Babies begin communicating with their parents from birth. In their first few months of life they will learn to copy facial expressions; cry when they’re hungry; and be able to follow a toy that is moved in front of them.
The good thing for parents is that there are plenty of signs to make sure a child’s language development is on track, even before they are expected to utter their first word.
“If a child is very quiet, this is a red flag,” warns Haidar Ali Wreidan, speech therapist at Latifa Hospital. “It is not normal for a one-year-old to be silent, not producing sound, not crying.”
“They first start off with crying, whining, giggling, smiling at their parents,” says Rogaiyah Hamidaddin, Speech and Language Pathologist at Lighthouse Arabia. “There’s always communication from the get go.”
Around these milestones, there is normal variation, however, especially between genders.
“Girls tend to acquire language much faster than boys. Some boys reach maximum language skills between six and seven,” says Wreidan.
If a child is very quiet, this is a red flag. It is not normal for a one-year-old to be silent, not producing sound, not crying.
If there are delays, there are many factors that could be the cause, from fluid in the ear to visual impairment or an undiagnosed condition.
Family history of developmental delays are another indicator to be aware of.
Both experts agree that early intervention is key. If children are not keeping up with their milestones over the first year, it’s never too early to check in with a speech therapist and ask if any traits or symptoms are meaningful.
The ideal time to address a developmental delay is from 12-24 months of age.
“The way I explain it to parents is,” says Hamidaddin, “if you have been doing something for so long it’s become a routine, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to change it.
“If a child has been crying for a long time to get what he or she wants, and not communicating efficiently or effectively and it’s been working and all of a sudden Mum is not responding and Dad is not responding and I’m not getting what I want, it’s a lot more difficult for the child,” she says.
Sometimes families suspect a problem early on but are discouraged from seeking help by well-meaning medical professionals who try to reassure them.
“Many of them go to paediatricians and they just say ‘oh wait it out, it’s not a big deal, he or she will catch up’,” says Hamidaddin.
“In our culture unfortunately they might say you’re exaggerating,” agrees Wreidan. “It doesn’t matter if all the doctors in the world say your child is normal, if the mother knows deep in her heart there’s something wrong with her child she should always seek help, and not wait,” says Wreidan.
Sometimes parents are put off by the concept of therapy for young children, not realising it’s a very casual and inviting process.
“With little children we try to focus on play-based therapy,” says Hamidaddin. “Because they’re little kids we don’t expect them to sit on a chair at a table and complete tasks.”
She says it’s all about simple requests, simple phrases with lots of interaction.
“We can also work with the parents to notice the signs and respond appropriately, so for the little ones especially it’s definitely play therapy with parent involvement. That’s really important,” says Hamidaddin.
Wreidan says he’s often asked about how to raise children in environments where more than one language is spoken.
“Children are very smart; they are very capable. If we put them in the right environment it’s not a problem for children to learn two languages at the same time,” he says. “Some of the children in Dubai are trilingual or can speak four languages.”
But he doesn’t advise parents to speak to their child in a language they’re not confident in because broken speech and heavy accents don’t offer a good language model for children.
“If the parents speak Arabic, they should raise a child in an environment where they have Arabic as the model. If they go to nursery and it’s in English, with a British curriculum or American curriculum, in this case the school or nursery is giving the proper English model for the child, and at home they’re giving the proper Arabic model,” says Wreidan.
Both therapists are encouraged that awareness of early intervention has grown in recent years.
“Ten years ago, people were waiting until two and a half, or until they went to school and discovered a problem, but the best way is to do it as early as possible because the brain needs more stimulation through language,” says Wreidan. “The earlier we do it, the more successful we are.”
“I would really encourage parents to receive the coaching and training they need so they can feel empowered to make changes at home,” says Hamidaddin. “What we want is for a child not to need us anymore.”
Language Development Milestones
3m: A child starts communicating through crying
3-6m: They start to produce more sounds like cooing and babbling
1 year: They start to produce actual words, eg. saying mama or dada to the right person
18m - 2 years: More vocabulary builds
2-2.5 years: They begin to use phrases, simple combinations of verb and noun like come here, go there and bye now
2.5-3 years: They can express very simple sentences: eg. Give me water; I want apple
3-4 years: They can use more complex sentences
5 years: Most children reach the conversational stage of speech development