What's Your Baby Saying?

How babies develop language

How babies develop language

Infants and their language development are one of the top issues many parents face. When will their child start talking? What does their babble mean?  And how do they learn to develop language?

Babies recognize voices at early age

Research shows that even before they are born, babies are engaged in the earliest forms of communication. When mom speaks or sings, babies will respond to the voice with a kick in the belly or an elbow in the ribs. Additionally, studies show that babies recognize their mothers’ voices shortly after birth having already become familiar with the mother’s voice while in the womb.

Deciphering baby’s cries

As baby’s journey of communication continues, they use crying as one their forms of communication. The question becomes, how does the caregiver decode these cries? Does a certain cry mean one thing and others something else? 

“Well, yes and no.” Debra Zeifman, a Vassar psychology professor who specializes in infant development explains, “No, there is not a distinct cry for each painful stimulus like hunger versus pain, but yes, there is a graded level of distress in the infants cry.” The scale of the baby’s cry or distress can help distinguish what they’re trying to communicate. Combine the gradation of the cry with the caregiver’s awareness that, for example, it’s been several hours since the baby ate, therefore the cry means the baby is hungry.

Building blocks to language

By 1-3 months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics speech development milestones say, when babies hear their caregiver speak vowel sounds, the baby may begin to repeat the “oh’s” or “ah’s,” and by 3-4 months, they move to new sounds starting with P’s, M’s, B’s, and D’s. These are the building blocks for early language development. Zeifman explains that the back and forth exchange of “coos” and other sounds is an example of “turn taking,” which is the foundation of language.

READ MORE: Hudson Valley Babies Are Smarter Than You Think

Advanced babble

Around 6-8 months old, babies will begin to babble. Zeifman states “Babbling is universal across cultures and even children with disabilities...deaf children actually babble with their hands.”

They begin saying “da-da,” “ba-ba,” and “goo-goo,” and eventually, Zeifman adds, “at around 9 months, they will play with intonation, meaning they’ll say ‘ba-ba,’ as if to say, ‘Can I have my bottle?’ This is called ‘jargoning,’ a more advanced version of babbling.”

By 12 months, the babble and jargon begin to sound like talking. These are the roots of the first words which typically come around that one-year mark. But what does the babble mean? Zeifman explains it doesn’t really have meaning outside of the fact that babies are playing with sounds and imitating the talking that goes on around them.
From 1 to 2 years of age, the toddler will typically start by saying simple words like “car” or “dog” which will soon transition into two-word sentences. 

In his book, Your Baby’s Mind, Dr. S. H. Jacob discusses ways to encourage communication with baby. “You will find that your baby’s vocal activity will increase in reaction to the sounds made by others.” And as a way to encourage this ability, he writes, “When you hear your baby making a sound, such as ‘ah,’ you can they say a prolonged ‘aaaah.’ Soon your baby will, in turn, imitate you.”

Jill DiGiovanni is a health & fitness writer.