Early Communication Skills: What Comes Before Speech?

Is your child's speech and language normal?Every parent eagerly anticipates their child’s first words. However, as you’re sitting there awaiting that first “Mama”, phone in hand ready to record that milestone, you’re likely missing a huge array of communication behaviors that your child has picked up along the way. You may not know, but I did not speak until I was three years of age. While my grandmother (according to report) was very concerned, my mother was not. Probably because she tuned in to many of these communication behaviors and knew in her heart that I would speak when I was ready. And I did!

There are many factors that come into play long before your child ever utters their first word. This blog is designed to help you identify some of these behaviors. What are some of these precursors to language?

Eye Contact: One of the earliest communicative behaviors children engage in is eye contact. At first, babies focus on human eyes because they contain physical features that they are hardwired to focus on: contrasting dark and light colors and angles. As they develop, babies begin to focus on human faces less for physical features and more for communicative purposes. Eye contact shows that the child is recognizing another human being and open to engaging with them.

Joint Attention: Joint attention is when both the child and another person are paying attention to the same object or event. Parents try to establish joint attention with their child quite early. For example, a mother point to a dog and say, “Look at the puppy! He’s a fuzzy puppy!”. Soon, the child will begin to follow the mother’s point or visual gaze to also notice the object in question. Later on, the child will begin to initiate the joint attention. Often this involves looking or pointing at an object, looking at the parent, and then looking back at the object. This non-verbal action is a child’s early attempt at communication.

Gesture: Long before a child is able to use words to communicate, they will use gestures. When a child points to his favorite toy that’s out of his reach or signals with open hands that his snack is “all gone”, they are using pre-linguistic skills to make themselves understood. This is an early, basic example of a child’s understanding that he can communicate his thoughts and ideas to others. This basic understanding is the foundation for communication and language.

Want to learn more? If you have any questions or would like to know more about speech-language therapy, give me a call at (212) 308-7725 or send an e-mail to jayne@speechassociatesofny.com. I’d be happy to chat and answer any questions you may have.

© 2015, Speech Associates of New York – All Rights Reserved

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