How a child's language skills develop and what parents can do to help: child learning to talk

Language is more than just verbal communication. It’s also the ability to express ourselves, to respond and understand when someone is trying to communicate with us. Language development in a child is crucial – it supports your child’s ability to communicate, express and understand feelings. It also helps with problem solving, and in developing and maintaining relationships. The basis for literacy – learning to read and write – is grounded in learning to understand, use and enjoy language.

How a baby’s language skills develop from birth to 12 months:

A baby’s communication skills develop drastically during the first year of life and tends to follow a specific sequence.

infographic of the language development milestones in babies

ALSO READ: Vomiting and diarrhoea in children & babies: causes, symptoms and treatment

How a toddler’s language skills develop between 12 and 18 months:

From 12 to 18 months, toddlers start to associate meaning to the words that they are saying and from 18 to 24 months they’re able to put two words together into short sentences.

infographic of the language developmental milestones in toddlers

Language development varies greatly from child to child, however if your toddler has not started saying some words by 18 months, it may be a good idea to talk to your GP or consult a speech therapist and audiologist to assess your child’s speech and hearing ability. Often a lack of hearing can greatly influence a child’s language development without their parents even knowing it. It is for this reason that an annual hearing test is essential in all children from birth to 8 years old.

How to encourage early language development in babies and toddlers:

  • Talk about things that interest the child (follow their lead)
  • Give your child a turn to talk and wait for their response
  • Copy your baby when he babbles and let him babble back to keep the conversation going
  • Respond to your child’s attempts to communicate
  • Repeat and build on what your child is saying
  • Talk about what is happening in everyday life and in your daily routine
  • Talk about things in the past and future
  • Reading and sharing lots of books and stories together
  • Link what is happening in books to the child’s daily life
  • Encourage talking by chatting about interesting pictures in books
  • Point to words as you say them to show the link between written and spoken words

READ NEXT: Expert advice on how to make brushing your toddler’s teeth easier

Fun activities that encourage language development:

The most wonderful way to stimulate language development in babies and toddlers is through play. During play, a child’s reality is suspended, and this gives them more confidence and freedom to communicate and express themselves. Singing, reading, rhyming, musical instruments, arts/crafts and pretend play are great ways to enhance a child’s language skills. Guided play is crucial to language development – adults are encouraged to follow the child’s lead but also to prompt and ask questions, stimulating language expression and understanding. Through role play and pretend play we can encourage the learning of social norms such as sharing, turn taking, assertiveness and asking for help. Pretending to be at the shops buying groceries, making food/baking, playing with dolls and making music are all lovely ways to naturally encourage children to express themselves and understand reciprocal communication.

Here are some activity suggestions from Nanny ‘n Me that can be used to help enhance language development:

children practicing activities that encourage language development

More activities to improve your child’s language development:

children practicing activities that encourage language development

Nanny ’n me was started in Cape Town in April 2012 by Lara Schoenfeld, an Occupational Therapist and mom of three boys. With a passion for creativity, a love for little people and nannies as well as experiencing the struggle of being a working mom, the idea was born. There was also the realisation that most nannies have never had the opportunity as children to paint or to build puzzles themselves and may feel reticent to have to initiate such activities with the child they care for.