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Speech and Language Development

Speech and Language - Infants and Babies

What begins with an "ooh", an "aah", and a "goo" a few months after birth will become thousands of words by the time your child is an adult. Children learn speech and language through their contact with others. Speech and language development, like other development, follows fairly predictable stages. Babies "coos" and "goos" will become babbling and sounds, followed by their first words and, as understanding increases, gradually lengthening sentences and conversations. Children should be able to talk by 2 and be understood by 3.

Children are born with the ability to learn speech and language, but they gain the skills of language by listening to, processing, and practicing the words of the language, or languages, around them.

Language is a complex skill and is very important to how we understand our world. Speech and language skills help us learn, express ourselves, and build relationships. They are the foundations of literacy (the ability to read and write) and lifelong learning. Children's communication skills grow quickly during the first 6 years of life. They need as many chances as possible to hear and use language during this time.

Hearing - An Important Sense

Babies can hear and listen even before they are born. At birth, their hearing is similar to an adult's. Babies learn by listening to sounds and voices. They learn to connect the sounds they hear with the people, animals, objects, and actions that made them. This is how they are able to make sense of the world around them.

As babies grow and develop, they'll use their hearing to communicate and interact with others. The ability to hear is an important sense for developing normal speech and language skills. Even a mild hearing loss can affect speech and language ability.

If your baby doesn't seem to be responding to sound, is making fewer noises instead of more, or if you're concerned about your baby's hearing, ask a public health nurse or doctor for a referral to an audiologist for a hearing test. The earlier hearing problems are found, the earlier treatment can begin. Hearing can be tested at any age.

Learning Speech and Language: Infants: Birth to 6 months

Your infant communicates through movement, sounds, and with his eyes and face.

Expect your baby to begin making cooing sounds when he's about 2 to 3 months old. When you look right at him, smile and imitate his sounds, he learns that people take turns in conversation. When you copy his sounds, he learns what he's said is important and likely makes the sounds again. Such sound play is important in developing early words.

Although babies may seem to focus on sounds from a TV or a radio, they do not learn language from them. Your baby needs to see and hear you talk and needs you to respond to his first sounds and gestures.

Learning Speech and Language

Babies love voices - especially yours. The way you talk with and respond to your infant makes a big difference in his speech and language development. Simple things such as exaggerating new words, using simple sentences and talking face-to-face, help him learn language and become excited about talking. Your growing baby soon turns his head to look at you when you speak.

Children learn words and sentences by talking, singing, playing, and reading with you. Your child gets much more from the sound of your voice and the time you spend with him than from fancy or expensive toys, flashcards, and TV shows. Screens (TVs, DVDs, computers and the like) are not the best way for your child to learn language. You are.

Be patient. Listening, babbling, and making sounds are the first steps in language development. Your baby begins to speak his first words around 12 months of age. Children under 18 months of age can understand more language than they can express.

Babies need and love lots of repetition. Music and games are fun, and make words easier to remember and language come alive for you and your baby. Babies don't need to understand the words for these moments to be learning experiences, especially when they're sharing them with mom, dad, grandparents, or older siblings. Cuddle your baby as you share a book-it's never too early to read to your child.

What You can Do: Encouraging Language with Infants


  • Try different ways of holding and talking to your baby. Some babies need energetic conversations, some need gentle tones.


  • Let your infant hear you-talk about what you do, see and hear. Tell him about your likes and dislikes.
  • Add comments to your everyday routines to help your infant begin to understand words and ideas.


  • Read to your infant in a calm, soothing manner.
  • Choose books that are colourful and safe to chew (cloth, plastic or heavy cardboard). Let your baby hold the book and play with it.
  • Point to pictures as you name or describe them.

Play with language

  • Use nursery rhymes and finger games (for example, Round and Round the Garden or This Little Piggy)
  • For newborns and very young babies, try rhymes that involve gentle touch, such as patting their feet or gently moving their arms while you're talking (for example, Pat-a-Cake)

Sing songs

  • Try upbeat and cheerful songs for play, soft and soothing lullabies for comfort.
  • Forgot the words? Don't worry-make them up or check the Internet or a local library to refresh your memory.

Check out programs for parents and babies in your community. Your public library is a good place to start. Programs such as Story Time, Parent-Child Mother Goose, Literacy and Parenting Skills, Books for Babies/Jump Start, and Homespun are a few examples.

Learning Speech and Language: Babies: 6 to 18 Months

From 6 to 18 months of age, babies start to use language. As she finds her voice, her babbling becomes words: from sounds such as ooh, aah, babab, and goo to words such as bye-bye, mama and doggie.

As your baby understands more, she starts to copy gestures and point to things she recognizes. Enjoy your baby's delight and satisfaction in her new discoveries and abilities. It's exciting to see your baby learn and grow.

Children's first true words often occur when they're about 12 months old and are usually related to:

  • important people in their lives (mama or dada)
  • things that they interact with or things that move (ball, kitty or cup)
  • things they've done or felt (run or hot)

First words are often hard to understand by anyone other than moms and dads. For babies, learning words is a gradual process. In the beginning, your child may use one word to describe many things. For example, she may use flower to describe flowers, trees and bushes, not because she doesn't know that they are different, but because she doesn't have a word for all of them yet. She may also use one word for a whole thought. For instance, shoe may mean: "Those are my shoes," "I need my shoes" or "I don't want to wear my shoes."

Children copy single words they hear. Your baby should be able to say 10 to 20 single words by 18 months.

Learning More than One Language

If you speak more than one language, use the one you are most comfortable with when talking to your baby. Speaking your first language at home creates a solid foundation for your child to learn both a first and second language. When you speak the language that you are most comfortable and familiar with, you'll speak and read more to your child.

Don't worry if others speak a different language to your baby. Babies can learn more than one language at a time. When your child is learning more than one language, remember that:

  • whatever the language, your baby needs to hear the words repeatedly before she tries to say them
  • learning takes time. Your child may understand and say some words from all the languages she is learning.
  • it is normal for her to use words from all the languages, even in the same sentence
  • learning more than one language at a time does not slow down language development. Children who have trouble learning words will likely have that same challenge in any language they learn.

What You can Do: Reading, Talking, and Playing

To encourage your baby's learning and exploring, you can:

  • follow her lead. Your baby looks at and reaches for things she's interested in. Use words to describe what she's looking at or doing.
  • remember there is no right or wrong way to play. As long as an activity is safe, be interested in what your baby is interested in. Be ready to help if needed, but see what she does first. Babies learn through play and they love to do the same thing over and over. Discovering something for the first time or for the 100th time fascinates your child.
  • watch for cues. Babies have short attention spans and too much play can be tiring and frustrating. When your baby looks away or no longer responds to an activity, it's time to do something else.
  • share books and sing songs. The rhythm and repetition of songs, stories and nursery rhymes encourage language and learning.

From "Growing Miracles", Alberta Health Services, 2010.
Reprinted with permission.

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