Learning to talk is a complex process. One which many of us take for granted; as when it all goes according to plan there’s no need to really give it much thought.
From birth, babies communicate with us to let us know they need something. Over time this communication changes from whimpers to vocalisations, and words to sentences. Within just a few years, children go from communicating through crying, to being able to express their wants, needs and desires using complex sentences and social interaction.
However, there are a lot of skills involved in this process, therefore it’s hardly surprising that many children find it difficult at some points along the way. In order to help you to understand why it can be difficult for some children I am going to describe some of the skills required in talking.
Let’s first consider what happens in a simple conversation between two people (adults or children). The speaker says something and the other person listens and then responds. This continues in a cycle of turn taking.
Before processing what has been said, the listener needs to be able to hear the words spoken and focus their attention to look at the speaker/think about what they said. When listening to the speaker the speech stream is broken down into the different recognisable parts (i.e. words). If you think about when you listen to a foreign language you may not know where one words ends and the next one begins but we are particularly good at this in languages we are familiar with. As children’s attention, listening and language develops they begin to hear the different words spoken.
Once we’ve worked out the boundaries we then need to be able to understand each individual word.
In really basic terms we can think of our brain as storing a large filing cabinet. As we learn new words we file them away neatly in the most appropriate drawers. For example, we will file ‘cat’ near other animals (and pets) but also near words that rhyme (e.g. mat, bat). We will also store other words we associate with cat e.g. fluffy and cute. As we are exposed to new words we draw on the information we already know to build stronger connections in our vocabulary store (our lexicon).
Once we have understood the individual words spoken we then work out what they mean when they are put together in a sentence. We also work out the overall meaning (and this can change from context to context).
All of the skills above are needed for the listener to understand the speaker. The listener is then likely to change roles and become the speaker by choosing to respond. This requires another set of skills…
Once a speaker has said something, the listener then needs to have ideas about what it is they want to say in response. They then need to open up the filing cabinet to find the words they want to use.
The chosen words then need to be placed in the correct order (with the right grammatical structures and sounds) before attempting to say the words.
As you can see there’s a vast amount of activity going on during conversation. In addition to all the points covered above we are also using additional skills such as tone of voice, non-verbal language and social interaction to convey our meaning beyond the words we say.
Children do not develop these skills overnight, it takes time to practice and learn from others in order for them to become effective, confident communicators. Have a look at other areas of our website to find out more about typical speech and language development.
If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development please contact a Speech and Language Therapist.