How can I tell if my child is really talking?

Two baby girls "talking" on a bench

Unaltered image. Dean Wissing, Flickr. CC license.

Communication begins at birth, but talking is harder to define.

A newborn initially communicates primarily by crying, then soon after, eye contact, smiling, laughing and vocal play emerge. A child of 6 months is generally babbling, using sounds in repetitive sequences (e.g., “bababa,” “dadada”), including intonation, to communicate mood. Before any real words emerge, babies should be making a lot of sounds, both independently and in imitation.

Children are expected to use their first real word around the age of 1 year, with the most common words being “dada” or “mama.” (Sorry Mom, the /d/ sound is easier than /m/, so many babies say “dada” first!) Sometimes the first word is “hi.” Sometimes it’s “no.”

So how can you tell if something your baby says is really a word?

Since babbling can sound similar to real words, it might be difficult to know whether a vocalization can be considered a true word. It really comes down to consistency and intent. A word, no matter how clear, is a true word if it is used consistently for the same specific purpose.

For example, a child who always says “mama” when looking for his mother and interacting with her is likely to be using it as a real word.

However, a child who says “mama” all the time, while interacting with his mother, but also while playing with his toys, looking out the window, sharing a snack with dad, and waking up from a nap might not be using it as a real word. The word isn’t being used specifically for his mother.

Another potentially confusing element of learning to speak is jargon. Jargon is characterized by long strings of unintelligible sounds that include adult-like stress and intonation. Quite simply, it sounds like your child is speaking a language you don’t understand. Is this talking? Kind of. While jargon is not made up of real words, it is part of the process of children learning to converse like adults. Further, real words may be mixed in with long strings of jargon. It is a good idea to respond to jargon, and the intermittent real words within it, as if your child is talking with you. Jargon should peak around 18 months, and then decline as children’s expressive vocabulary and utterance length increase. You can read more about expressive language skills here.

If you have questions about your child’s language development, talk to your pediatrician, or contact a speech-language pathologist.

– Kellie Bouren, M.A., CCC-SLP, Speech and Language Pathologist, Children’s Speech Pathology Department, Beaumont Children’s

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