The First Twelve Months - Expressively Speaking; The Importance of Vocal Play
(Expressive) language development comes in stages, as many of us know. These stages build upon the skills learned during previous ones, so even for our children with delayed speech and language, a similar timeline often plays out.
From birth, our brain is wired to start discriminating sounds and recognizes familiar voices. We enjoy making up our own sounds, but quickly condition ourselves to the sounds of the native language spoken around us. We turned towards familiar listeners, startle with loud noises, soothe with calm sounds and gaze lovingly into our caregivers' eyes.
Around 3 months, our eye sight has improved, allowing us to better enjoy and track faces. We become interested in non-speech sounds, such as the doorbell and a dog barking. Between 3-6 months, we start to laugh playfully with others and show excitement when we hear someone else talking.
My personal favorite stage typically starts around 6 months and goes until around 12 months old. This is when we start to babble and engage in vocal play. We start by first using the same consonants and vowels in a single syllable, "ba", "pa". Then we get more enthusiastic and create longer strings of reduplicated or canonical babble, such as "babababa", "dadadada", "mumumumumu". We pause our little voices when we hear someone else talking and we will start to point and gesture to further our communication attempts. Around 10 months, ee're realizing this babble isn't quite the same as the adult speech we're hearing, so we start to modify it with variegated babble, such as "mama damu". We continue to troubleshoot our attempts with jargon, as we make up our own words for our favorite objects and then around our first birthday, we're starting to use our first real words.
This behavior is essential for our verbal/expressive language development. It's how we fine tune our tacting (labeling); test our manding (requesting); improve our native language articulation; and, probably most importantly, continue to build our bond with our caregivers. Sometimes our infants will screech during vocal play; sometimes they will whisper. Sometimes our little angel will shout in Target, as if she is telling us off for leaving that sparkly unicorn on the shelf! Many parents become embarrassed by these loud outbursts from their tiny baby; however don't you fear, she's demonstrating her confidence.
Even with augmentative and assistive communication, there is a period of "babbling". I work with my client frequently through this stage as we unmask and add new buttons for them to utilize. The new message may get something they actually enjoy or may lead to confusion and a communication breakdown. These are typical moments within communication development, regardless of modality.
When your child is demonstrating vocal play, encourage their confidence! Imitate their babble back by changing the inflection, as if you are checking your understanding. Use real words to keep the conversation going, "Is that so? What did Joey say to you? Mama pudo? Oh no!" Throw your hands on your hips, or up in the air! Be animated and let this story unfold.
Why should we encourage this "meaningless" noise? These are circles of communication. Right now, you are attaching meaning through play and gestures. Later, there will be real words to attach meaning and depth. Your goal during this activity is to keep the flow going, teaching your infant that you are attentive, listening and engaged. As we increase the circles of communication, we are increasing attention and problem solving skills. Your child needs to continue to expand his utterance to keep this flow going, which he is enjoying and therefor motivated to continue. Expanding these skills will lead to further success as the real words come along.
How Can You Encourage Vocal Play?
Encouraging vocal play takes an attuned state of mind. You need to be focused and engaged on your child's actions, no matter how small or minute. When you hear a sound, a raspberry or a snort; copy it back! If you're not hearing these playful sounds, make them during tickle games. Imitate the noises around you as dogs bark, doors close and dishes clank. Use movement with sounds, as babies are better able to attend to you while you're moving them in a rhythmic manner. Bouncing your baby on your knee and saying "pum pum pum" will help their brains associate the rhythm with the sound, just as we are programmed to do. Some babies just need a little more guidance and patience with this.
Even if your child is entering this stage behind his peers, you can still use movements and tickles to focus him into the rhythm and flow of speech. Children with chronic ear infections, hearing loss, and other hearing related issues may enter this stage later. We approach it with the same set of ideals, to keep the flow going! We may change our toys to be more developmentally appropriate, but the goal is the same. The more circles of communication we can connect, the more joint attention and problem solving will be required. This will lead to a more successful communicator and social problem solver.
So get out there, and start babbling!