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Normal Development of Language Precursors

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By Jill Heerboth, M.S., CCC

Language precursors are the skills that babies usually acquire before they speak. Language precursors develop from birth to between 18 and 24 months of age. They are divided into three skills: cognition, social/communicative development and sound production.

Cognition

Cognition refers to thinking skills. For children at a “pre-language” level thinking skills develop by using and playing with toys and other objects. Here are some important cognitive skills.

Objective permanence: This is knowing that something exists even though its out of sight. When your baby looks down to find a dropped rattle, the baby is beginning to develop object permanence. Soon the baby uncovers a toy that has been hidden under a blanket. In a more advanced stage of object permanence, the baby will look in different places for a desired object.

Means and ends: With this skill, babies are able to use their bodies or other objects to get what they want. When your baby reaches and grasps for your hair, the baby is showing early means/end behaviors. Several months later, the baby may crawl across the room to get a toy. Toddlers climbing on a chair to obtain cookies that are out of reach are showing sophisticated means/ends behaviors.

Cause and effect: By using this skill, babies use objects to create interesting sights and sounds. Babies show early cause/effect behaviors by shaking rattles or squeezing squeeze toys. Other cause/effect behaviors include pushing down a knob to make a toy operate, dialing a toy telephone to make noise, or pushing away someone’s hand to avoid a spoonful of peas. Advanced cause/effect behaviors include winding the handle of a jack-in-the box to make it work, or turning the knob of a toy radio to produce music.

Object use: This skill involves children’s ability to manipulate objects. Babies initially mouth objects as a way to explore them. They then use objects by looking at them, banging them together, dropping them, or throwing them (as in the popular game “Go Fetch”. Eventually, babies will use objects in socially appropriate ways. They will comb their hair with a comb, put on hats, try to put shoes on, or throw a ball back and forth.

Babies have learned a lot about the world once they have some progress in these areas. At that point, they are likely to talk about what they’ve learned.

Social/Communicative Development

Children communicate to satisfy wants or needs, to control someone, to establish or maintain social contacts, to express feelings and to respond to their surroundings. Before they can talk, they communicate with sounds, facial expressions and gestures. Here are some of the skills-which are present or start to develop at birth-they use to communicate.

Sound: Crying is a newborn’s most powerful way to communicate. The early communicative effort of crying is reinforced as babies are fed, picked up, or changed. Infants soon learn to make sounds when someone talks to them, whey they see a familiar adult, or when they merely want attention.

As they continue to develop, babies may make sounds when someone takes something away from them, and then eventually to ask for something that is out of reach.

Facial expressions: Eye contact between babies and their caregivers is a very early way to communicate. Smiling, which occurs a few months later, is an important response for developing interaction. Eventually, babies develop facial expressions to indicate when they are happy, sad, angry, hurt and excited.

Gestures and body movements: From birth, babies move their bodies to communicate when they are upset or to protest when they are being put down. Soon, they may indicate the desire for an activity to continue or happen again. For example, your baby may keep bouncing after you’ve stopped playing horsey.

As babies learn to control their bodies, their movements become more and more deliberate. They lift their arms to say that want to be put down. Eventually they learn to point to desired toys that are beyond their reach, shake their heads “no,” and hold out an empty cup to indicate they want more the drink. Babies also learn to play games with other peoples such as peek-a-boo, “So Big”, and pat-a-cake.

Children must have a reason to talk or they will not develop language. The use of sounds, facial expressions, body movements and gestures lays the groundwork for talking.

Sound Development

Talking requires very precise coordination of the tongue, lips, teeth, and jaw, along with breathing and vibration of the voice box. This coordination develops as babies develop physical control and are able to experiment with a variety of sounds.

From early on, babies make “ah” sounds if someone talks to them. They soon begin using a variety of sounds. Babies will coo and use vowel sounds (such as ooh, ah, u and ee), especially if someone picks them up, talks to them, or smiles at them. Babies may even repeat these sounds again after someone has imitated them. They also laugh, yell, and scream. As babies gain more control of their lips, tongue and teeth, they produced consonants (such as d, b, m, and g) and then well-defined syllables (such as ma, da and gu). They will also babble (repeat short, specific sounds such as ba-ba-ba-ba over and over).

At 9 to 10 months, some babies may say “momma, “da-da,” or specific names. They speak in jargon-a combination of consonants with varied inflection which sounds speech-like. They also experiment with an increasing number of different sounds (such as s, f, z, or th). Generally, they will not use these sounds when they say their first words. Between the ages of 12 to 18 months, babies tend to gradually develop new words. By 19 to 21 months, most babies have a vocabulary of about ten to fifty words.

By 18 to 24 months, children have developed the thinking skills necessary for talking. They can communicate effectively, but want to learn new words to communicate better. Their lips, tongue, and teeth are developed enough for them to experiment with a variety of sounds.

Now they’re ready to use these sounds to make specific words. Language precursors are established and talking will develop at a fast rate.

Lansky, B., and M. Maratsos. 1986. Baby talk. Deephaven, MN Meadowbrook

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