Updated: Aug 22
Hello and welcome! In this series of blog posts, I'm going to talk about language and speech development. How can you help your child with their language and what you can do if you're concerned. For those of you who are raising your child to be bilingual, I’m going to be touching on bilingualism a lot over the next few weeks. If you’re not bilingual, most of these next blog posts will still be relevant to you and your child. I’ll also be adding some great interviews in the next few weeks with some exceptional therapists, so please keep an eye out for those over the coming weeks. And, if you know someone who is raising their child to be bilingual, please share these posts with them. Thank you!
Today we’re going to talk about developmental milestones. Hurrah! And we’re going to bust a few myths around language development and bilingualism so that you’ll feel more confident in raising your child bilingually, if that’s what’s happening in your household.
First of all, what are developmental milestones? Developmental milestones are a checkpoint to see if babies and children are acquiring certain skills as they grow. Crawling comes before walking, babbling comes before speaking in sentences and so on. Each child is unique in their growth, their personality, and their environment. But whether a baby is being raised in Mumbai or in Miami, there are certain physical, social, or language goals that most of them reach at around the same time, give or take a few weeks or months. For a great example of this that is just so darn cute, I recommend you watch the documentary Babies This movie illustrates how babies all over the world have so many similarities in their development. Adorable. Entertaining. Educational. Watch it!
If you have an exceptional child, like a child with Down Syndrome, you’ll notice some of these milestones might come in later than average and some exceptional children even have different rates or stages of acquisition in their milestones. I don’t look at differences in development as scary, although I know to parents they can feel that way sometimes. And it's okay to feel that way. I think we can also look for all the ways possible to learn more about what makes your child unique and special. I encourage you to find a supportive pediatrician and speech therapist if you have concerns about your child’s language development, whether they’re bilingual or monolingual.
Here are some of the developmental milestones for speech and language that happen for children whether they’re monolingual or bilingual. Keep in mind, this isn’t a complete list of milestones, and is more of an overview. Your child may reach these milestones a little sooner or a little later than the ages listed below but if they’re a few months behind acquiring the milestones, it’s a good idea to have a talk with that supportive pediatrician I’d mentioned.
Social Communication & Play: How your baby interacts with you, both with and without word
Expresses emotions: at this age, your baby will giggle and laugh when happy and will whimper or make other sounds when upset or afraid. Your baby will turn to look at you when you make noises or try to get her attention.
Joint Attention: The definition of joint attention is when your child is able to share her interest in another object, such as a dog walking by or a bus driving down the street, with you. The child looks between you and the object and shares an emotion with you about how exciting it is to see this object or animal.
Gestures: This could include pointing at what your child wants, lifting her arms to mean she wants to be picked up, or using beginning baby sign language, such as putting her hands together to signal “more”
Follows Simple Directions: At this age, a baby can follow simple directions, such as “give me the ball”, or “come here” or, “let’s pat the cat gently.” Of course your baby may not always follow these directions, especially if she’s not so inclined to at the moment, but for the most part, she can understand and follow through on routine directions. Perhaps some directions she follows in one language and others in a different language. This all depends on how much she’s being spoken to in each language.
Engages in pretend play. At this age, a child can begin to use his imagination in play. Play is hugely important in development because it gives us a peek into how your child can use his observations about the world around him and imagination and carry those out in play. Pretend play at this age usually consists of feeding a doll or playing with small toy animals that “moo” and “baa” at each other as they walk around the living room floor.
Talks to self while playing and imitates adult behaviors while playing. At this age, children will try to clarify their message if they’ve been misunderstood. Around 30 months of age, children will play parallel to other children, meaning they won’t play with each other but will play next to each other.
At this age, your child should be sharing toys with other children (although not always). Children begin to act out longer sequences of play when playing house or other imaginative schemes. Children will begin to use language to express frustration rather than crying, tantrumming, or using physical force.
First words, usually consisting of “mama” and “dada” and perhaps the pet cat.
At least six to eight total words, meaning maybe your child has four words in English and two in Arabic.
A vocabulary of 20 to 50 words, again, we are looking at combining the total amount of words your child has in all of the languages they are exposed to.
A vocabulary of at least 50 words with the average child speaking between 200-300 words. At this age, a child combines at least two words such as mommy apple! Or your child may be code-switching saying Mommy manzana! This is very normal for bilingual children.
At very minimum, three-year-olds should have a vocabulary of 200-300 words at this age and the average child has around 1,000 words. Remember, count up the words in both languages.
