Prelinguistic skills, or pre-language skills, begin to develop as soon as your baby is born! This means that long before your baby says their first word, they are learning valuable non-verbal skills such as eye-contact, joint attention, motor imitation, facial expressions, gestures such as pointing, and more! Supporting these early skills is important, as your baby will rely on them as he or she learns to communicate with you. Identifying prelinguistic difficulties and targeting them early can prevent language delays and further difficulties in language development as your child reaches the expected age to begin using words.
A baby who does not look at their mother’s face and lips while listening to her speech will not receive enough input or opportunities to hear the language they need in order to attach meaning to auditory stimuli (speech sounds). As soon as a baby is born, they begin to watch their mother’s face, and recognize or differentiate it from others. It is important for a baby to make eye contact and spend time looking at their parents’ lips in order to gain information about oral motor movement and language.
Infants learn to discriminate the phonemes, or speech sounds of their mother’s language while still in the womb, and they continue to learn recognition of human voices and speech sounds as soon as they are born! It is important to talk to your baby as much as possible, as this will help them learn to filter out background noise and identify human voices!
A child who struggles with joint attention will also have fewer opportunities to learn basic concepts, vocabulary, and more. Engaging in joint attention is vital for your baby’s speech and language development, because joint attention is needed in order to learn new words and understand the social, reciprocal (back and forth) aspect of communication.
Smiling and Facial Expressions
Babies begin to smile around 6 weeks, and this influences a parent to increase and tailor their own communication in response. Smiling is an important prelinguistic skill, because it supports social interaction between a baby and parent long before the baby is ready for verbal interaction to occur.
At around 3 months, a baby will begin to show signs of excitement through movements and sounds in response to familiar situations. Gestures and facial expressions are an important part of a baby’s anticipation response, and forming routines will support your baby’s comprehension and understanding of gestures and facial expressions. Responding to a baby’s excitement and establishing consistent routines will support their understanding of gestures and facial expressions associated with them.
Turn-taking begins long before language development, in the form of silly sounds, exclamations, and actions! At first, it occurs when a parent interprets their baby’s noises and actions, and subsequently adds words and actions. Eventually, a baby will begin to play a more active role in turn-taking by copying actions, silly sounds, and eventually words!
Before a baby begins to imitate vocal sounds, they will often first imitate gestures and motor movements, such as clapping. Watching and copying general motor movements is a sign that your baby’s imitation skills are emerging! Motor imitation typically develops before 9 months of age.
Imitation initially includes copying playful vocal sounds (such as smacking lips or kisses) and exclamations (such as “Oh!” and copying facial expressions). This gradually develops into imitation of words and sentences. Children initially learn language by copying, and development of sound imitation skills sets children up for successful imitation of words.
As a baby begins to engage in more reciprocal (back and forth) interactions with their parent, they will begin to adjust their body orientation toward a speaker, and turn to listen and look at a speaker. This indicates an understanding that words (or focalization) have meaning!
Understanding cause-and-effect is an important cognitive skill for a baby to develop, because it helps a child begin to understand that their actions (and later their words) have an effect on the world around them.
By 12 months, a baby will begin directing and gaining their parent’s attention by touching or tapping, and pointing. This skill emerges from joint attention, and encourages increased parent-child interactions as the child points out preferred toys or events happening around them. Soon, words take the place of pointing at tapping.
Initiation occurs when a child initiates an interaction with others to get their needs met or to play. A child will deliberately attempt to gain attention rather than waiting passively for needs to be met. Initiation is the beginning of functional communication.
Eye gaze, facial expressions, pointing, gestures, head shaking, and nodding are all forms of non-verbal communication that continue throughout the lifetime! Before a baby is motorically ready to begin speaking words, they will learn to understand others and express themselves using nonverbal communication.
Common signs that your baby is having difficulties with developing prelinguistic skills may include:
- Increased behaviors and tantrums
- Becoming easily frustrated
- Difficulties playing with others
- Lack of reciprocation
- Lack of or difficulty with imitation