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Language Lessons

What's Normal?

Language development can vary dramatically from child to child, so most experts spend five seconds giving parents an age range for a language milestone and five minutes warning them not to take it too seriously. What's normal? Normal is when your child is ready. (That said, Jusczyk considers an 8-month-old who utters her first word to be early; a 21- or 22-month-old, late.)

Rose Hamman's first child, Michael, who is now 13, stunned her by speaking in full sentences before his first birthday: "'Go, Mom. It's green,' he would say in the car," recalls the Amherst, OH, mother of three, "and 'No way, Jose,' when he didn't want something done." Doctors had told Hamman to expect that since Michael had been born prematurely and had to undergo multiple surgeries before he reached 11 months, he would have developmental problems. So much for predictions.

Nevertheless, a number of factors can influence when a baby develops language skills. Among them:

Bilingualism/multilingualism. Children born to parents who speak two or more languages in the home or have caregivers who speak a different language may develop speech more slowly than children who grow up hearing only one language. However, multilingual kids eventually catch up with their peers. Pathira Yasotornrat-wu, mother of Christopher, 2, and Katelyn, 1, wasn't concerned when her now trilingual son hadn't said a word before he was 16 months old. "My husband is Taiwanese and I'm from Thailand," says the Albuquerque mom. "I speak to the kids in Thai; my husband speaks in Chinese; and we speak to each other in English. I've been around other kids who speak multiple languages, and I knew they often start late," she says.

Gender differences. Many parents report that girls speak and form word combinations earlier than boys. Summit, NJ, mom Amy Currie, has 2 1/2-year-old twins, Catie and Jimmy. "Catie started talking at around 12 months," Amy says. Jimmy, on the other hand, "consistently did everything from walking to talking two months after Catie. But now they're both about even in development."

Family traits. Children tend to begin speaking around the same time their parents did. Andrea Messina, a Brooklyn, NY, mom says, "My husband's mother claims he spoke his first words at around 9 months. My 2-year-old son, Teddy, did too."

Birth order. Children born after the first baby tend to get less one-on-one parental attention, which can slow their speech development slightly. And according to experts, sibling conversation is no substitute because firstborns tend to give orders to younger siblings rather than converse with them. However, reports from parents on this subject are mixed. Shiela Morton, of Eustace, TX, says that her 14-month-old daughter, Emily, "started imitating sounds four months earlier than my first, 28-month-old Kaylin. I think it's because she's imitating her big sister."

Developmental disorders. Learning disabilities can sometimes cause speech or comprehension problems. For Sharon Roberts's two sons, Clay, 7, and Dylan, 3, a speech delay was indicative of a serious language disorder that runs in her family. "At 22 months, Clay hadn't pronounced a word," says the Gilbert, SC, mom. After undergoing a variety of treatments, Clay was finally diagnosed with apraxia, a disorder that's presumed to be neurologically based, when he was 6 years old. Now he combines sign language with speech.

Hearing problems. Repeated ear infections can prevent a baby from hearing speech clearly, which can affect when she learns to talk. All children should have their hearing checked by 3 months of age.