Speech Sounds & Intelligibility
When we talk about intelligibility, we’re talking about how well your child is understood when they speak. What percentage of what they say do you and those around your child understand? The ability to pronounce different sounds in your language can differ but the amount that we understand stays the same, whether your child speaks in Russian or Chinese or both. As long as your child is receiving frequent, rich exposure to all languages, we can expect them to reach the same intelligibility milestones as their monolingual peers. One caveat to this though is if they’re receiving much less exposure to one language than the other, their pronunciation (as well as their vocabulary) will develop more slowly in the language of less exposure. Language and speech are a product of input and output. Hearing and then speaking.
The speech sounds listed below are for babbling and speech sounds in English, although many other languages follow similar patterns.
Here are the milestones for speech sounds and intelligibility
Makes “cooing” sounds.
Makes happy, playful noises and laughs. She makes sounds like “puh”, “mi”, and “da”.
Babbles longer strings of sounds like “mamamama” and “dada gaga”
Is approximately 25-50% intelligible. By intelligible, this means what amount of speech you can understand. When your child is asking his grandma for something he’d like or telling her about the birds outside on the trees, how much does Grandma understand? Your child will still be making many speech sound errors at this age.
Is approximately 50-75% intelligible. Says many different speech sounds in words. For example, in English, those speech sounds would be m, h, w. p, b, t, d, k, g, and f.
Is approximately 90-100% intelligible. Your child may still have trouble with certain sounds in the majority language and your home language.
By 5 years of Age
93% of children have mastered all of the consonants in their primary language. Children are close to being completely intelligible at this age (~100%).
KEEP AN EYE OUT
Lack of babbling as a baby. If your baby or toddler isn’t babbling and making sounds often, this could be worth a closer look. Babbling builds the foundation for later sounds to come in. Lack of babbling can also be due to hearing infections. If your baby isn’t hearing well, they won’t get that all important input that they need for output. Hearing and understanding comes before speaking and pronouncing. Lack of babbling can also signal a difference in how your child is communicating socially with others.
Lack of imitation in toddlers. If your toddler isn’t imitating a lot of words, gestures, and sounds that you’re saying, this is an indication something might be going on. Take a closer look!
Drooling past the age of two. This could be due to a number of things including reduced oral sensitivity, a dental infection, etc. Get it checked out.
Very picky eating. Children who are picky eaters are more likely to have difficulties with their speech sound and language development than children who aren’t picky eaters (Malas et al 2016) . There are many reasons that a child may be having difficulty in both areas and you need a book to cover it, so I’d like to recommend the book Feed Your Baby and Toddler Right by Diane Bahr or Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater by Melanie Potock.
Just a side note: If after speaking to your pediatrician and/or a feeding specialist it turns out your child does need therapy, I’d recommend finding a speech therapist who is specialized in speech and feeding so that you can work on both areas simultaneously.
Many speech sound errors
If your child is having many speech sound errors in both languages, get it checked out. Having some difficulty with a few sounds here and there is normal. Toddlers often repeat the same sounds in words calling a banana a “nanana” or ketchup “sheshup”. This is normal but listen more carefully when they’re closer to three.
Next week, watch out for my second post about very easy strategies you can do during the day to support your child’s speech and language development.
Here are two things you can do right now that are super easy
Talk to your child throughout the day. Talk to them about what you’re both seeing or feeling or touching. Talk to them about the dog you see running around the park or that you’re both putting on your shoes and doing up the laces. It’s great if you can see the world from your child’s perspective and comment on those things. What’s your child exploring at the moment? Comment on that!
Sing with your child like no one’s watching, because no one is. Singing is great at targeting social, language, and speech growth. I felt like a fool for the first three months that I worked in early intervention and would sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider. Don’t worry! We all feel a little goofy singing children's songs at first. Just choose one or two songs you might remember from childhood and sing them throughout the day. You don’t even need to include the background music. In fact, most songs that I find on YouTube are sung way too quickly for small children to keep up with. Pro tip: if the songs have gestures that go along with them like The Wheels on the Bus or Un Elefante, even better!
Also, I’m excited and a bit terrified to announce that I'll be publishing a book soon on bilingual language development! I’m more than halfway through writing it. It’s not going to be of the high-caliber or entertainment of a book say by Toni Morrison or JRR Tolkein (yes, I do love Lord of the Rings- nothing wrong with that), but I’ve tried to answer a lot of questions that I get from the bilingual families I’ve worked with over the years. I’ll keep you updated each week and feel free to keep me accountable by asking how it’s coming along.
And finally, this post isn’t meant to provide or substitute medical advice. If you have any concerns around speech, feeding, or other areas of your child’s development, talk to you doctor.