The Process of Learning to Talk

Today, when you said ‘Good Morning’ to someone, or commented on the haze with another, you used communication. Communication is something we utilize extensively in our everyday lives via many channels – body language, facial expressions, tone, intonation, with words, of course,  being the most obvious. Communication is an extremely complex process that involves an intricate amount of foundational skills that are laid well before a child actually utters his first words. I call this ‘the miracle of communication’.

As a Consultant Speech and Language Pathologist, I work exclusively with children who have difficulties with forming these foundational skills and my job is to try to remediate them to wards communicating better. With children who have speech and language delays, talking like we do is very difficult and is often out of their reach initially. Children with language difficulties are unable to relate what they think, what they dream about, what they want. When children begin to communicate, they introduce us to their minds and to the persons they are. Language draws us closer to our children and allows them to reveal to us how distinct and very special each child is.

The process of acquiring the ability to communicate is a complex process that hinges on several components. For instance, an infant must be aware and be able to organize sensory information i.e. the infant must be able to note the hotness and/or brightness of the sun, the taste of a cold lick of ice cream, and the sounds coming from a parent’s mouth. The child must become skilled at continuously segmenting and categorizing the stream of sounds that constitute speech and must slowly learn to distinguish where one word or phrase ends and the other begins. An infant needs to be able to distinguish which syllables belong with which others in order to translate what is heard -  like “Duyuwannaicecream?”, to its’ meaning of, “Do you want an ice cream?”
Once words are disentangled, the infant then needs to recognize the sounds and link them to meaning that conveys the intended message. The way in which language surrounding the infant is used through instruction, caution, cultural context, as well as, the way language is manipulated within a specific target language with suffixes, articles, plurals etc. shapes and contributes to the meaning of the utterance as well. Every language has its own glitches and idiosyncrasies and even within a particular language itself, there are widespread variations. Just think about the diverse ways Bahasa Malaysia is spoken across the different states within Malaysia.

When a child first learns to communicate, single words are expressed as early as 6-10 months for some children. By the time a child is one and a half years, a child should have accumulated, and be able to understand, more than 50 words. That, of course, is only a starting point and from there onwards, there is a fiery pace of progress as words are quickly added to the child’s word vault. By the time a child enters school, an astounding 11,000 words or more have been acquired!

Infants seem to have an inherent sense of the rules of the language that surrounds them. In other words, from very young, they “get” the grammar of the language. Forming a sentence is not just about combining words but one must have the knowledge of appropriate syntax, which then allows the child to arrange their utterances into culturally acceptable phrases that will be understood by others. For example, “An ice cream you want do” might have the ingredients for an understandable phrase but until the words are put in the right order, the words are considered garbled. We don’t often hear children make this sort of mistake when they are developing normal language abilities. Somehow their brains are hardwired to understand these rules of word order and to adhere to them.

Between 2 and 4 years of age, children seem to explode on the acquiring words scene and commence forming more complete phrases. Often the “ing” ending is the first to be noted: “I am eating”. This is closely followed by the use of prepositions (in, on, under)and then plurals and so on.

Learning to communicate is contextual and thus, the environment surrounding a child is acritical contributing component to this end. A child who is raised on  TV and I-pads will not advance linguistically the way children do who are nurtured with the give-and-take of ‘conversation’ and all its’ nuances. Enjoy the interaction with your child, the moment and the communication that comes with it.

What Kids Say, and When


Age - 6  to 9 months

Sounds  words - Lip  sounds like mm, bb, pp, babbling

What’s  going on - Lips  sounds are the easiest for baby to make


Age - 9  to 12 months

Sounds  words - Ff,  ss, zz sounds, inflection and the melody of conversation starts

What’s  going on - Lips  sounds are the easiest for baby to make


Age - 10  to 14 months

Sounds  words - First  word

What’s  going on - First  words are usually a word that’s repeated often and is of interest to the  child e.g. go


Age - 1;00  year to 1;06 years

Sounds  words - Roughly  adds 2 words a week to about 50 by 1;06 years old

What’s  going on - Child  usually will look at something/someone and point saying one or two words.  Mispronunciations are common


Age - 1;06  – 2;00 years

Sounds  words - About  200 words

What’s  going on - Lots  of single words and starting to put two word phrases together


Age - 2;00  – 3;00 years

Sounds  words - About  500 words

What’s  going on - Questions,  questions, questions!


Age - 3;00  to 4;00 years

Sounds  words - About  800 words or more

What’s  going on - The  child starts to acquire rules and grammar – contractions, prepositions, time  expressions and so on.


Age - 4;00  – 5;00 years old

Sounds  words - About  2,000 words or more

What’s  going on - Communication  is clearly delivered comprising of 5-6 word phrases. Can make up stories  though some sounds can still be troublesome – /s/, /r/, /v/, /j/, /th/, /sh/  and /ch/.


Age - 5;00  – 7;00 years old

Sounds  words - About  11,000 words or more

What’s  going on - By this point children are retelling and discussing stories have a very large  repertoire of words to use.


Jennifer Peters-Lee is a  Consultant Speech-Language Pathologist who has made meaningful communication  her life’s work.


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Speech - language therapist

Jennifer Peters-Lee

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