“ba-ba-ba-ba-da-da-da-ba-da-mm-mum-mm” tell us a story baby!
Number three in the eardrops language series considers language development during the second half of baby’s first year. This is another period of truly impressive learning. Just like in the newborn days, babies are working hard during these months building the foundations of language, and it is all happening in parallel with many amazing physical accomplishments.
The number of words an infant hears during their first twelve months has a direct effect on how quickly they learn language later in the preschool years. So keep talking as often as you can with your baby because these early experiences with language are crucial to activate the brain, firing those neurons up. Babies contribute to their learning by consciously observing, exploring, experimenting, and seeking information as best they can.
This first year can be so intense and it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how your little one is working on their language. This is broad general development information, so don’t stress if your baby is doing or not doing these things - every personality is different and each baby creates their own individual journey to language.
In amongst all the clever things they are doing (like crawling and learning to eat solids), babies reach two significant and exciting milestones in their language development between six and twelve months.
- They start to deliberately try and communicate with caregivers
- They start to pair sounds with meaning
Communicating on purpose
About now, babies start to experience success when they try and communicate. Maybe they wave towards a toy and their caregiver passes it to them, maybe they create a sound that caregiver understands the meaning of, maybe they lift their arms wanting to be picked up and hey presto they get picked up. Whatever the event, the fact that they did an action with an intended meaning that was understood by someone else is huge! Each time this happens - when they communicate what they want successfully, babies are motivated to try and communicate even more.
Because they have developed the ability to focus on an object alongside a caregiver and understand that both are referring to that object (‘joint attention’) the framework is now in place for baby to initiate ‘conversations’ about toys and objects they can hear, see, and touch. The baby's growing knowledge during these months that an object or person still exists even if it’s out of sight (called ‘object permanence’) is also an important developmental step. Try hiding a toy under a blanket and see if your baby looks for it. Hours of fun!
Infant Directed Speech (IDS - that simple, repetitive, high pitched style of talking we automatically do with babies, as defined in our newborn communication discussion) really helps children learn language, and it subtly changes once babies get to 6 months old. Without really being aware of it, caregivers start providing more information, describing objects and toys very clearly using short sentences that only include one or two ideas ("here's kitty"). They also introduce slightly harder concepts ("pat the cat"), and use more sounds within sentences ("you pat the cat").
Babies of 9 months whose carers speak in short IDS sentences to them have bigger vocabularies at 18 months than those who haven't been exposed to this style of speaking.
It is really important during these months that babies are given lots of chances to observe what's going on. One of the main ways they learn is by imitating their caregivers. They’ve been imitating facial expressions since day one but now, after they get to 6 months, they will start to imitate hand movements too. The more that caregivers talk with baby the more they will try and imitate them and they love it when people imitate them back (this helps them deepen their understanding of conversations and how we have to take turns). More on imitation here.
Building on the wonderful smiling, head turning and gazing they’ve been doing for months, babies now learn more complex gestures like waving, nodding, shaking their head to say ‘no’, stretching arms up and pointing. When babies start making these gestures they are showing caregivers that they are thinking strategically – they are developing the ability to plan and co-ordinate their actions to achieve a goal. Your baby might touch you to get your attention, then look, reach or point to something then look back at you – silently asking you to get it for them. They might also make a sound and point at something but usually the vocalisation is only added after a couple of months of quiet gesturing. (Because they are so vital in the language journey we take a more detailed look at gestures here.)
Babies have been making sounds to communicate their needs for months already but now their sounds develop and become more complex. It is so cute when they start to ‘babble’ in lovely long streams of gibberish like ‘bibibibibi’ ‘mamamama’ ‘bidibidibidi’. Early babbling sounds the same regardless of the language being spoken in the home, but over time these sounds become more tuned to the native language (these early sounds tend to be consonants - 'p, b, t, d, k, g, m, n, s, h, w, and j'). By the way, babbling is not unique to humans – young songbirds, sac-winged bats, and pygmy marmosets babble too. Fact!
The sounds that babies make change when they start to think more strategically (alongside the more complex gestures). They will start to make short sounds with a low pitch, which incidentally are the same sounds they make when they’re thinking and exploring. These 'thinking' sounds are different from higher pitched ‘feeling’, ‘emotional’ sounds.
Sounds and meaning
The second major milestone during this time is that infants start to pair a sound with what that sound means. At about 7 months old babies recognise their first few words and can pick them out of the conversational ‘stream’. Between 9 and 13 months children start to have an understanding of some words and phrases (in particular ‘No’ and their name). Babies might come up with what seems their own word for something. When they do this they are displaying that they are making the link between a sound and a meaning – evidence they are making that huge step towards symbolic thinking.
Some babies might know 20 words by about 8 months and respond to simple requests like ‘wave bye bye’ (which shows they understand what it means). Since 9 month olds can follow pointing and glancing, caregivers can help infants at this stage by focussing on a toy or book alongside the baby, explaining it, and talking about it. Babies will be engaged for longer if their caregivers work with them like this.
The 8-10 month period sees a huge burst of activity in the language areas of the brain. Technically what’s happening is that babies start to listen for stress patterns on words, whether the first part is said slow or fast, high or low. They listen harder to find familiar sequences in a stream of chat. They also listen for word boundaries – starting to recognise that words start and end with patterns. They listen for different sounds within the words. They listen for syllables that are often repeated. They listen for pauses, pitch changes, vowel lengths, and specific words – searching for the breaks within the word. A truly complex set of tasks that lead to some major achievements for babies.
And then at around 12 months your child will start to use words alongside their gestures! This is when experts tick that box labelled ‘language’. High fives mama and papa! But until then enjoy every conversation with your little babbling one – they really are magic!
These are broad brushstroke about how a child walks the path to language. As Robert E Owens Jr. says in his renowned book on Language Development “There is no single way in which children learn to communicate”. That's the fun of it.
This is the third post in our language series. Next up see why primary caregivers are vital in a child's journey to language or head to our toddler language overview.
Ngā manaakitanga (with best wishes), Liz xx
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in young children.