How Do Children Learn to Talk?

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I talk a lot on this blog about how to help children who are deaf and hard of hearing to learn spoken language, but have you ever thought about how a typically developing child learns language? Like, how do they go from these tiny little snuggly babies that only cry to 3 or 4 year olds who can talk non-stop?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably never given it much thought. I know I didn’t until I became a speech language pathologist. And here’s the thing…the process is so seamless for typically developing children that we don’t even notice it. We never sit down and show them how to make sounds, or teach them every single word, at least not in a very structured sort of way.

The Magic Sauce

So how do they do it? Listening. It sounds so simple, but think about it this way…as soon as our babies are born, they’re listening to us. Every time we say their names, sing to them, read to them, or just talk when they’re around us, they’re listening.

And actually, if we’re being technical about it, they’ve been listening since before birth. Around 18 weeks gestation they can start to hear sounds, and by 25-26 weeks, they are starting to respond to sound. They are hearing your voice, and even though the fluid around them muffles the sound, they’re still aware of it.

Once they’re born, newborns can recognize the voices they’ve heard in the womb. Research on bilingual newborns has shown us that when babies are born, they can hear sounds from all languages, but as they continue to listen, in simple terms they become able to hear sounds in their own language, and basically disregard those in other languages. Bilingual infants continue to be able to hear sounds in both.

Your Job

When everything goes right and hearing systems are intact, all parents have to do to encourage this process of learning language is to talk to their babies. As babies hear all sorts of language, they take it in, and eventually begin making sounds of their own.

First they coo, then babble, and then they move on to words, phrases, and sentences. And, in the absence of any glitches in the system, it all happens without us doing any explicit teaching.

Isn’t it amazing?