Parenting Series 9 - Learning to Talk For 1-2 Years Old

(Content revised 03/2018)

Language is a tool for communicating ideas and emotions, thinking and learning. It plays an important role in a child's cognitive, emotional and social development.

How Do Children Acquire Language?

Both genetic and environmental factors are important for language development. There are some pre-conditions for a child to be able to talk. He must have normal hearing as well as normal oral and vocal structure. He should be developmentally ready and have good intent to communicate. In addition, providing an encouraging language environment with learning opportunities, particularly in the first five years of life, is also important.

When Do Children Learn to Talk?

Before a child says her first word, she is already communicating her needs through crying, vocalization, facial and bodily expressions. Timing of language development, especially the age at which a child begins to talk, varies among children.

Below is a brief general description of the progress of language development for children from 6 months to 2 years. More details can be found in the Child Development leaflet series.

Approx. Age Comprehension Expression
6-9 months Respond to familiar words with contextual cues e.g. 'milk' Babble consonants like 'ba', 'da','ka'
9-12 months Respond to familiar words with gestured cues. e.g. wave 'bye bye', 'no' Vocalize strings of syllables or say a few meaningful words like 'mama', 'dada'
1-1½ years Recognize names of familiar people and objects

Understand more daily words and phrases e.g. give mummy, 'sit down' with gradual withdrawal of gestured cues

Start to use single words, most are nouns e.g. 'baby', 'dolly'; then a few verbs appear e.g. 'go', 'jump'
1½-2 years Follow simple instructions like 'give me the ball'
Point to body parts when asked
Recognize common pictures
Say more single words
Start combining words e.g. 'that's mine', 'daddy gone'

How Do We Help Children Talk?

Before a child learns to express himself in speech, he has to understand words. Providing an environment rich in language is important to facilitate your child's understanding and speech development, Here are some points to note:

  1. Listen first, then talk

    Draw your child's attention by getting down to his eye level and calling his name or patting him. Wait till he looks at you before you start talking to him, A quiet environment with minimal distractions also helps your child to be more attentive to what you say.

  2. Talk clearly and lively

    Talk in a gentle and rhythmic voice to make speaking and listening experiences fun for your child. Talk slowly and clearly to your child to help her get what you mean.

  3. Talk simply

    Talk in short and simple phrases according to your child's level of understanding, For example, say 'give Mummy the cup' instead of 'pass Mummy your cup and let me get you some juice '. You may also add gestures to help him understand and to make your speech more fun e.g. holding out your hand for 'give me'; sticking up your thumb for 'good'; and patting on your chest for 'me'.

  4. Be natural and at ease

    Let your child learn to talk naturally. Making her speak or act in front of people under pressure would only impede her intention to speak.

  5. Follow your child's interest
    • Choose play activities that are appropriate to your child's developmental level and appeal to his interest. In general, mini cookery set is good facilitative choice for all children. Your child will then enjoy the activities more and have a better sense of mastery.
    • Follow his interest and let him take the lead. If he likes to play with blocks, talk to him while he is playing with them like 'Chris is building a tower', 'Put one on top', Wow! That's a train you've made.'
    • Play with your child when he is alert and in a good mood. As long as both of you enjoy the time together, the duration of time spent need not be long.
  6. Make use of opportunities in everyday life
    • You are the most suitable speech model for your child. Make use of daily situations to tell her the names and uses of things she comes in contact with. Encourage her to repeat your words without urging.
      • e.g.
        • At bath time --
          Talk about body parts with her
        • Going to supermarket --
          Tell her the things you pick from the shelves
        • Reading with her--
          Describe pictures in books or tell her the story in simple terms
        • Going out--
          Talk about things you see on the way
    • Tell her what you are doing to let her learn about actions. For instance, when you are washing dishes, you may say 'Mummy's washing dishes' or when mopping the floor, say 'Daddy's mopping the floor'.
    • Use questions to facilitate her verbal understanding and expressive ability. For example, when she is eating, you may ask her, 'Is it yummy?' 'Are you full?' or 'What are you doing?' etc.
  7. Encourage him to talk
    • Whenever your child is talking, listen to him patiently and try to understand what he says. Do not speak the words for him too readily or let his siblings interrupt what he is going to say.
    • Encourage him to say what he wants in words. For example, when he points to cookies, tell him the name of the object he wants and encourage him to say 'give', 'cookie' or 'eat'.
    • When your child has built up his vocabulary, you may expand what he says in longer phrases e.g. when he can say 'ball' and 'kick', you can encourage him to say 'kick ball' but with no urging.
  8. Respond to your child's attempt to talk
    • Listen and respond immediately to your child's words or vocalization by nodding, smiling, repeating or expanding them.
    • Praise her efforts even though she may not have pronounced the words correctly. Just say her words for her.
    • Never imitate her mispronunciations or laugh at her.
  9. Be positive and appreciative

    Always take a positive approach. If your child is not yet ready to talk, praise his effort of trying instead of shaming him.

  10. Provide stimulating experiences outside home

    Taking her to the playground, joining other children's birthday parties, or going to nursery are good opportunities for her to mix with other children and have more chances to learn to talk.

By the end of 18-months old, if your child:

  • Does not respond to calling of her name often
  • Rarely look at people
  • Does not understand the name of familiar person or objects. e.g. grandma,cup,milk etc.
  • Does not use finger to point to indicate needs
  • Does not say any words
  • Appears not hearing well

By the end of 24-months old, if your child:

  • Does not respond to simple commands without prompting gestures e.g. get you a common object, point to a body part
  • Does not recognize simple pictures
  • Speak less than twenty words

Please discuss with your doctor or nurses in MCHC, family physician or paediatrician.

Provide rich listening and talking experiences for your child. Applying the above skills for language facilitation in every day life and in play will further enhance his language development.

Each child is unique and wide variations in the pace of development are often normal. Don't be over-alarmed if your child's language development takes a slightly different pace. It may only signal a need for more attention on him. If you have any concerns about your child's hearing or language development, please do not hesitate to consult the healthcare professionals.

Source from: Language Development. Pamphlet by Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists (Medical)

We have a series of "Happy Parenting!" workshops and leaflets for expectant parents, parents of infants and preschool children. Please contact our hecdthcare personnel for information.