We’ve all been there. In the middle of a much needed catch-up with a girlfriend, their wide-eyed, curly haired son points out the window and screams “mummy look, big f$#@”. While you try unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle, your girlfriend is slowly sliding under the table with embarrassment. Of course he meant to say truck but he is little and it is completely normal for his age...
As a paediatric speech pathologist and a mother of four children under seven, I see (and hear) a lot of children who have delayed speech and language. I also meet a lot of parents that just don’t know what normal is and when to seek professional help. They don’t know if they should even be seeing a speech pathologist because ‘he’s a boy and boys develop at a slower rate’, ‘she doesn’t want to follow that instruction, that’s why she’s not doing it’ ‘he’s not looking at you because he just wants to play with his Lego’. Are these expected responses from a child? Yes, sometimes they are but sometimes they aren’t. So how do you know what is expected?
Let’s talk about language… baby
Language is a complex issue. There are two main areas: receptive language (understanding and processing what is said) and expressive language (knowledge of vocabulary, grammatical rules and how you put it all together). Most of the time, paediatric language develops around need. For example, my eldest son’s first word was ‘bikkie’ because he wanted a bikkie. All the time. That’s all I heard for a month. Then he moved on to bottle and truck (and yes, he did mispronounce the word). EVENTUALLY, he said Mum (thanks darling). Single words should start to develop anywhere from twelve months. These words don’t have to be correct, but they do have to be consistent. For example ‘wawa’ for water under the age of two is completely normal and as long as it is consistent and they actually want water, then that’s a word. By the time they get to twenty four months, we have some concrete norms for what they should be doing. At twenty four months they should have at least 50 single words (at least) and they should be attempting to put two words together (eg. ‘my bikkie’ ‘my bottle’).
This norm scares a lot of parents. Stop. Breathe. Exhale. Your child is probably saying a lot more than you think but it might be handy to write down all the words you hear so you have a list. They’ll probably all be nouns with some adjectives and maybe a couple of verbs.
By the time they hit three, they should be talking in short sentences...
I like children at this age to use four to five words in a sentence but the norms suggest three to four words is fine. Generally, just enough to detail why they don’t like whatever has been presented for dinner “I (or me) no like peas” “not eating it Mum”. Or explaining why they love you: “You play with me”. This is also the period where the word ‘why’ shoots out of their mouths in rapid fire. At this point, they should also be able to follow simple instructions (eg. “get your doll”).
A word on compliance: I am sure everyone else’s children are well behaved and compliant but sometimes my children just won’t do what they are told. If you are trying to work out if they can follow instructions, try it over the space of a week so you can get a decent baseline for whether or not they can understand.
Now let’s talk about the fours...
I love the four-year-olds. Language really comes alive and their personalities come out. It’s fabulous until they start explaining where you are lagging in your parenting skills. I am sure none of you will be shocked when I say, this is when they really explore the ‘negatives’. They should master the use of ‘don’t, didn’t, won’t, can’t, aren’t’. If they have strong language skills at this stage, some children start to negotiate “If I eat my dinner, can I have chocolate?” (um….no because I ate it all to calm down after your meltdown last night). You’ll be hearing a lot of ‘wh’ questions when you are reading to them ‘who, what, where, when, why’. Warning: it can take up to thirty minutes to finish The Very Hungry Caterpillar at this stage when you take into account all of the questions and sleep avoidance.
A word on Dr Google…
Google is great. It was the only way I was able to answer my son’s question about exoskeletons the other night, but be wary. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. If you are looking for reliable information about language and sound development in children, please make sure you are looking at Australian norms and at a reputable source (eg. a practising Speech Pathologist). If you are still unsure, then speak to your GP or call a Speech Pathologist and ask their opinion about whether or not you need an appointment. If your child is not meeting the expected levels at their age don’t panic but start gathering data about what they can do, that way if you need to see a Speechie then you can give them reliable information.
Language development in children is fascinating. It is like watching a flower bloom. When your children start to communicate verbally it is the most incredible thing to watch their personalities unfold. When they start to question their environment, their innocence is infectious and they develop so rapidly. They expand their vocabulary on a daily basis so please don’t forget to play with them. Play is the best way to develop language and let’s face it, they grow so quickly there will come a time when you will miss the constant requests to play.
Since graduating from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Speech Pathology), Danielle has worked in a variety of Paediatric clinical settings. Danielle has a passion and natural flair for working with children. She has demonstrated a high level of commitment and dedication to both her clients and their families. For more information, go to www.werdaspeechpathology.com.au