Parents often ask me when their child will start talking. That’s a tough question to address. I’m not a believer in predicting the future or giving false hope by any means. I also don’t want to be negative and dampen parents’ dreams for their child’s future.
To navigate this balance in answering, I try to stick to information concerning the here and now. I work hard to explain that when a child lacks expressive language or vocabulary, we should back up a little and evaluate the foundation of those skills. I start by asking parents or caregivers to tell me about interactions at home that might contribute to those language foundations.
I compare the number of words or vocabulary a child says to the roof of the home: It’s usually one of the final pieces put in place. We first need to evaluate joint attention, which I describe as the child’s solid foundation—the basis or beginning of building a language skills structure.
Then comes the ability to understand and process nonverbal communication of others. This skill could be compared to the beams that support the walls of a home—and the next step in building our structure. I ask parents if their child attends and follows when someone points, for example, or if the child understands when someone shakes their head that they are expressing the concept of “no.”
The exterior of the home is often the next step, which I compare to a child’s receptive language skills. The child’s ability to respond to their name or common directions make up those walls. I explain to caregivers how this important step has to happen before a child can express their own words to communicate verbally.
Many children talk before they actually understand how to recognize their name or follow verbal directions. This generally means a child knows how to “label” or name things, but may not use those words to communicate basic needs. I share my building metaphor with parents to explain how this labeling still indicates more work to do before putting on the expressive language roof. If we try to put on the roof before the walls are up, the entire structure can topple.
A child who can name colors and the letters of the alphabet, but doesn’t say “mom” or “dad” needs to go back to working on their foundation and other processing support skills. So, when parents ask when their child will start talking, I share my approach about putting the other necessary pieces of language in place first—and that once we build those skills, talking may follow.
Evaluating language skills and their foundations in this way can make a difference in the child’s outcomes, as well as help caregivers understand what we will address—and why—in treatment.