How can you encourage a child’s language development ?

Here we look at communication and language development in children. We discuss how you can encourage progress with your baby and eventually help a toddler learn to talk.

Talking, understanding others and knowing what to say are really important skills in life. Being able to communicate helps children make friends, learn and enjoy life to the full. You will be your child’s first and most important teacher. You may be wondering “when will my baby talk?”. A toddler’s first words usually occur between 12 and 18 months and they will continue to learn and progress quickly once they reach that milestone. Here we look at simple ways encourage and enjoy your child’s language development.

Get your child’s attention: Face your child or sit down with them. Say their name before you start speaking. Talk about something you can both see in front of you. This helps them to learn what words mean.

Have fun together: Use actions, sing, make noises and funny faces. Don’t be shy, being a bit silly helps get their attention and makes them laugh and can encourage language development.

Comments not questions: Asking lots of questions can feel like it’s a test. Make it a conversation. When you talk to your baby comment on what they are doing and what is happening instead.

Give them time to think: Children need more time than adults to think about what they’ve heard, and to decide what to say back. Give them time to respond, and look at them while you wait.

Use simple language: Keep your sentences short. For example, “Food time now” or “Wow, you’re building a tower”.

Repeat what you say: It’s good to say the same thing over again. Babies and toddlers need to hear words and sentences lots of times to understand them and learn new words. This is key aspect of baby talk. 

Make it easier for them to listen: Turning the music, radio or TV off helps children focus on your words.

Build on what they say: Adding one or two words to what they say helps your child onto the next stage of talking. So, if your child says “bus” you say “Yes, big bus”.

Speak in your home language: It’s important for children to learn their first words and sentences in their home language. Your child will learn in English later, at nursery and school.

Make it easier for them to talk: Dummies can get in the way of talking. Try to keep them just for sleeptimes. Take it out to talk.

Show them the right way: Young children often make mistakes. Show them that you understand, rather than asking them to repeat words correctly. Say the word or sentence again correctly for your child. If they say “Look at the dod”, you can say “Yes, it’s a dog”.

Copy what they say: Repeat back sounds, words and sentences. Whether its “la la” or “Oh, you liked the banana?”, it shows you’re interested and that sounds and words are important. This can help your baby's speech development. 

Talk to someone if you’re worried: Some children find talking and listening harder than others. They might find it hard to understand what words and sentences mean. Some struggle to find the right words and sounds to use and put them in order. These children may need extra help.

If you are worried about your child, talk to people you know and who know your child. If you’re still worried, go with your instinct. Talk to someone who can help, for example a speech and language therapist or your health visitor or GP.

This article was written using information provided by I CAN, the children’s communication charity and the Talking Point website.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Download I CAN's free First Words Poster and stages of development poster, if you want to find out more about what to expect at different ages and stages.

You can also find lots more useful information and resources from I CAN.

Read The Psychology of Babies: How relationships support development from birth to two by Lynne Murray (published by Constable Robinson).

Take a look at the National Literacy Trust’s website which has information about early communication skills.