Guidelines for early language development

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By Dr Melodie de Jager and Izienne van Jaarsveld

Names and words are the symbols of thought. Language is a learnt code that enables people to express wants and needs and to communicate. It starts off as simple sounds and culminates in writing and reading in later years.

Baby’s ability to talk and interact develops gradually through interaction with people and the environment. Language is the natural progression from the sense of vibration and rhythm in utero to tone and hearing in the baby.



±6 weeks – baby starts responding to your smiling face and voice with lots of gurgling – this is his way of communicating.

Newborn – 6 months: Early communication

Your baby does not yet understand language, but will respond to loud noises with a startle and to your voice by becoming quiet. By three months of age babies will turn their heads when they hear a voice or an interesting sound.

From the very beginning parents and their babies become partners in “conversation”. They create a pattern of turn-taking which is basic to communication. A good example of early turn-taking between an infant and his mother occurs at feeding time. While feeding, mother and newborn look at each other. While baby is actively sucking, the mother is passive. She continues to look at her baby. When the baby stops sucking briefly, the mother becomes active, cooing and talking to the baby. Finally, when the baby starts to suck again, the mother adjust her behaviour to her baby’s behaviour, each one taking a turn. Turn-taking forms the basis of any conversation.

Even though babies do not use words, their parents interpret their behaviour as if they were trying to communicate. When babies look at faces or objects, smile, or grasp at objects, their parents react as if they meant to communicate.

When a baby looks into a parent’s face and smiles, the parent smiles in response. The parent reacts as if the baby started up a conversation. When the baby turns away, the “conversation” ends. At this stage of development the baby does not display intentional behaviour, but parents respond as if the baby were truly trying to communicate. The baby is learning how to initiate, maintain, and end a conversation.


Single-syllable stage – later these sounds develop into first words – “maa”, “paa” – he doesn’t understand what he is saying.


±5 months – babbles at random using a distinctive pattern of noises to communicate; the tone of his voice changes when he wants to attract your attention; he tries to imitate you when you talk/sing to him.

7–12 months: understanding routines

During this period, babies learn to exercise some control over their environment through communication. They begin to use facial expressions, eye gaze, vocalisation, and gestures such as reaching and pointing to communicate.

At this age we cannot speak of babies understanding or comprehending language. However, by experiencing daily activities such as feeding time or bedtime over and over again in the same way, babies come to “expect” these things to happen in a certain way. These “routines” form the basis of early understanding of events in their world.

Early speech

±1 year – begins to use sounds with tone and emphasis.

First words

First words – 12–15 months: intelligible words, first words will be names of things which are important to them.

12–24 months: First words

Around your child’s first birthday, he or she will start using words instead of vocal noises. Children build a vocabulary of approximately fifty words by the time they are about two years old. The words will most likely include the names of objects and people, and action words.

Now your child also understands words. The names of objects and some action words are recognised when they are used in a familiar context. Young children will appear to understand requests and statements directed at them because familiar single words are used as part of their daily routine.

First sentences

±15 months – vocabulary increases spectacularly – before second birthday – starting to string words together to make short sentences such as “Me run”.

At this time, children develop language very rapidly. Your child starts putting words together to form sentences. Early attempts include two-word phrases like “Eat cookie”. These phrases expand to full sentences of three to four words such as “Me eat cookie now” by age three.

Remember: The above-mentioned milestones are merely guidelines.


  • Incorporate the five senses during language stimulation.
  • Monitor how you speak to your baby/child: Use shorter, less complex utterances. Make eye contact during communication. Touch your baby/child when you want to attract his/her attention. Use over exaggerated facial expressions and intonation during communication. Avoid baby talk.
  • Limit TV time.
  • Book-reading activities are essential!
  • Speak to your baby from birth – this forms the early basis for language development.
  • Imitate your child – all sounds, attempts at communicating and words; later on add sounds, actions or words to your child’s actions.
  • Work concretely (refer to real objects or pictures – avoid just naming something) when a new word is being learned.
  • Learning should be fun!
  • Really listen to your child – get down to your child’s eye level and look at him/her while they talk. Respond to what your child is saying. Show sincere interest in his/her thoughts and feelings.
  • Give your child enough time to respond. He or she may take a long time to organise his/her thoughts and feelings and put them into words. Avoid interrupting your child.
  • Do not pressurise your child to talk in front of others. They might not want to “perform” verbally in front of others while they are still learning.




Carolyn A. Wiener, M.A., C.C.C. Is My Child’s Speech or Language Delayed?

Elizabeth Skrakis-Doyle, Ph.D. Language Development

Elizabeth Skrakis-Doyle, Ph.D. Speech Development

Leslie S. McColgin. Disorders of Speech and Language

Leslie S. McColgin. The Speech and Language Glossary


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