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How Babies Learn to Talk

Learning and Growing

So what should you expect to see in terms of your child's language development over the first two years? The chart below lists general milestones, but don't panic if your child doesn't follow these exactly, or think, like I did, that hitting them early means you've got a prodigy on your hands. "What is critical to know is that there is a wide range of individual difference" in language learning, says Paul. The milestones represent what the majority of babies are doing at those ages.

Briefly, babies should progress from cooing, gurgling, and crying to babbling at 4 to 6 months -- that is, making those lovely "bababa, gagaga, dadada" sounds. Since "dadadada" is one of the earliest babbles, many doting dads, including my husband, are convinced that their babies are calling them. (Feel free to hide this article from them, as there is nothing cuter than an enraptured father who's bursting with pride and babbling "dadadada" back to his child.)

But while babbling gets more wordlike and complex starting around 7 months, a baby won't typically produce her first word until she's a year old, though research shows that she recognizes and understands certain words earlier. "In every piece of language learning, babies know way more than they can say," says Saffran.

This is the difference between "receptive language," which is what babies understand, and "expressive language," which is what they can produce, says Paul. Much of the gap has to do with the fact that your baby's amazing mental capacity for language (the way words are used and combined to communicate) has outstripped her motor skills required for speech (the production of sounds). This concept has given birth to a tidal wave of books, workshops, and websites for parents who want to teach babies not yet capable of speech to communicate using sign language. For example, a 1-year-old may say only "Mama" but can respond to simple commands, such as "Give me the book." Two-year-olds can generally say two-word sentences, and 3-year-olds can say three-word sentences, after which language just explodes. (And 11-year-olds, like my daughter, can usually say, "Get out of my room, Mom!" But that's another story.)

So if the guidelines are flexible, how are parents to know whether their child is just a "late talker" or might have a hearing problem or language delay? It's an important question, because ASHA figures show that one in ten Americans has some type of speech, language, or hearing disorder and research finds that early intervention is critical for kids with hearing and language problems.

It's difficult to determine a lot about speech in the first six months, as virtually all children -- even deaf ones -- babble. A silent child who makes no pleasure sounds and doesn't seem to attend to parents' voices should set off alarms, says Paul. Children with hearing problems and other language disorders often stop babbling rather than go on to more complex sounds between 6 and 12 months, says Dr. Shapiro.

Although parents hang on the "first word" milestone, experts are more concerned about receptive language. A 1-year-old may not have uttered that long-awaited first word, but if she's communicating by pointing, lifting her arms to be picked up, responding to simple commands, and using "proto-language" (her babble sounds like nonsense to you, but clearly she means something), she's obviously learning language and is probably just a late talker.