Developing your baby’s language the right way

developing your baby's language the right way

How do we raise our totally dependent tiny treasure to be an independent child and eventually a functional adult?  We have a barrage of information out there bombarding us with the marketing of “educational” TV programs and apps and an assortment of advice from everyone who has a smartphone. Where to start?

As a Speech Language Pathologist, here is what you need to know:  Screens don’t teach language, even the educational apps and programs. 6 less words per hour are learnt on a screen than via a song/ book/story/human interaction.

You want to start with teaching words that will give your child power in their environment. Words that will help them make an impact on their world and feel good about accomplishing something, while building relationships with their family along with self esteem and independence.

This is called “Functional Language” because it performs a purpose; and believe it or not, it takes no extra effort. No app, no iPad, no DVD. These functional words are the ones that we use daily in our home, with our family and during our typical lives as parents. That is what makes them highly effective as “first words”.

Think about it, if a baby can say “mama”, they can say “more”. Oh, how rewarding for a baby (and a mommy) to be able to indicate or understand the need for more? More swinging, more food, more milk… once they catch on to the joys of communication it will not stop!

Shapes, colours, numbers, farm animals and sea animals will be appropriate for 3 to 4 year olds, but please don’t start with these words. Simply commentate the daily routine that is life, as you live it. Talk about family members, food, cleaning, cooking, bathing, changing nappies, making beds, folding laundry and going to the toilet. Name all the objects and the actions you come across, as you talk. Sing songs that match the activity you are busy with:

  • Polly put the kettle on
  • Oranges and lemons
  • 5 little monkeys
  • Mr Sun
  • Roll over
  • Patti-cake
  • Round the garden
  • This little piggy
  • Heads shoulders knees and toes

The shapes and colours and farm animals will come later, but at the age of 2, these words are not functional or useful for your child.  These words will steal the space for an empowering word that could be used everyday. Not only that, but the words that aren’t used frequently, everyday, like “purple” are forgotten easily.

Think about the low value in the word “circle” in comparison to the high value of the word “come” or “look”. The former elicits an impressed response from the listener, but it very likely will end there, because it means very little to a baby and has no purpose. Babies understand concrete objects that are linked to their basic wants and needs, 2D items like shapes have no bearing or importance for them at all.

The word “come” or “look” on the other hand, initiates an interaction and engages the listener and the baby in an activity they can share. This often ends up being a learning experience and simultaneously encourages the strengthening of a relationship. It fills a social need.

Furthermore, the baby will most likely say “look” or “come” again almost immediately, to repeat the lovely time they just experienced. It’s a cycle of comfort, joy and learning that keeps on giving.

Functional Language for a baby or toddler consists of objects and actions that he takes part in daily. Words about myself, my body, my family, my food, my garden and my home. This is primary vocabulary.


  • Mommy, daddy, dog, granny, brother, sister, cousin
  • More, done/finished
  • Milk, water, cold, hot, yummy, in, out, pour, shake, mix, cut
  • Food, eat, spoon, bottle, plate, bowl, cup.
  • Bum, nappy, wee, wet, clean, dirty, wipe, lie down, get up
  • Bath, in, out, wet, tap, cloth, hot, bubbles, wash, body parts
  • Grass, tree, sky, sand, sun, dark, light, on, off.

Functional Language for a 3-4 year old includes secondary vocabulary like playground words, school and shopping words, a wider knowledge of toys, animals, transport and food. Shapes and colors are included here.

Tertiary vocabulary for children 4-5 would include experiential words that don’t crop up everyday. These may be sea animals, higher level shapes and colours, city words, outing words, people’s jobs, restaurant words etc.

In short, creating a desire to communicate is so easy when you motivate your children to communicate using empowering, functional words. This builds a strong foundation for developing your child’s emotional intelligence, their ability to think intelligently, problem solve, and be a happy, social being. Don’t forget that it makes mommy’s life a little easier when your baby can tell you what they need.

Written by Joanne Ravell – Speech Language Pathologist (BCP – SLP) UKZN

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