not keeping a checkoff list as to ‘when Junior should be able to do this,’ it is important that you watch your child’s reactions carefully. Sadly, many times what becomes a serious speech impediment begins as a hearing problem. Even a slight hearing defect is dangerous for the small infant. Why? Because a baby is learning sounds and then repeating them as he hears them. So, a hearing problem ignored by the parents will likely lead to speech problems and impair learning ability.
One disease, for example, is called SOM (serous otitis media). This inflammation of the middle ear may only slightly change the hearing capacity of an infant. But in a preschool youngster, notes Dr. Marion Downs, “a hearing loss of 15 decibels . . . is enough to produce language problems for a child.” (Newsweek, June 14, 1976) Of course, opinions vary as to the exact point where hearing loss causes impairment. Nonetheless, a child with this particular disease will hear vowels clearly but cannot produce certain consonants (such as p, t, s, th, sh and wh).
To detect a hearing loss in a baby is not easy. Watch the little one carefully. Does the infant act startled by sudden, loud noises? Does he react to distant, faint noises? Good. Does baby turn his head and react to a voice near the crib before seeing anyone? This is also a good indication that his hearing is all right.
If the baby hears well, what positive actions can you take to help your child to learn to speak? Most important: Give him your TIME and ATTENTION. Let the infant babble to you and actually encourage him to vocalize. Repeat sounds back to him and when he does struggle to talk, encourage him by showing an interest.
This is best done in a soft voice and pleasant tone. When Junior first says a word incorrectly, it is generally best to avoid snapping back: “No, you should say —————.” Rather, smile approvingly (He did talk!) and then repeat the word, saying it correctly. Thus, while not discouraging the infant’s “baby talk,” at the same time you do not encourage the child to keep saying the word inaccurately. Sometimes well-meaning friends and relatives think that the mispronunciations of an infant are “cute.” This is certainly better than viewing them as “bad” or “wrong.” However, from a speech viewpoint, the most good is done by approving of the child’s speaking, while with patience and repetition you encourage proper pronunciation.
On the other hand, all of this does not mean that practically from “‘word one” parents should expect the child to speak as an adult. They do well to remember the admission of the Bible writer Paul: “When I was a babe, I used to speak as a babe, to think as a babe, to reason as a babe.” (1 Cor. 13:11) Yes, at first your infant’s speech may be quite a poor imitation of the word, but patience and good example are the key. Thus, he will naturally grow out of the traits of a babe.
Of course, discipline is needed when children get too noisy and boisterous. However, balance is necessary in dealing with tiny tots. Encourage speech and avoid setting up impossible goals for the child.
When, in infancy, some young ones fail to pronounce certain sounds correctly and parents become very irritated, this may injure the child. How so? Scientists believe that while there may be an inherited tendency toward some speech defects they are often made much worse by parental pressure. Sometimes what might have been a passing phase is treated as so “terrible” by the parents that the baby “freezes” or locks into the bad pattern.
For example, the “average” child speaks in a nonfluent manner (halting, some stammering or stuttering), especially between the ages of two and four. During this period the wisdom of the Bible principle found at Ephesians 6:4, “do not be irritating your children,” is needed. Often if parents do not react harshly or in a shocked manner at the stammer or stutter but, rather, lovingly touch and smilingly accept the child, the decrease in tension will decrease the impediment. This loving attention lessens the anxiety of the child and will also lessen the parent’s anxiety.
It is known that institutionalized and culturally disadvantaged children frequently have speech and language problems. But today many children who have parents suffer as if they were orphans. Why? Because the adults do not give the children the attention they need. Ironically, parents sometimes withhold communication until they think the child is ‘old enough to understand,’ whereas in actuality a tiny infant needs as much or more consideration than the child able to talk freely.
This usually occurs where the parents hold the erroneous view that a child is not capable of “serious” learning until several years old. To the contrary, the Bible’s view of the infant’s learning potential is well expressed at Deuteronomy 31:12: “Congregate the people, the men and the women and the little ones [Hebrew, taph, ‘those of tripping or short steps,’ toddlers] . . . in order that they may listen and in order that they may learn.”
Aiding Vocabulary Expansion
The rate at which a normal child’s vocabulary expands is amazing. It climbs from two or three words at year one to between 50 and 200 by age two, on up to around 900 by age three. Why the big jump between ages two and three? This is believed to be due to the fact that the child discovers questions. Hence, the two-year-old now has a system to explore all language possible.
