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The ‘Talking’ Point – Speech and Language Development in Children
An interview with May Henderson, Bebegarten Learning Support Coordinator

Most parents feel elated when they hear their children call them ‘mamma’ and ‘dadda’ for the first time. But when can they expect this to happen? When can children actually make a two-way conversation with them? May Henderson, our Speech and Language Therapist, gave us the low-down.

Hi May, what made you decide to pursue your career development as a Speech and Language Therapist and eventually come to Asia?

During University I spent a year working in a school for children with special needs. It was here that I saw Speech and Language Therapists working with children for the first time. I was inspired to work with children to support their communication as I saw the impact it had on their development. When I returned to university I looked into the profession further and applied for a master’s degree in Speech and Language Therapy.

Even before I trained to be a Speech and Language Therapist I knew I wanted to work abroad, I wanted to explore different countries and cultures and try something new. I travelled to Asia in 2008 and always hoped to return some day. To be able to combine my career with travel is very exciting.

How can parents help children develop their speech and language ability?

There is often some confusion between speech and language, to clarify:

Language is the words a person uses to communicate – how they use these words and how they join words together into sentences. It includes use and understanding of spoken words. Speech, on the other hand, is the production of sounds to say the words clearly.

By understanding the differences and the developmental milestones of speech and language, parents can encourage the development through play, or very simply, interact with their children. They are also able to identify early on if their children have a difficulty with speech, language or both.

When do babies normally start babbling and say their first words?

Communication actually starts from birth, with the development of interaction skills between the baby and the carer. Babies should start showing signs that they are attentive to sounds and develop listening skills before 12 months.

We can consider a speech and language developmental milestone every 6 months for babies. A baby will begin to babble using speech sounds between 6-12 months. At 12 months, they may begin to say their first words like ‘mamma’ and ‘dadda’. By the age of 18 months, a child will understand simple instructions and many single words. They may be using approximately 50 single words. This is also the stage a child will start to put two words together to make phrases.

Please bear in mind though, that milestones can vary between cultures and languages and the time periods mentioned are only generic indicators.

When can we expect a child to start using language to communicate?

On average, by 3 years old a child will understand instructions containing three important words and use phrases with three words. From this age, other aspects of language begin to develop such as grammar and sentence structure.

As a child’s language develops their speech sounds also improve. A 3-year-old child should be understood 50-75% of the time and 75%-90% by the age of 5. Again, these are generic indicators and actual performance can vary between culture and languages.

Should parents be worried if their child is falling behind the key developmental milestones mentioned above?

It is important for parents to be aware of the impact of a delay in speech and language development in children.

Without proper support for the delay, the children who have issues communicating or understanding can be at risk of experiencing difficulties in the following areas:

  • Socialisation with their peers
    Difficulty in communicating with others will make it hard for the children to interact with peers and maintain friendships.
  • Accessing the curriculum
    The children will find it hard to follow what is being delivered in the classroom, which will impact on their learning. There is a close link between the development of language skills and the development of literacy skills.
  • Behaviour difficulties
    They may become frustrated which can show in challenging behaviours. If the children do not understand what is happening in the classroom, they are likely to get bored and seek other activities.

How can parents know if their children need support? Or could the child be just a late bloomer?

Being aware of the typical milestones for language development can help parents figure out if their child is falling behind. Comparing the child’s performance against other children their age or other siblings can also help, although it is important to remember all children are different and follow their own path of development.

Books on general development skills can be useful too as they look at communication as part of a bigger picture of development. When looking at communication skills, physical and social development is also considered.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell if the child is just immature in the ability to communicate or has a specific problem, as various factors affect the development and also milestones can vary between cultures and languages.

In many cases the cause of speech and language delay is unknown. It is affected by hearing and vision, and a language delay could be indicative of a developmental disorder.

So if you have concerns you can speak to a Speech and Language Therapist who will be able to discuss this with you in detail and assess the child professionally.

Does Bebegarten offer assessment service if parents are unsure?

Bebegarten offers a full Speech and Language Assessment Service that looks at all aspects of a child’s communication skills.

The child will be observed in a class or a free play environment. There will also be some direct work with the child looking at their use and understanding of language as well as their interaction skills and their speech sound development, this can be done informally and/or through the use of formal assessments.

A full report and meeting with parents and professionals is then offered.

Parents can also contact me for an informal chat about their child to determine if a full assessment is necessary.

Is there any other support parent can expect from Bebegarten?

Bebegarten does not just offer assessment service. Our Speech Plus Programme is aimed at children with typical language development but have some difficulties with their speech sounds. The programme always includes work on listening and processing skills (phonological awareness) before beginning work directly on speech sounds.

We will also offer individual and group therapy programmes, and training programmes for parents.

Why is Hong Kong less aware of the importance of speech and language development support?

There is often a concern about labelling a child at a young age. However research shows that early intervention can be key in the child’s development. If support is provided early on, this can help the child in his or her development of speech and language. The earlier the better!

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