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From Sounds to Sentences: How Babies Learn to Speak

Whether you’re eagerly awaiting that magical first word (let’s face it, it’s probably going to be “dada”) or your baby is already forming short sentences, learning to speak is a huge milestone every parent looks forward to. From babbling to baby talk, we’re exploring how babies learn to speak. We’ll discuss the stages of language development, activities and tools to support them, and the role of sound books in learning to speak. Let’s take a look at how you can set your little one up for success in their language development journey!

How Do Children Learn Language?

Learning to communicate clearly is a skill that takes practice and repetition. As a parent, it can help to understand how your baby develops their own unique communication. Children will learn to speak at their own pace, and there is a wide range of “normal” speech development. 

Babies learn to communicate by listening to those around them, especially their parents. They are constantly listening to you speak and watching your facial expressions, soaking up everything they can like an absolutely adorable sponge. They are learning from every word, and will begin to learn how to speak by imitating sounds they’ve heard. By the time they reach 1 year old, they will have started to speak their first words! 

Understanding Language Development Milestones (0-3 years)

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Learning how to speak starts earlier than we think! Did you know that babies begin to learn the rules of language in the womb? As soon as three months before they are born, babies are already learning how to speak! While in utero, babies can hear the rhythm and melody of their mother’s voice, which will later help them develop their speech and language skills! 

Let’s take a look at the 5 stages of language acquisition

Pre-linguistic Stage

From birth to 5 months old, babies will:

  • Coo, make baby noises
  • Vocalize pleasure and displeasure sounds differently (laughs, giggles, cries, or fusses)
  • Make noise when spoken to

Babbling Stage

From 6 to 11 months old, babies will: 

  • Understand "no-no"
  • Babble (say "ba-ba-ba")
  • Say "ma-ma" or "da-da" without meaning
  • Try to communicate with actions or gestures
  • Try to repeat your sounds
  • Say their first word

One to Two-Word Stage

From 12 to 17 months old, babies will:

  • Answer simple questions nonverbally
  • Say 2 to 3 words to label a person or object (pronunciation may not be clear)
  • Try to imitate simple words
  • Develop a vocabulary of 4-6 words

Early Multi-word Stage

From 18 to 23 months, babies will:

  • Develop a vocabulary of 50+ words, pronunciation is often unclear
  • Ask for common foods by name
  • Make animal sounds, such as "moo"
  • Start to combine words, such as "more milk"
  • Begin to use pronouns, such as "mine"
  • Use 2-word phrases

Advanced Multi-word Stage

From 2 to 3 years old, toddlers will:

  • Understand some spatial concepts, such as "in" or "on"
  • Know pronouns, such as "you," "me" or "her"
  • Use descriptive words, such as "big" or "happy"
  • Use 3-word sentences
  • Speech is becoming more accurate, but may still leave off ending sounds. Strangers may not be able to understand much of what is said.
  • Answer simple questions
  • Begin to use more pronouns, such as "you" or "I"
  • Use question inflection to ask for something, such as "my ball?"
  • Begin to use plurals, such as "shoes" or "socks" and regular past tense verbs, such as "jumped"

Early Language Development Activities

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There are plenty of ways to encourage your child to understand and use words. Let’s explore some activities you can introduce into their daily routine to support this process!

Birth to 2 Years Old

  1. Say sounds like "ma," "da," and "ba." Try to get your baby to say them back to you.  
  2. Look at your baby when they make sounds. Talk back to them, and repeat what they say. Pretend to have a conversation.
  3. Respond when your baby laughs or makes faces. Make the same faces back to them.
  4. Teach your baby to do what you do, like clapping your hands and playing peek-a-boo.
  5. Talk to your baby as you give them a bath, feed them, and get them dressed. Talk about what you are doing and where you are going. Tell them who or what you will see.
  6. Point out colors and shapes.
  7. Count what you see.
  8. Use gestures, like waving and pointing.
  9. Talk about animal sounds. This helps your baby connect the sound and the animal. Use words like "The dog says woof-woof."
  10. Add on to what your baby says. When your baby says, "Mama," say, "Here is Mama. Mama loves you. Where is baby? Here is baby." 
  11. Read to your child. You don't have to read every word, but talk about the pictures. Choose books that are sturdy and have large colorful pictures, like Cali’s Books. Ask your child, "What's this?" and try to get them to point to or name objects. 

