Learning the ABCs of speech and language development

What can you do if you have a child you feel may be late in developing speech? What if your voice is always hoarse or strained? What if you or your child stutters? What can you do if your child has difficulty communicating or does not relate with others due to difficulties with social skills? What can you do if someone has difficulty hearing, or needs a hearing aid? Even “small” issues, like a child with a lisp or a need to speak more clearly or accent reduction, can seem overwhelming.

Communication is key to learning and independence. Speech and language help us communicate thoughts, ideas, and emotions. When a child has special needs, development of communication may become more difficult, but no less important. Parents must be aware of speech and language development, for sometimes they are the first indicator of the need for assistance. Speech is the verbal expression of language; the way sounds and words are formed. Language is the understanding and use of communication.

As parents, we wonder if our child is developing as expected. We may ask, when should speech and language skills develop? How will I know if he is on time or delayed? During the first few years of life, babies respond to their environment and to the people around them. During the first five months, babies react to sound, watch people speaking, vocalize pleasure and displeasure, and make noise when spoken to. At 12 months, a baby understands “no-no” and tries to communicate. Modeled sounds are repeated and the baby is babbling repeated sounds. At 24 months, the baby follows simple directions, points to objects named, says approximately 50 words and begins to put words together. By 3 years of age, a child’s vocabulary may be too large to count, using sentences comprised of two to three (or more) words. At age 4, the child can be understood by most people.

What if your child has not developed speech and language as described above? Does this mean he has a serious problem? When in doubt, it is always recommended that one speak to a professional. Speech-language pathologists and audiologists assess individuals across the lifespan, from newborn hearing screenings and feeding assessments to geriatric communication, hearing, and cognitive issues. Speech-language therapy is offered for many issues, such as language development, articulation, voice, stuttering, apraxia, hearing impairment, aphasia, traumatic brain injury, autism, social skills, accent modification, reading, and functional communication. In many cases, advice can be given that will be helpful and questions can be answered. Sometimes a more in-depth look is needed, with a full evaluation, followed by a discussion of the results and recommendations.

If you are concerned about speech, language, or hearing problems for yourself or any member of your family, please seek help and be evaluated.

Dr. Rosalie Marder Unterman, is a clinical director and associate professor at Touro College’s graduate program in speech-language pathology.