September 21, 2017
by Mary Pat

Should you take your baby to baby sign classes?

Baby sign? What’s the story? Should you be teaching your baby signs? Are you depriving your child of a boost to their development by not going to signing classes or at least watching some videos on Youtube? Full disclosure here: I’m not a fan of baby sign. Babies are born wired to communicate and acquire language. Signing just isn’t part of that development for typically developing babies. Sign language for hearing babies of deaf parents or deaf babies? Of course! Sign language is one of their languages. For hearing babies of deaf parents, the research shows that they’re exposed to a high frequency of signing in their language environment. As well as acquiring sign language, they also acquire spoken language earlier than usual ages and stages norms. But they’re acquiring languages not signing systems.


What about augmentative communication such as Lámh for children with learning disabilities to encourage communication? Absolutely. But Lámh is not a sign language like Irish Sign Language for instance. And its aim is to facilitate communication.  (You can read more about it here.)


Baby signing for boosting vocabulary, reading, intelligence, and language development? I’m sceptical. BUT I realised that my opposition to it was based on my experience as a speech and language therapist, lecturer, and a parent. But maybe I’m totally wrong here. So I decided to look at the research and see what it says.


First of all it’s important to distinguish between baby sign and natural gesture. What’s the difference and why does it matter?

For this post, I’m talking about signs which have been taken from sign languages which are actual languages like English is a language or French is a language. (There are about 5-600 known sign languages across the globe). In baby signing classes, babies are taught key word signing that they can use to communicate before they can speak using words. (They are making sounds from birth and babbling too before 1st words appear.)


Natural gesture on the other hand means things like pointing, reaching, grasping which are the first gestures that infants produce, usually at around 10 months of age. From a communication point of view these gestures function like statements:  I want that. There’s a toy. They also function like commands: Give me the spoon for example. These kinds of gestures foretell advances in language development and the development of gesture is linked to language development in the research.


At the end of their first year, symbolic gesturing begins to appear. This is where infants do things like hand movements that take on the form or function of the items like pretending to drink from a cup. Usually, they start using these gestures with the actual object in their hand and then gradually they do them in the absence of the actual object. Like hands together under one tilted cheek to indicate sleep or feeling tired.  First symbolic gestures are similar in content to their first words. These gestures tend to function as labels. Their spontaneous use of them varies according to their exposure to them. An Italian study found that Italian infants who tend to be raised in a gesture-rich environment produced more symbolic gestures than American infants who did more of the pointing, reaching, grasping type-gesture (technically called deictic (dike-tick) gestures).  Did the greater number of signs impact the Italian infants’ language development? No- when they had a gesture, they tended to use that and not the word. And their spoken vocabulary was significantly smaller that the American children. When gestures and words were combined in the analysis that difference disappeared.


Basically, there’s a lot of controversy about baby signing– mainly about the lack of hard evidence that it is baby signing that’s actually responsible for advances in speech, language, literacy, and IQ. Claims have also been made about its positive impact on self-esteem and feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. Heady claims for any parent to resist!


Research into the effect of baby signing on children’s development is still in its infancy and many of the studies are quite old. One 2005 Canadian study did a systematic review of the research and found 1208 published articles about sign between 1980 & 2003. They narrowed the review to 17 studies that fit their search criteria. They concluded that most of the 17 studies had serious problems with how the studies were conducted and that taken all together, they found little evidence that baby sign is ‘beneficial, harmful, or harmless’ (Johnson et al 2005: 245).


A more recent American study reviewed the evidence cited in 33 baby signing websites. They found that over 90% of the evidence used to support the use of baby sign consisted of opinion articles and product descriptions. Those reviewers (Nelson and colleagues in the list below) concluded that there simply wasn’t enough high quality evidence to draw research-based conclusions about whether baby sign actually facilitates child development.


I also read an  article published by the American Speech-Language & Hearing Association (ASHA) written by a speech-language pathologist (Brenda Seal) who is a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington- the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. She reports on a 2009 international conference in France, concluding that the children of middle class parents who were high performing were just as likely to show benefit with any gestural intervention. Interestingly, one paper presented at the conference found that bilingual babies reduced their talk time when signing was used. She also raises important issues about the accuracy of the signs- for example there’s an accuracy issue if you’re teaching your baby the sign while face to face. I have great trouble imitating in this way- I need to be behind the person modelling so that I get it right and it’s a similar issue for babies.  The chosen signs also need to be developmentally appropriate to the child’s motor development so there’s a lot of theory behind the selection of signs. Ultimately, she concludes that there’s very little empirical support for baby sign as a way to advance language, literacy, and intelligence. There isn’t enough research either to disentangle the signing from changes in the way parents interact verbally and non-verbally while signing. Basically, it hasn’t been shown yet that it’s the signing that’s responsible for any improvements in children’s development.


