Being able to communicate fluently is a significant part of being human: It allows a person to learn, build relationships and succeed in life. Children begin to communicate from the time they are born, and from there they learn the vast rules that make up speech and language. It is important to keep the lines of communication open with them and to be aware of signs pointing to developmental delays.

Speech and Language

Speech and language are two interrelated, but different building blocks of communication. They are both tools that allow humans to convey ideas, thoughts and concerns. Speech is the act of talking. Language is the framework of rules that allow a group of people to exchange words with meaning. Language doesn’t require speech, as it may be signed, written or gestured 1.

The First Five Years

The first five years of a child’s life are the most significant when it comes to his ability to communicate effectively. These years can be broken up into three different periods. The first period, which establishes the foundation of later communication, starts at birth when infants communicate through facial expressions and cries. The second period of communication, from six months to 18 months, signifies a time when infants begin to intentionally communicate even if they can’t necessarily verbalize all of their needs. The third period, 18 months through five years, is the time when a child begins to use language in order to learn and communicate.

Developmental Milestones

Although every child learns and grows at a different pace, there is a general timeline that suggests when one will begin to reach communication milestones. Health professionals can look at this timeline to assess a child’s progress. A six-month-old child, for example, can generally respond by turning his head and eyes when his name is spoken. By the time he is 18 months old, he should have a vocabulary of between five and 20 words, and he should be able to follow simple commands. At 36 months, his vocabulary will have generally expanded to between 900 to 1,000 words. By age 5, he should understand concepts relating to time, and he should be able to use descriptive language.

Learning Bilingual Communication

Since a young child is wired to learn communication skills at such a rapid pace, he is like a sponge when it comes to picking up any and all languages. Early childhood is an ideal time to teach a child more than one language. A child that learns two languages in equal proportion may develop at a different pace than children around him, but he will emerge with extra life skills. He should reach similar milestones (such as speaking his first words by 1 year of age and using two-word phrases by age 2,) but he may mix up rules of grammar and mix up languages for a while. Moreover, if a new language is added in beyond his native tongue, he may briefly exhibit a normal period of silence.

Developmental Delays

Some children experience delays in development of speech. Speech delays may be caused by oral impairments such as limited tongue movement, but they may also be caused by hearing problems. Speech delays can also be caused by oral-motor problems (slowed communication in speech production areas of the brain) that also have the potential to cause feeding problems. Language delays can point to underlying conditions such as intellectual disability and autism. It is important to recognize signs of developmental delays, potentially before a child is old enough to start talking, so that early intervention can help him reach his greatest potential.