Language is a critical aspect of a child’s development, and as parents we often have concerns and wonder what we can do to help our children develop the skills to share thoughts, ideas and feelings, and to understand others.
Language is different from speech.
Speech is how words and sounds are spoken. A child with a speech problem may be talking a lot but can be hard to understand. By 3 years old, a child should be understood at least 70-80 percent of the time by an unfamiliar listener.
Language is knowledge of words and how to put them together in a meaningful way. Most children learn language by listening and practicing what they hear. Children learn language and the rules of language gradually. Children who have had hearing problems may also be slower to learn language.
Children generally learn language in a predictable, expected sequence. Between ages 1 and 2, most children start using one- or two-word sentences, follow simple requests like “Sit down,” and understand simple questions like “Where is your coat?” They are beginning to ask one- to two-word questions like “Where kitty?”
By 2 to 3 years, they will be using two- to three-word sentences to talk about and ask for things, understand 500 to 900 words, and follow two-part directions like “Get the cup and put it on the table.” They have words for almost everything and use two to three words to talk about or ask for things.
At 2 years of age, children can say 150 to 300 words, and at 3 years old 800 to1,000 words. At 3 to 4 years old they will be using a lot of sentences that have four or more words, are able to tell stories about things that happen during their day, and people outside the family can usually understand them.
At every age level a parent can be actively involved in helping their child develop solid language skills. Here are some suggestions for how to help your child learn language:
Talk to your child about the things you do
This is called parallel talk. If you are chopping an onion you might say: “I am making soup. I need some onion. I’m getting the cutting board. I’m getting a knife. Now I’m chopping up the onion.”
For a younger child, use shorter sentences: “ Making soup! Need an onion. Get a knife! Chop the onion! Chop, chop, chop!”
Talk with your child about what they are doing and seeing
Remember that children learn by listening. If you are trying to help them learn a word or phrase, model it for them frequently, without demanding that they say the word.
Just give them the opportunity to hear it many times throughout the day.
Read to your child often and start early
Listen to your child talk. Give them eye contact and your attention, and respond to what they say.
If your child says something the wrong way, repeat it back to them the right way. It’s not necessary to talk about the mistake and pointing it out too often may make your child feel self-conscious about talking.
Don’t ask your child to slow down or repeat. But it may be helpful for the parent to slow down their speech.
If you have concerns that your child has problems communicating or understanding others, there may be a language disorder.
A speech-language pathologist (also called speech therapist) may be able to help. Speech therapists can test your child’s speech and language and make a plan of treatment.
For more information, contact the American Speech and Hearing Association at www.asha.org
Evelyn Boyd, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language patholist at Walla Walla General Hospital.