2 to 4 Years Old

  1. Speak clearly to your child. Enunciate and practice good speech.
  2. Repeat what your child says to show that you understand. Add on to what they say. Use words like, "Want juice? I have juice. I have apple juice. Do you want apple juice?"
  3. It's okay to use baby talk sometimes. Be sure to use the adult word too. For example, "It is time for din-din. We will have dinner now."
  4. Cut out pictures of favorite or familiar things. Put them into categories, like things to ride on, things to eat, and things to play with. Make silly pictures by mixing and matching pictures. Glue a picture of a dog behind the wheel of a car. Talk about what is wrong with the picture and ways to "fix" it. 
  5. Play the yes-no game. Ask questions such as, "Are you Marty?" and "Can a pig fly?" Have your child make up questions and try to fool you.
  6. Ask questions that include a choice. "Do you want an apple or a banana?" "Do you want to wear your red shirt or your blue shirt?" 
  7. Help your child learn new words. Name body parts, and talk about what you do with them. "This is my nose. I can smell flowers, brownies, and soap."
  8. Sing simple songs, and say nursery rhymes. This helps your child learn the rhythm of speech.
  9. Place familiar objects in a box. Have your child take one out and tell you its name and how to use it. "This is my ball. I bounce it. I play with it."
  10. Show pictures of familiar people and places. Talk about who they are and what happened. Try making up new stories.

Steer clear of these tactics:

  1. Avoid testing your child, as kids learn better without pressure. Try not to ask them questions like, “What’s this?”
  2. Don’t criticize your child if they can’t yet pronounce a word. It’s better to repeat the word properly yourself. For example, if your baby points to a cat and says “Ca” say, “Yes, it’s a cat.”
  3. Reduce background noise like TV, so that your child can hear and listen to your conversations with other family members.

Early Language Goals for Parents

When setting goals for your child’s language development, it’s important to first identify whether there are any concerns about their speech development. A hearing test and speech test is the first step to determining if your child needs assistance in their journey. A specialist can offer the best advice to address your little one’s specific needs. You know your child best, so don’t be afraid to voice your concerns! Getting help early can prevent issues from developing down the road around behavior, learning, reading, and social relationships. 

Setting realistic expectations during this stage of learning is key to supporting your little one’s language journey. It’s important to exercise patience and make a consistent effort to practice and interact with your baby. Taking the time and care to exercise these tactics with your child is the greatest thing you can do to support their development and set them up for success!

The Role of Sound Books in Language Learning

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Sound books are a wonderful way to introduce your child to reading. The multi-sensory experience of a sound book lets kids explore and learn with music, buttons, and captivating illustrations. Perfect for babies and toddlers ages 0-3, sound books make learning how to speak fun and engaging. Listening to a parent or grandparent reading and singing nursery rhymes paired with tactile buttons helps kids retain information better. When engaging multiple senses, children learn to associate letters and words with sounds faster, giving them a head start when it comes to learning how to speak and read. Plus, associating good memories with a sound book will encourage your little learner to continue pursuing reading all on their own! 

There are so many wonderful sound books to choose from. Here are some of our favorite best-sellers to give your child a head start on learning how to speak and read:

  • Sing the Alphabet: This sound book is full of delightful illustrations and simple words that make ABCs fun to listen and to sing along!
  • Count: Introduce counting with these popular timeless nursery rhymes.
  • I’m a Little Teapot: This sound book teaches about food, long vowel sounds, and helps sharpen vocabulary and pronunciation. 
  • You Are My Sunshine: This one includes six nursery rhymes that introduce different types of weather to little ones in an entertaining way! 
  • Patty Cake: Enjoy hand-clapping and pretend baking games with this sound book. Great for babies, it helps build fine motor skills.
  • Humpty Dumpty: This interactive book will keep your little one entertained with a variety of songs, characters, and musical buttons. 

Explore more educational and interactive stories in our ever-expanding collection of sound books!

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Cali's Books, founder, about us, why I love books, children's books

Hi! I'm Cali, Founder of Cali's Books

“I’ve loved books since childhood and wanted to transmit this enthusiasm to my children”

I'm a mom of two young children who trained as an engineer and worked in investment banking and at Disney. A French of Caribbean origin (Martinique to be precise!), I grew up in Paris. Los Angeles is now the place I call home!

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