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My Child's Not Talking

The first three years of life is an amazing time of learning for a young child and a very exciting time for parents as they watch their child develop new skills every day. Developing spoken language is one of the important skills children acquire during this period. Understandably, it is a source of deep concern for parents when children do not meet the language milestones of their peers of the same age.

What Does My Child Need To Acquire Language

Before a child begins to talk, he requires some prerequisite skills which form the foundations of language, or what is called preverbal skills:


Your child needs to be able to hear, locate sounds and attend to voices around him. If your child is not hearing well, this will in turn affect his understanding of the environment around him.


He needs to be able to copy actions as well as copy sounds and sound patterns.

Imagination, Eye Contact And Engagement

Your child needs to be able use his imagination in make-believe or pretend play. For example, a young child pretends to feed you or her teddy bear when given a toy tea set. He gives you eye contact in the process, smiles and pulls your hand to encourage you to feed teddy too. The development of such pragmatic skills is necessary in order to use language appropriately in different social contexts.


In the language-learning process, understanding the language heard, that is, receptive language, always precedes the development of expressive language. A young baby will turn when her mother calls her, wave goodbye or blow a kiss when asked to, long before she can say her own name or say "bye-bye"

Once a child shows that he has mastered these skills, he is then ready to talk. Often, a child with a language delay may have some deficits in one or some of these areas.

How Can I Tell If My Child's Language Development Is On Track?

A child's language develops in a regular sequence of stages. For example, he babbles, coos and repeats single syllables like "mama" or baba" before using a single word. The table below shows the milestones to look for in normal speech development:

 Age Language Level


2-3 months Cries differently in different circumstances; coos in response to you; babbles randomly
3-4 months Babbles randomly
5-6 months Babbles rhythmically
6-11 months Babbles in imitation of real speech, repeats single syllables, with expression
12 months Says one to two words; recognises name; imitates familiar sounds; understands simple instructions like "wave bye-bye"
18 months Uses five to 20 words, including names
Between 1 and 2 years Says two-word sentences; vocabulary is growing; waves goodbye; makes "sounds" of familiar animals; uses words (like "more") to make wants known; understands "no"
Between 2 and 3 years Identifies body parts; calls self "me" instead of name; combines nouns and verbs; has a 450-word vocabulary; uses short sentences; matches three to four colors, knows big and little; likes to hear same story repeated; forms some plurals
Between 3 and 4 years Can tell a short story; sentence length of four to five words; vocabulary of about 1,000 words; knows last name, name of street, several nursery rhymes
Between 4 and 5 years Sentence length of four to five words; uses past tense; vocabulary of about 1,500 words; identifies colors, shapes; asks many questions like "why?" and "who?"
Between 5 and 6 years Sentence length of five to six words; vocabulary of about 2,000 words; can tell you what objects are made of; Knows spatial relations (like "on top" and "far"); Knows address; understands same and different; counts 10 things; Knows right and left hand; uses all types of sentences

If your child is not meeting these milestones, the first step is to get leis hearing checked. Even if they seem to hear just fine, children are experts at picking up visual cues to get by. It is important to remember that every child develops at his own pace. However, if you are concerned about your child's development and would like to request an evaluation (developmental assessment), do speak to your paediatrician. 

The early identification team may consist of a speech-language pathologist, a paediatrician, an audiologist, an occupational therapist and a psychologist. Language delays and disorders may be due to a variety of causes and each professional makes valuable contributions to the evaluation and may suggest appropriate referrals to other professionals.  

Could My Child Just Be A Late Talker?

When Do I Get Help?

Although some children will develop normal language skills without treatment by the time they enter kindergarten, it is important to identify those who are at risk of falling behind. Research on late talkers indicates that those who have good preverbal skills, that is, they understand words, have appropriate play skills and use eye gaze, gestures, and sounds are likely to catch up with less intensive intervention. 

It is common to wait until a child is aged between 18 and 24 months before beginning a formal evaluation of his speech and language skills. New research indicates, however, that speech-language pathologists may be able to identify at-risk children earlier based on their preverbal behavior.

If your child seems to have trouble with preverbal skills like hearing, imitation or comprehension, he may have compounding difficulties such as autism. Other red flags include your child's incomprehension of what you say or his inability to use objects which may suggest cognitive deficits or a general global delay with his other skills as well.

Tips To Encourage Language At Home

If your child is not talking at all, work first on the preverbal skills such as eye contact, attention and social skills. Always acknowledge the child's attempts to communicate, even if the child just points or grunts to call you. Reinforce attempts by maintaining eye contact If your child is saying very little, build on his language.

A helpful hint is that understanding and processing of language is more effective when done through experience, or Experiential Learning, rather than sitting down with flash cards. For instance, cooking is a great way to help your child follow directions, learn names of ingredients lie milk, eggs), learn about measuring (one, two, three) and learn action words (stirring, pouring, cooking, and of course, eating).

You can also model language by "expanding". Expanding language refers to adding words to your child's sentences. By expanding your child's sentences, you're modelling advanced grammar and encouraging new vocabulary. For example, your child says: "See the train," and you expand this sentence by saying: "Yes, I see the big train on the tracks. Choo-choo!" Expanding keeps the conversation going, clarifies a topic, and adds new information.

Read to your child. Sometimes "reading" is simply describing the pictures in a book without following the written words. Choose books that are sturdy and have large colourful pictures that are not too detailed. Ask your child, "what's this?" and encourage naming and pointing to familiar objects in the book.


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