Babies are naturally sociable. They are born with a preference for faces and can distinguish the human voice from other sounds. This provides a good basis for establishing strong communication from the start.

Talking and listening to children can create close, warm bonds. It helps them learn to express themselves by developing their vocabulary and their understanding of the patterns and rules of language and how people around them use it. Evidence shows that they discover for themselves how language works rather than hearing every word or sentence they will use.

Children learn to speak at different rates

Children are unique and their language will develop at different rates and will depend on many factors, including if they’re learning more than one language.

Talking often starts with babbling as babies experiment with the sounds they can make and, with the help of their carers, gradually begin to copy the familiar tunes of the language(s) they hear around them.

Eventually, they come to understand that certain sounds carry meaning and so, for example, begin to associate ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ with that person. The under-twos develop a growing vocabulary of words that represent people or things that are important to them and they’ll often surprise family members by what they can understand.

From about two years of age, as their vocabulary grows rapidly, young children often begin to speak in two-word phrases that help them express themselves more clearly. Checking that you understand what they mean will help them. For example, “All-gone milk” might mean “It’s gone” or “I want some more”.

The under-fives are learning the grammar of the language as well as expanding their vocabulary and sometimes get things wrong. If your child says in English “I sawed some cars” it’s because they’re learning the rules, but haven’t quite grasped them. That tells you that they’re making good progress. Rather than correct them explicitly, evidence shows that it can be better to model phrases back to children: “Oh you saw some cars did you?”

Learning the rhythm of speech

Talking and listening to children from the earliest stages will help their language development in every way, from knowing we take turns when we talk, to developing a growing vocabulary and working out the rules for the language(s) they’re learning to speak.

Besides developing language and communication skills, talking and listening to children helps them understand the world around them.

Special events like birthdays or family visits provide opportunities for different kinds of talk, but children’s everyday lives generally involve a great deal of repetition.

Having meals, getting dressed, going to nursery and bedtime routines give plenty of scope for talk by rehearsing familiar language and developing new forms of expression, which will help children to predict and have some control over their immediate environment.

Bilingual children

There’s evidence to show that being bilingual from a young age is an advantage and can result in better learning as well as social and educational benefits. Bilingual children develop a sensitivity to language and its uses, so you can help them later on by encouraging them to speak and respond in their different languages as soon as you can.

Research shows that encouraging young children’s bilingualism and supporting their developing language skills gives them a distinctive sense of identity and results in increased confidence in who they are.

Talk about what they did today

Just chatting about everyday events builds up shared meanings and offers plenty of scope for picking up on a child’s interests and concerns. With encouragement, but often unaided, the under-fives will have numerous questions to ask.

Talking about activities that you do together builds up shared meanings through real experiences. It gives a context for the child to interpret and understand what’s going on and helps them express their own thoughts and feelings. These conversations can lead to using language in more abstract ways by talking about past events and future plans, which is likely to help develop their thinking processes.

Tell stories together

Sharing stories – written, told or seen – is an enjoyable way of constructing meaning together by providing a joint focus. Looking at the pictures in a book helps children’s understanding and talking about the story helps make connections to their own lives or other stories they have seen or heard.

Puppets are a fun way to encourage speech by pretending to be different characters and can lead children to use language in imaginative and experimental ways.

Try making hand puppets out of an old sock. Use a toilet roll tube or a paper plate on a lolly stick. Your child can draw a face and stick wool or string for hair.

Listening to children, following their interests and concerns, answering questions and laughing at their jokes can be a rewarding way of supporting their development and is great fun too.