Baby's first word -- that major breakthrough in her progress toward speech -- is still weeks or months away. But by six to eight months of age, she learns how to alternate her gaze from your face to an object. This allows her to use unspoken communication to get what she wants. The baby gazes at a toy, then at her mother or father, then back at the toy. The meaning is clear: I want that. When the parent responds by handing over the object, there has been an exchange of information. That's real communication.
This is a time when you should be sensitive to your baby's gaze. If the child wants a toy, bring it into the conversation. Describe it. Ask your baby what she thinks about it. At this point your baby is interested in learning more about how language works with objects. Build on words. If a ball catches your infant's eye, you might say, "Look at the ball. It's a blue ball. Look at the big, blue ball." Games and rhymes are ways to expand her listening vocabulary and comprehension of what the words mean.
A baby's understanding of language in the first year is always ahead of her ability to vocalize. As early as six months, an infant is beginning to understand the names of family members. Ask a baby where mommy is, and she will turn and look at her. Your baby's ability to distinguish different types of vocal sounds is also changing.
Research indicates that up to the age of five or six months, infants are good at distinguishing a variety of speech sounds, called phonemes, from all languages. But between six and twelve months, they lose the ability to distinguish the phonemes that are not part of their parents' language, the language they hear every day.
During the same period, their vocal ability improves quickly. The next step toward language is a string of cooing sounds, called babbling. Some babies start babbling as early as four months, others may not start until eight months or later. Once they discover it, babies appear to play with sounds for the pure joy of sound. When your baby sees you, she will hold "conversations" with you, taking turns babbling and pausing while you respond. She might begin at five months with consonant sounds like m-m-m or b-b-b; between seven and eight months, she can utter about a dozen different phonemes, mostly simple combinations of consonant and vowel such as ba and ma.
Babies also begin showing rhythm in their vocalizing between the ninth and twelfth months, and they play with the pitch of a sound, sliding up and down between low and high sounds. Listen to your child when she starts to babble and show her how you enjoy it. You're helping build on your baby's skill at taking turns and this encourages her to try more. The important thing is to provide lots of language stimulation. Studies show that young babies adopted from an institution where they received little stimulation had not developed many language skills. Yet in a new home where they received lots of attention and were exposed to lots of conversation, they made huge advances in a very short time.
About a month after the babbling starts, babies begin experimenting with slightly more complex sounds, using two syllables like ma-ma, da-da, and bye-bye. Although they may not use them appropriately, the words begin to stand out more from the stream of babbling. By about eight or nine months of age, babies begin to understand the word No, a word that will come back to haunt you a few months from now. They understand more complex speech, too, although they cannot yet reproduce it. A nine-month-old can point to the family pet when you ask, "Where's the doggie?" He is also learning to use sound to get his parent's attention. He begins to mix combinations of very different sounds and may use inflection in his voice remarkably like real speech.
Then close to the first birthday, you experience that moment you've been waiting for -- the first word. It may not be as clear a sound as you might have expected. It may not sound like the real word, but if he uses it time after time to describe the same thing, it is a word. While your baby may use the word consistently, he may see no point in confining a perfectly good word to just one meaning. He could use the same word to describe two or three objects, or apply several names to one object.
Researchers identify the first word as a sound that the child uses consistently to refer to a person or object and that he uses in an appropriate way. These early words are almost always "labels" for things around him -- people, pets, favourite toys. Within a couple of months either side of his first birthday, your baby may add two or three more two-syllable words, such as na-na for banana and buh-buh for baby. Respond when your baby uses these words and repeat them back -- the right way -- as part of your conversation. If your baby says buh-buh, you might answer, "Yes, look at the baby!" This repeated naming of people and objects helps him sort out what the words stand for, even if he can't say them yet.
Talking directly to your child and holding his attention as you speak also helps him develop his imitative abilities and his language skills. This kind of human interactive language is the only effective way of learning language; passive listening to radio or TV does not help a child develop the neural networks that are essential to language development.
While children might utter only a few words, their understanding of words is advancing at a great pace. Take the opportunity to talk about what your baby is looking at and what appears to interest him. As with all aspects of development, don't be alarmed if your child doesn't speak as much or as often as some children -- they all progress at their own speed and their language accomplishments may vary by a year or more. But by twelve months, your baby may say eight or ten words, including his own name.
Forget the flash cards
A popular theory of some years ago was that a parent could speed up a child's comprehension and encourage other early reading skills by using vocabulary flash cards as soon as the baby could sit up and focus. The idea has since been discounted by most linguists as a waste of time. Babies don't learn language out of context by memorizing words one at a time; they learn language as part of their play and their interactions with others.
Parents help babies learn words and how they work together in sentences and questions by modelling how language works -- in their daily conversational exchanges between themselves or with the baby. If parents are sensitive to the baby's needs and surround him with purposeful language just slightly ahead of his ability, they "pull" him along more quickly than any set of vocabulary flash cards.