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Child Speech Development: What’s Normal?

Most parents understand that children develop at different rates, and that this is as true for speech development as anything else. Yet if you are the parent of a two-year-old who has barely started to speak, a five-year-old who has trouble making himself understood, or a ten-year-old who is unusually quiet, it is only natural to worry that there is something wrong. In many cases, children with delayed speech can benefit from speech therapy, but if your child is within the normal range, there is no need to overreact.

Keeping in mind that every child is different, let us look at the normal timeline for speech development. If your child is roughly on time with everything—give or take a year or so—then you have nothing to worry about.

The first year
Do not expect much during your child’s first year. Your child’s vocalizations for the first few months will consist of little more than crying and a few vowel sounds. Soon after that, she will begin to make simple vowel-consonant combinations such as “ba” and “ma,” and these will gradually become more varied for several months. If you are lucky, you may hear one or more basic words by the end of the first year—usually “mama,” “dada,” or “baba” (for “bottle”)—but it is perfectly normal for these words not to come until some time in the second year.

The second year
Things become more interesting in the second year. If the first words did not appear toward the end of the first year, there is a good chance they will come near the beginning of this year. And in the latter half of the second year, many children begin to combine words to begin to express wants or needs as well as to convey thoughts and impressions. By the second birthday, much of your verbal communication with your child should begin to resemble actual two-way conversation.

Ages two to three
At some point in your child’s third year—and if it is not until the fourth year, do not worry about it—you will begin to lose track of all the words your child knows, and he or she will regularly surprise you with new words, phrases, and even complete sentences. Many children experience a sort of language explosion at this time, and while their language is far from sophisticated, it becomes more and more complex and varied.

Ages four and up
At age four, many children still do not talk in ways that we would consider normal, and it is not unusual for a child’s speech to be only fully decipherable by parents and other family members who are used to hearing it. Even so, this is the age where you should begin to be able to tell if your child has significant delays or impediments. If he or she is far behind peers, has trouble forming simple words, or does not seem to be developing, this is when you might want to meet with a child speech therapist to diagnose any possible problems.

Most child speech problems can be fixed either through therapy or through natural development. Some people carry speech impediments into adulthood, but these cases are rare. If you identify the problem early and take actions to fix it, there is no reason why your child should remain delayed or impeded in the long term.

In any case, there are some very simple things that parents can do to help their children’s language development at all ages. Most important, keep a running conversation with your child when you are together. Also be sure to expose him or her to many different people’s speech, and read plenty of books so that your child gets to hear a wide variety of words and phrases. Even when they cannot say your words back to you or clearly express their own thoughts, children are listening, and this is a crucial part of speech development.

By Marc Courtiol


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