I had a chance to interview Michelle MacRoy-Higgins, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Hunter College and practicing speech-language therapist, and Carlyn Kolker, a former reporter for Bloomberg News and Reuters. The two have co-authored Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development. It’s a smart and compassionate guide for parents on how children’s language emerges, including advice on how to recognize red flags.
What are the best steps parents can take to help their child learn to talk?
Talking, talking, and talking to your child. Academic research is clear that the best way to foster your child’s speech and language development is to be her partner in the developmental process. Turn off the TV and tablet and talk to your child. In the book, we give tips about the best way to talk with your child – for example, by encouraging her to tell stories and by modeling grammatically-appropriate speech.
You point out how talking is dependent on hearing, and that 2 of every 100 children experience hearing loss. How can you protect your child’s hearing?
Some babies are born with hearing loss, often from previously unknown genetic conditions. Others can develop it from exposure to loud noise or, occasionally, from infections stemming from viruses like measles or meningitis. Ear infections can also cause short-term hearing loss.
The best way to safeguard your child’s hearing is to make sure your child isn’t exposed to too much loud noise – such as from noisy toys. Make sure that if he suffers multiple ear infections that an audiologist or physician check his hearing.
At what age should a child’s talk become recognizable, and when should parents start to question if their child’s speech is delayed?
It takes time to master speech. It’s perfectly okay if only about half of what your 2 year old says is recognizable. But, by age 4, about 90 percent should be understandable to a teacher, friend or grandparent. Many kids struggle with particular letter sounds, such as “r,” “s,” “l” and “th,” and we recommend you look into addressing these articulation issues sometime in early elementary school, depending on the child and the severity of the issue.
Throughout the book, you’ve interspersed pointers in the form of “Common Questions, Expert Answers.” Can you share an example of one that most parents don’t realize?
A lot of parents say that their first child was a chatterbox, but her little brother is slow to talk. A scientifically researched trend shows that second, third and fourth-born (and so on) kids may talk later than their older brothers and sisters. And, toddler boys are shown to have smaller vocabularies as compared to same-aged girls in studies. I still encourage parents to see a speech-language therapist if they are concerned about their child’s communication development – especially if a child isn’t saying any words by about 16 months, or a 2 year old has fewer than 50 words.
You point out that bilingual children have improved problem-solving abilities and longer attention spans. At what age are children most primed to acquire an additional language?
The younger the better. Infants are primed to learn multiple languages, and even by age 1 they seem slightly less predisposed. We know that young kids experience a critical period in which they can best pick up another language, or learn two simultaneously. Some academic researchers say the window closes around age 6, and others say it can stay open until 10. But the take-away is clear for everyone: expose your child to a bilingual environment early if you can.
If parents notice any red flags in their child’s speech development, where should they turn?
For infants to age 3, the best place is your local community’s Zero to Three or Early Intervention program (these go by different names in different locations).
For children preschool age and older, the first and best place to turn is your public school system – even if your child isn’t enrolled. All school systems are required to provide a “free and appropriate education” for kids who meet a certain standard of delay.
If you can’t get the services you think you need for your child, don’t give up! Hospital and university clinics may offer speech, language and hearing services on a sliding scale.
Learn more at Time To Talk Book.