Say Mama! Speech and Language Development in Children

I might be a little biased (as a Speech and Language Therapist) but I think one of the most exciting milestones any parent sees their child achieve is their first words. Then watching them go from single words, to sentences and on to complicated stories is really a thrill (again, more thrilling for me!). So what do you do if you feel like your little one is not chattering age appropriately? Here I am going to lay down a few things to think about in terms of speech and language development.

Receptive language (understanding)

You cannot say what you do not understand first. I find in my work that this is an area that is often missed by parents. We are so focused on why our little one isn’t talking, that we don’t stop to think about their understanding. Understanding is the bedrock of language. Children begin to understand what is said around them at a very early age. They should know their own name (and respond to it) well before the age of one year. By one year they should also be able to follow simple instructions like “Kiss mama”, “don’t touch!” or “give this to papa”, without any help from you. Around this time they will also demonstrate understanding to a lot of words by being able to point to animals in a book, “where is the cat?” or their own body parts, “show me your eyes”. Between 18 and 24 months they should follow more and more complex instructions with lots of parts and by three years old they should be able to answer questions about a simple story like “What happened to the cat?” or “where was the treasure hidden?” Understanding many types of instructions and questions is really important for preschool later and affects reading comprehension so parents should keep a close eye on what questions their children can and cannot understand.

Expressive language (talking)

Late talking is a common reason for referral to an SLT. First words should typically be expected between 12 and 15 months with word combinations around 18 to 24. Children typically say nouns and useful verbs first, or words about things which they see often and interest them. Words like “mama”, “open”, “milk” or “meow” will be typical first words. Word combinations follow very quickly and can have many meanings. For examples, “papa car” could mean, “look papa, a car”, “that’s papa’s car” or “papa is in the car”. The combination of lots of different types of words is important. Before 24 months most children have range of noun, verb and adjective (or concept word) combinations. Sentences become more complex from then on and children should be able to tell simple stories on their own from about three years onwards.

Speech sound development (pronunciation)

‘Speech’ is the term SLTs use to mean the sounds we use when we talk. Babies often begin with the sounds ‘b’, ‘m’ and ‘p’ and quickly progress to being able to make a wide range of sounds. Mum and dad acting as translators for the first while is perfectly normal but it shouldn’t take too long before everyone can understand your child’s speech. Different children do acquire sounds at different times so what parents need to look out for are children who persistently have difficulty with a specific sound, like a child who cannot say ‘s’ or ‘ch’, or who always replace a sound with another such as producing ‘f’ as ‘p’ so fish sounds like pish. All speech sounds are typically present before the age of six but a child who is difficult to understand past the age of four might be cause for concern.

What to do?

Make sure to have as much uninterrupted parent-child play and reading time as possible. Humans are designed to learn for language, they will pick up things in no time from normal interactions and play! Involve them in your daily use of language and do try to limit screen devices for the little ones as research shows it can slow down language development if overused. If you do use screens, try to find the time to watch with your child. Talk about feelings and what the characters are doing (verbs!) for the little ones and predictions and outcomes of characters’ actions with those over three. Make it as interactive as possible, not a
one-sided event. They will learn from the language YOU use with them in all situations!

The bottom line is: parents are usually extremely astute and you are the one who knows your child best. If you are worried about their speech or language skills, the best thing to do is go and have them assessed by an SLT.

Marie is an Irish speech and language therapist with 10 years of experience, and mum to three little girls. She specializes in treating language delay and disorders and children with multiple diagnoses. Marie is also ‘conventionnneĆ©’ by the French health board and accepts the French carte vitale. Email: