At one year old, most children are able to say one or two recognizable words. They then slowly add to their repertoire. Pronunciation is unlikely to be perfect until the age of five years or so, and some of the labels a child uses to name things may sound little like the adult words. From about 18 months of age, a child’s vocabulary starts to increase more quickly and he begins to put two words together, usually a verb and noun, such as ‘see ball’. A few children speak in complete sentences at this age but most take longer to achieve this. Some children speak hardly at all until they are more than two years of age and then immediately launch into sentences.
Children need frequent opportunities to listen to grown-up speech and to practise their own with a sympathetic listener. The normal development of a child’s speech depends on several factors. In the first place the sense of hearing must be intact. Second, the brain must be capable of processing the sounds and providing the correct information to the vocal system. Then of course the vocal system itself has to be in working order, the vocal cords, as well as the teeth, tongue and lips. There are also many emotional and environmental factors that influence the speed of a child’s speech development and the time it will start. While concentrating on learning to walk, for instance, a child may begin to talk only slowly – once walking is under control he will speed up talking.
A first child may get more attention from his parents and often learns to speak at a younger age than subsequent children. On the other hand, younger brothers or sisters may pick up words from their older siblings and be encouraged to start talking at an earlier age. On average, girls talk at an earlier age than boys. Speech is only the endpoint of speech development, which relies on hearing, understanding and deciding what to say as much as on vocalization. Even though a child’s speech may develop slowly, his comprehension of what he hears may be progressing well. Even when they are quite fluent, nearly all children take time to acquire correct grammar. They may have a “developmental’ stammer, because their ability to use words has not yet caught up with the ideas they want to express. Correcting their speech at this age can inhibit a child from talking and may even make stammering worse.