Brenda Seal has another paper from 2014 which investigated the vocabulary development of 8 infants exposed to baby sign between 9 & 18 months of age compared with 8 babies who had not been exposed to baby sign. The differences between the groups were not statistically significant. The results confirm previous research about the tight connection between gestural and vocal development. She calls for ‘temperance in claiming that baby signing facilitates early word learning and cautions against claims that baby signing interferes with word learning’ (Seal and DePaolis, 2014:445).


A UK study in 2012 attempted to address some of the weaknesses in previous studies. This study (Kirk and colleagues in the list below) is considered the first high quality longitudinal study to explore the impact of baby signing on child language development and mother-child interactions. What did they do? They had four groups of parents; 40 mother-child pairs in total. One group received training in symbolic gesture like I described above, one group in British Sign Language, one in Verbal Training and one group who received no training (the control group). They started when the babies were 8 months old and trained the parents to teach the children 10 gestures/signs/verbal labels. They went back when the babies were 12 months old and introduced another 10 signs. They tested the children’s understanding of language and their expression before introducing the signs and after (at 12, 16, and 20 months). They found no significant differences between the gesture and control group at any stage in the study. They claimed that there was no support for previous claims of the benefits of baby sign on language development. They did find that baby sign training did significantly increase the expressive communication of boys who began the study with low language ability. They concluded that signing may benefit children with low language ability and may enrich the language environment by improving mothers’ responsiveness to their babies’ non-verbal cues. So, baby signing may be beneficial to babies who’re at risk of language delay or disorder. They also found subtle but significant changes in the ways mothers and babies interacted with their babies. Mothers in the SG and BSL group became more responsive to their children’s non-verbal cues and encouraged more independent action by their infants. However, only 20 signs were taught and minimal training was given to the mothers. There are other issues with how the study was conducted (for example the families were middle class, educated, and didn’t know the purpose of the study and weren’t motivated to sign) but then all research has limitations….


So then Mueller, Sepulveda and Rodriguez in 2014 carried out a study involving nine families in Texas from a predominantly bilingual Latino community made up mainly of low socio-economic status (SES) families. That’s important because there is research to suggest that children from low income families are spoken to less and may be less likely to be exposed to richer and more abundant vocabulary and longer more complex sentences. These children may be at risk for developmental and educational problems. The children ranged in age from 6 months to 2 years 5 months. Eleven children participated in the study. The families participated in a baby signing course to which they had been invited. So the parents wanted to learn to sign unlike the Kirk et al. study. The researchers wanted to explore the effects of the baby signing training on the children’s communicative, cognitive, social, adaptive behaviour and physical development. (Adaptive behaviour has to do with getting along in your environment with the greatest success and the least conflict with others. Please forgive me the simplistic definition here- I know it’s more complex that that!) They also wanted to improve on the 2013 study described above. They tested the children before and after a five weeks long baby sign course. Each workshop was 2 hours in length and took place once a week. Parents learned nearly 200 signs over the 5 weeks. And they learned ways to implement baby signs at home with their children. Their data suggested that the baby sign training had a significant, positive impact on the overall development of the children. They support the use of baby sign (Don’t get too excited yet- keep reading!).


The way they conducted the workshops was very different from the Kirk et al study in terms of the amount and intensity of the training and participants were motivated to sign with their children from the get go. A word of caution though: 11 children is a small number of participants and they didn’t have a control group who did not receive baby sign training. That means that makes it impossible to attribute the improvements in child development to the baby sign training alone. They could have just matured naturally over time. They conclude that a ‘clear pattern of the relationship between baby sign training and developmental progression is difficult to present’ (Mueller et al 2013: 1189). The two studies do have one finding in common: a significant increase in the language scores for those children who began the study with the weakest language ability.


One last study! This is from the UK and it looked at whether baby sign classes affected parents’ frustration and stress. There were 178 mother-infant pairs in the study divided into 2 groups: gesture and non-gesture. Gesturing mothers were found to have higher total stress scores despite having similar backgrounds to the non-gesturing mothers. They found no relationship between the frequency or duration of gesture use and stress scores i.e. baby sign training didn’t not reduce the mothers’ stress. The gesturing mothers were considered to have higher stress levels before the training which led them to baby sign classes because of the benefits claimed in promotional materials. They also suggest that attending the classes may raise mothers’ expectations about their children’s functioning. In turn, if the children don’t perform according to expectations raised by the promises of baby sign, this may negatively influence the mothers’ perceptions of their infants. A word of caution again- the numbers are small and not representative of all mothers and they didn’t take baseline measures of maternal stress before they had attended the classes.


