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Though it may not always be readily apparent, a child’s language development is well underway long before they utter their first words. The fact that a baby’s brain is working hard to develop language skills long before they’re even crawling is testament to just how vital this skill is to human behavior.

From the moment they exit the womb, a baby’s brain is designed to pick out patterns in sounds, and so their brain is being wired for speech with every word they hear. Infants will start to coo and make noises at around 3 months of age. Babies as young as 4 months old can tell when a speaker switches languages just by watching the mouth. By 8 months, only babies in bilingual households have this ability, suggesting there is a window of opportunity in these early months during which infants are imprinted according to the sounds in their environment.

Even young infants can distinguish between fluent and disfluent speech, according to research out of Brown University. (Lite, 2011) For example, they can tell if a person is actually speaking or if they are simply making a bunch of disjointed sounds. This shows that infants possess a basic awareness of grammar and syntax.

By 5 months old, babies are already able to lip read in a primitive fashion, matching mouth movements to different vowels and sounds. (Kuhl & Meltzoff, 1982) You might notice your baby begin to look at your mouth as though you have something stuck in your teeth. This is also about the time your baby recognizes his or her name, and infants as young as 5 months old display the “cocktail party” effect, meaning they’ll perk up whenever they hear the sound of their own name, even if it’s in a room with competing conversations. (Cohley, 2010)

A comprehension of speech comes well before children verbalize it. By 6 months of age, infants on the verge of babbling already know the meaning of several common nouns for foods and body parts. A study of 33 infants aged 6 to 9 months and 50 kids ages 10 to 20 months sat kids on mom’s lap in front of an eye-tracking device. Even at 6 months, babies looked substantially longer at a picture of hair paired with a picture of a banana when mom said “Look at the hair,” compared with the time tykes spent looking at hair when mom said “Look at the banana.” Infants also homed in on the nose of a woman’s face when mothers asked, “Do you see the nose?” (Bower, 2012) Though mothers in the study generally didn’t realize their 6- to 9-month-olds were familiar with such words, babies show signs of recognizing mommy, daddy, and other frequently heard words.

Babies typically begin babbling at around 6 to 8 months. Babbling is a baby’s way of testing out language and mastering the tongue and mouth movements required to produce speech. When they start to do this, make sure you’re engaging in lots of back and forth exchanges with them,” and pay attention. People often talk at a baby without really listening, and often miss a child’s first words because they aren’t paying attention.

At about 7 months of age babies start to pay a lot more attention to specific words. By 8 months of age, studies have determined that babies can recognize specific words up to 2 weeks after hearing them in a book. By 12 months your baby should respond to simple requests and imitate simple sounds. They should also be able to recognize words for common items and be speaking one or two words themselves.

Baby’s first words

A baby’s first words typically come anywhere between the ages of 8 and 15 months, and girls begin talking an average of about one month earlier than boys. (Eliot, 2010) Of course, some parents swear their child says their first words even sooner, which is certainly possible. Of course, it’s also true that babies sometimes produce things that sound like words in their babble simply by chance.

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