Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax 614 447-0768 macdonald.3@osu.edu

Communicating Partners

Dr. James D. MacDonald's Website

Helping Parents Help Children. Programs for Parents, Therapists & Educators


When will my child talk?

In my work with families for over 20 years, I have heard this question perhaps more than many others. Often parents wait for language as they would wait on a bus, sensing no control over when it comes. Unlike when a bus comes, the onset of language is usually something parents have influence to a very great extent.

When do children begin to talk a little? Under usual circumstances, we expect a child's first words around 10-18 months. There is no set time table and many children begin much later and still develop good language for conversation and learning. And, a child may talk with some persons and not others. If a child is not using words to play and get needs met by age two, roughly, we want to look at how he is doing in those skills he needs before language.

So another common question is, "What does a child need to do before she regularly talks and learns language on her own?"

After years of interviews with parents, I conclude that many parents believe that language just comes automatically like hair and height, with no special help from families other than general care taking. While it is true that human beings do have a unique ability to talk as part of their genetic programming, language just doesn't happen on it's own; a child needs close contacts with people who do things she can do.

So, if you are concerned that your child may be slow to talk, I recommend that you do not expect that she is just going to grow into language without your help as she seems to grow into new clothes without specific help.

To develop a really useful language for friendship and learning, your child needs to get into several habits that we do not often think of as necessary to talk. Some of these habits are playing with people; playing meaningfully with things; imitating; turntaking; staying in interactions; communicating without words; genuinely enjoying contact with people and others.

Frequently, parents bring me children 3, 4, 5, 6, or years older, who either have not begun talking or talk mainly for themselves. These parents often feel they have done all the regular play and teaching that they gave their other children, and they conclude that something is wrong in the child.

Some very common parent reports happen over and over with many different kinds of children. "He didn't play like other children." "He pays little attention." "He isn't interested in new things." "He repeats a lot of things." "He gets what he needs by taking us there or making unclear sounds." "He doesn't enjoy close quiet time with people." "He prefers to be alone." "He often ignores people." "He can't seem to keep up with others." All of these common comments by parents reveal a genuine concern, and often anxiety, that their child is not learning to talk.

So, what's the answer to the question, "When will my child talk?" In my experience following the communication development of children in over 500 families, the answer is-When they develop certain kinds of relationships with people who enter their world and become partners with them at their pace.

I have encouraged many parents to stop expecting language to come "out of the blue", and instead to look at themselves and the remarkable power they have to help their child to talk. A major goal of mine has been to teach parents what children need to do before language and, just as importantly, to teach them natural ways they can change themselves to help their child learn more with them.

For this short letter, I will alert you to some very important things both you child and you can do regularly that have helped other children get ready to talk. Notice that when you read the list you may say two things; first, that he and you have done these things already. That may well be true, but at the time your child may not have been ready to make it a habit or not yet done it on a regular, steady basis. Second, you may say, those are baby things my child is a big girl now, and I don't want to go back. My answer to that is that children of all ages can learn things they did not learn at earlier stages if they have enthusiastic partners to support and coach them.

With the list below, rate yourself and your child from 1-5, with 1 meaning never, 3 indicating occasionally, and 5 showing things you do consistently.

WHAT THE CHILD NEEDS TO DO

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Play frequently with people Play frequently as your child does
Play meaningfully with things Match child's actions and communications
Imitate others' actions and sounds Wait--give child time to do his part
Take turns Show child a next step
Stay increasingly longer with people Take turns and keep child longer
Use gestures and sounds to communicate Attend to little steps like sounds & gestures
Actively enjoy playing with people Make play more fun than work
Show interest in new things Expect your child to do more

Previous: What do children need to do before they talk?

Next: How can I communicate with my child so he learns to communicate?

Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax (614)447-0768 macdonald.3@osu.edu