language house

Many parents want to know the question, “When will my child talk?” And I wish I could give them an exact month, date or time that it will happen, but there are so many factors that affect the outcome that it would not be fair to assume when that pivotal development milestone will occur. Instead of offering unrealistic expectations or giving false hope, I like to remain in the present. I usually explain language development like this: a house!

The foundation consists of aspects of language that are non-verbal which includes joint attention, means end, eye contact, motor imitation, sound imitation, turn taking. These key developmental stair steps are crucial in allowing later language skills to evolve. There are essential skills that allow a child to develop later language milestones if the foundation is laid well and mastered before moving on. Just like a house, if your foundation is weak, everything above it will eventually start to leak or fail.

Next is the beams that support the walls. These “beams” are synonymous with (still) non-verbal aspects of language such as responding to name being called, cause and effect relationships and attending skills. Children must be able to attend to a task before they are able to appropriately respond (both receptively and expressively) to said task. Therefore, again, mastering these non-verbal skills are key prerequisites in the later developing language skills.

The walls and structures that surround the beams are the receptive language skills. Following directions, pointing to objects (both tangible items and pictures in books) and play skills all fall under receptive language tasks. Children must be able to understand spoken language, process this stimuli and then respond appropriately before they are able to begin talking meaningfully.

The roof which is compared to expressive language for this analogy, finally starts to be formed. Now, some children begin talking before they are able to follow directions and master some of the receptive language tasks above. This is because children are inclined to “label” objects but do not have the basics to use their language functionally (i.e. requesting, commenting, etc.). Even though some children are “talking,” there may be more work to do before attaching the “expressive language” structure - the roof! So, when kiddos come in to the office and can name colors, letters, etc. but doesn’t say “mama” “dada” or words like “baby,” there is a weakness in their skills under the roof. It is imperative to understand WHY, as SLPs, we are approaching early intervention therapy this way, so that we can work as a team to put the necessary pieces of language together first - and once those are in place and solid, talking may follow.

Relating language acquisition in this way has helped so many parents understand that there is substantial work to be done before words come but also to appreciate and look for the little victories. Enjoy the journey! It only happens once for each child.

Emily Watkins, MCD, CCC-SLP

Speech-Language Pathologist