Because the question is the infant’s main tool, it is very important for parents (or any who care for children) to realize that the seemingly nagging query “Why?” is vital. Discourage it and you discourage vocabulary increase and logical thinking patterns.
Besides your reaction to questions, there are, we might say, three responses to the early statements of a child that will have much effect on his progress in speech.
To illustrate: Suppose little Mary goes outside and finds a “flower” and brings it to Mommy. How will Mommy react when Mary says: “Look, Mommy, flower”?
The negative reaction would be: “Go away, Mary, I’m busy. Take that weed out of here.”
The neutral reaction could be: “That’s nice, Mary.”
However, the positive reaction might be: “Oh, that’s a pretty flower, Mary. See, it has four petals.” Obviously, here the mother not only reacted warmly to her daughter’s enthusiasm but went one step farther and added a new word—“petals.”
Thus, parents can view conversations with their children as opportunities to add new building blocks—new words—to their “world of understanding.” This is best done by short statements, frequently repeating what the child said (if basically true) and then adding just a little more to it.
Too, it is good to remember that even when a small child makes what sounds like a statement he or she is often seeking support from the adult—asking in effect, ‘Am I right?’
Yet sadly, although extensive attempts might be made to help a child, it may become apparent that there is a serious speech impediment of one type or another. What then?
Avoiding Extreme Reactions
Although his hearing is normal, and despite allowing for slowness at a particular age, it may be that your baby is not progressing as to forming words and linking them together. What can be done? Well, the worst reaction is to panic and go to either of two extremes.
The one extreme is to look upon the child as some sort of “freak” and excessively blame yourself or the child. If a baby falls and breaks his leg, what parent would not rush him to a doctor to have it set? But somehow “broken” speech is viewed as the child’s fault and so it is something to be ignored or to be ashamed of rather than something to be repaired.
It is true that often the home circumstances have contributed to the faulty speech pattern, but that is all the more reason to give real attention to both the child and the relationships within the household. Frequently, speech therapists can quickly help a small child to solve a speech or language problem, whereas if allowed to live on that way, the difficulty may be so ingrained that it is virtually impossible to correct.
The other extreme is one of frantic dismay expressed in such a way that the child senses that he is the object of much anxiety. He is made to feel that he MUST speak otherwise. Especially with stutterers, this added pressure usually pushes them farther into the nonfluency pattern.a
Rather, as with small infants discussed earlier, there is the greatest need for patience and tenderness on the part of parents. Avoid constantly correcting and nagging; instead, try to get the young one’s mind off his speech problem. Frequently, when his mind is turned away from the impediment, the child can speak normally.
In addition, it is important that older brothers and sisters be aided to see the need of treating the stutterer with tender affection—not always cutting him off when he tries to talk, thus inducing frustration and anxiety.
Actually, the Christian principles outlined in the Bible for treating children are invaluable in helping an infant with a speech impediment and who thus is often also termed a “slow learner.”
“Tender affection,” “long-suffering,” “mildness,” “self-control,”—these qualities displayed by parents can do much to ease the problem.—1 Thess. 2:7, 8; Gal. 5:22, 23.
Therefore, talk to your child, from infancy. Read to your child, from infancy. Make gentle, loving physical contact with your child, from infancy. Doing these things will aid the little one’s speech development and will have positive effects on his personality and learning ability.
As perhaps no other tool, the child’s ability to speak clearly and communicate his thoughts, his needs and desires will affect his personal achievement, sense of self-worth and happiness. Together, then, with your child, correctly use the God-given miracle of speech. Later, in that very human way, in words, your offspring will likely say: “Thank you. I’m glad you kept caring.”
a See Awake!, July 8, 1975, p. 19, the article “Help for the Stutterers.”
[Blurb on page 17]
“Infants everywhere demonstrate remarkably similar patterns and stages of speech development.”
[Blurb on page 18]
“Perhaps the most important thing to note is: Children learn to speak by mimicking those around them.”
[Blurb on page 19]
“Sometimes what might have been a passing phase is treated as so ‘terrible’ by the parents that the baby ‘freezes’ or locks into the bad pattern.”
[Picture on page 21]
Father can also gently encourage baby to speak by frequently repeating simple words