Language is the system we use to send and receive information in a meaningful way. Language can be verbal, nonverbal, or written. We classify language as either receptive (listening and/or reading) or expressive (speaking and/or writing). The first signs of communication occur when an infant learns that he/she can cry for food or comfort. Infants will also learn to recognize certain sounds in their environment such as their caretakers voice. Each child varies in their development of language skills, but there is a natural timetable and progression to master these skills.
From birth to three months, your baby should react to loud sounds, calm down when spoken softly to, start or stop sucking during feeding in response to sound, coo and make pleasure sounds, and have a special way of crying for different needs. From four to six months, your baby should follow sounds with his or her eyes, respond to changes in your voice, pay attention to music, and laugh. From seven months to one year, your baby should enjoy playing peek-a-boo, turn in the direction of sound, listen when spoken to by demonstrating eye contact, and understand common words such as cup, shoe, or juice. From one to three years, your child should recognize their own name, know a few major body parts such as head, arms, and nose, can name some common objects, and follow simple commands. Finally, between three and five years your child should answer simple who, what, where, and why questions, use longer sentences, tell stories that stay on topic, and understand most of what is said at school or at home.
If you believe your child is struggling to develop their language skills, a skilled speech language pathologist will be able to evaluate their skill level by looking at the five major areas of language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Phonology refers to the speech sounds within a language including the rules for combining these sounds to make words. For example, understanding how the sounds c-a-r create the word ‘car’ when combined. Morphology refers to the rules that govern how the most minimal parts of language are used and combined. For example, in the word ‘colored’ the /ed/ changes the word to become past tense. Syntax refers to the rules of grammar, and how words can be combined to form sentences. Semantics refers to the meaning of words, for example the word ‘bat’ could be an animal or a piece of sports equipment. And pragmatics refers to the rules of social engagement within a language. Each part of language is crucial for the global development of communication skills. Children need to develop these skills in order to reach higher language skills such as inferencing and interpreting complex language such as jokes and puns.
If you feel as though your child isn't hitting their speech and language milestones, there are various explanations as to why your child may have a language problem. These include other diagnosis’s such as autism spectrum disorder, hearing loss, a general learning disability, or damage to the central nervous system from a trauma. Neurological issues such as Cerebral Palsy or Muscular Dystrophy are also commonly seen alongside language disorders.
A skilled speech language pathologist (SLP) is able to evaluate, diagnose, and treat language disorders in children, whether or not the cause is known. Through standardized testing, your SLP will be able to provide you with a clear picture of where your child’s skills are compared to his or her same aged peers who are typically developing. Research has shown that the earlier a child gets intervention, the more significant their progress can be.
What can parents do at home? Spend time communicating directly with your child. Read, name items, talk about everyday activities, and use gestures while you talk. Model ‘adult speech’ rather than baby talk in order to demonstrate proper grammar and pronunciation. With time, therapy, and your support, your child will learn to communicate with you and those around them.