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Enhancing Language Development

Enhancing Language Development


The second year of the child’s life is so much fun -  his or her personality starts to really show and there is rapid language development.  Have no doubt that your interaction with your child can positively influence language development.

The 12 to 16 Month Stage

Many parents will express surprise, when their child begins to talk, at how much information they have taken in at this stage.  At between 12 and 14 months the child recognizes many words because they have been repeated a good deal, but will need many more repetitions in order to say them accurately. At about 14 months the child is likely to be using about 4 or 5 words.  Typically, he will use a lot of jargon interspersed with some words.

In the 12 – 16 month period, the child can attend to tasks of his own choice for short periods.  He can now look at a picture for a short time and link a name to the picture.  At this stage  the adult needs to follow the child’s gaze and talk about the focus of his attention.  The more that this is done at an early stage, the more the child will arrive at a situation in which an adult will be able to direct his attention, vital for all learning in school.  It is extremely important to appreciate that at this stage the child is incapable of directing his attention continuously to a focus chosen by the adult.  It is essential that the adult observe the direction of the baby’s gaze and talks about that focus as often as possible.  At about 16 months the child will look in the direction of an object and point it out to you.  

In summary, at the age of 16 months, your baby will usually

Use 6 – 8 recognizable words, although these will still be immaturely pronounced.

Take an interest in pretend play and in interactive play, such as putting blocks in and out of a bucket or posting boxes.

Look at familiar objects or people when he hears them named.

Look with interest at a picture book.  

It cannot be emphasized enough that following the child’s focus of attention is extremely important at this stage.  Dr. Sally Ward, in her Baby Talk book states that there is a great deal of research evidence which shows that the degree to which adult and baby share the same focus of attention, the wider his vocabulary and the more complex his sentences are later.

Include noisemakers in your child’s toys at this stage so that he can have fun listening to them.  Rhymes and action rhymes are excellent at this stage too.  

Use short simple sentences.  Also use lots of repetition so that your child gets to hear the same word lots of times and he will eventually use it.  Speak slightly slower and louder with lots of tune in your voice.  Still continue to repeat your baby’s sounds back to him.  

It is very important not to put your child under any pressure to speak.  He will use words when he is ready.  Do not ask your child to “say duck” or “say cat etc.”.   This may actually discourage him from talking.  Resist the temptation to ask the child “what is that? “.  The child knows that you already know the answer and are simply trying to get him to say the word.  This type of questioning inhibits a child’s communication.  

16 to 20 Months

Between 16 and 20 months there are rapid changes.  At this stage your child may have taken the big step of being able to follow little sentences containing two important words for example “your cup is on the table”.  He may also be able to respond to simple questions such as “where is Daddy?” by looking in the right direction.  The number of individual words he has will gradually increase.  Children who have a vocabulary of around 50 words at about 20 months will begin to put two words together.  They will also use a lot of single words throughout this stage.  Early sentences might be – “me book” (as in give me the book. Pronunciation is not fully developed at this stage, so usually only individuals familiar with the child will understand everything he says.

In summary, by the age of 20 months your baby is likely to

Copy little phrases like “here we go”

Point to another person’s or dolly’s hair, ears or shoes if asked.

Have a vocabulary of anything between 10 and 50 words.

Imitate two or three word sentences.

Understand the meaning of some words other than names, such as action words - eat, sleep, run etc.

Know what the words ‘you’ and ‘me’ mean.

The principles for the 14 – 16 month old stage still apply here.  The amount of time in which you and your child share the same focus of attention is of paramount importance for language development, and at this stage your child still needs to lead this focus for the great majority of the time. When playing with him allow him to be the leader.  Allow him to change his focus as much as he wants and just follow him as he plays. Remember that your child is likely to understand little sentences containing two important words so use lots and lots of sentences with two key words like “the bubbles are on the table”, “wash your handies” “Daddy has the ball” etc.”  Continue to use lots of repetition e.g. “there is your ball, it is a big ball, you like your ball”.  Your child is still building up a vocabulary so use lots and lots of words.  Listening is still all important so continue to use noisemakers such as musical instruments or containers which make different sounds when shaken.  Continue to tell or sing rhymes.  He will enjoy games where you make noise with a noisemaker and he tries to find it.

Always remember to respond positively to your child’s communication.  This encourages continued efforts at communication.  For instance if your child points and says “Ooh a cat” make sure you respond by saying “Yes, you saw a cat - mmn ,a big cat. Yes, I see the cat”.  This shows him you are interested in what he has noticed and also gives him the vocabulary to express himself in a more adult way later on.  As before, the golden rule with questions is - don’t ask the question unless you need to know the answer. So asking “what’s that?” will not add anything to the child’s knowledge if he knows the answer already, and if he does not it will make him feel uncomfortable.

Toys that are suitable between 12 to 20 months that encourage pretend play and investigative play.  Pretend play items in the earlier stages such as toy brush and comb and later on dustpan and brush; teddy, small dolls, doll’s buggy, doll’s bath etc. toy cars - all good pretend play items.  For investigative play, at the 12 to 16 month stage, pegs to hammer in, blocks, simple shape sorter, posting box to post objects and later, between 17 and 20 months very simple form boards/ jigsaws, again a pegboard with pegs at different heights, play dough and box for posting in objects.  At all stages books are important.  Choose books that have familiar everyday themes such as going to the park or eating breakfast etc.  Make sure they include actions such as eating, drinking, sleeping etc.  He will enjoy lots of repetition when you are describing these books.  

A word about television.  During this 2nd year you will find that there are many T.V. programs that appeal to the child.  Keep in mind that television is not an interactive activity.  Your child cannot learn how to communicate with others through the passive activity of watching T.V.  Choose programs carefully, and watch with him when you can comment on what is happening.  At this stage, T.V. should be limited to ½ hour a day.  

As recommended by Dr. Sally Ward, Speech and Language Therapist, a quiet time to play with your child each day for ½ an hour makes a huge difference to his language development at this stage.  This helps children to develop their listening skills and attention skills and it has been shown that this practice greatly increases children’s acquisition.

During all of this time books are extremely important.  Remember to keep at the child’s level and follow their focus of attention when they are looking at a book.  For instance early in the first year, the child may point and you may simply be naming the item or using a very short sentence such as “baby is eating”.  By the age of 2 years you may be using three short sentences.  “Birdie is flying.  Flying up high.  He is going fast”.

You really can make a tremendous difference to your child’s understanding and use of language in this 2nd year by taking the time to nurture language.  Language and intellect have a great interactional effect at this stage and this early attention to language really enhances a child’s later learning.  In all of this, one of the aims is for you to enjoy your child and for your child to enjoy spending time with you.

Celine Lenihan

Speech and Language Therapist

Clontarf Private Clinic

Howth Road

Dublin 3

Tel: 01 8533041