So what’s the bottom line? Why should a child’s language development need intervention in the absence of an identified delay? At the moment- there’s no good reason to take your baby to baby sign classes. The current evidence suggests that for middle class families with time and resources, signing just isn’t necessary. So there’s no need to feel guilty if you didn’t sign up for classes. If you are going to signing classes, it’s good to know what the current research says so you’re making an informed decision. And of course your own experience may contradict the findings I reported here. There are other ways to enhance your child’s language environment and your interactions with them. And I’ll tell you all about them in my next post. So be sure to sign up for email updates if you haven’t already. I’ll also be posting about how to handle frustration in young children soon so keep an eye out for that too.


If you’d like even more resources to build your child’s language in fun, natural ways using what you already have around you, be sure and visit the Talk Nua Shop here.


Let’s get talking! MP

Here’s what I read so you won’t have to:

  1. Iverson, J., Capirci, O., Volterra, V., & Goldin Meadow, S. (2008). Learning to talk in a gesture-rich world. Early communication in Italian vs American children. First Language 28(2): 164-181.
  2. Johnston, J., Durieux-Smith, A., & and Bloom, K. (2005). Teaching gestural signs to infants to advance child development: A review of the evidence. First Language 25 (2): 235-251.
  3. Nelson, L., White, K., & Grewe, J. (2012). Evidence for website claims about the benefits of teaching sign language to infants and toddlers with normal hearing. Infant and Child Development 21: 474-502.
  4. Brenda Seal (2010) About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader Volume 15
  5. Seal, B. & De Paolis, R. (2014). Manual activity and onset of first words in babies exposed and not exposed to baby signing. Sign Language Studies 14(4):444-465.
  6. Kirk, E., Howlett, N., Pine, K. J., & Fletcher, B. C. (2012). To sign or not to sign? The impact of encouraging infants to gesture on infant language and maternal mind-mindedness. Child Development, 84(2), 574-590.
  7. Mueller, V., Sepulveda, A., & Rodriguez, S. (2014). The effects of baby sign training on child development. Early Child Development & Care 184 (*): 1178-1191.
  8. Howlett, N., Kirk, E., & Pine, K. J. (2011). Does ‘wanting the best’ create more stress? The link between baby sign classes and maternal anxiety. Infant and Child Development 20: 437-445.



August 23, 2017
by Mary Pat

12 Ways to Make Going to Pre-School or School a Little Easier

So it’s time to be getting ready for pre-school or school and not everybody is looking forward to it! Here are 14 ideas for making the transition a little easier for our children. I’m reading Deborah MacNamara’s book Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One) which I love for its focus on relationships rather than behaviour. It’s all about attachment, interaction, and relationships- these are primary. So going to pre-school or school, whether it’s for the first time or returning after school holidays is a separation. And we’re creatures of attachment; not separation. Being at school is long separation for small children. Young children are primarily emotional until age 5 at the very earliest. Before age 5, they can only feel one thing at a time which is why they can go from rage to tears to smiles in a startling way-startling to us at least! It’s between the ages of 5 and 7 that they can experience mixed feelings like looking forward to going back to school and a little worried about what it will be like. Or excited to go to a birthday party and nervous about not knowing anyone there. Or feeling like saying sorry and not feeling like saying it at the same time.


Our children need us to fill up their attachment buckets until they’re full. Then they can rest secure in the connection with us and make their way out into the world. They can’t become independent without first experiencing dependence and feeling that it’s safe to depend; knowing that we’re there for them and that we’re up to the job of taking care of them.


One thing our children need to experience in their attachment journey is keeping their parents close while we’re apart from them. And it’s our responsibility to set that up for the. Reason won’t work so saying this like it’s only a half day, or you’re a big girl now or  you have to go to school won’t help. Those kinds of statements appeal to reason and children are not reasonable! Ignoring what we see as clinginess won’t make it go away. What will help ease the separation and allow our children to hold us close when we’re apart? Nothing fancy really and much depends on your individual child- you’ll know best what will work for them. What we need to focus on is ‘when we meet again’ part of the situation and not so much on the saying good bye. There’s a lot we can do to help them make the transition from home to school. Here are 13 ideas for you to try.

#1 First thing in the morning

Sleep is a separation and when our children wake up they have been separated from us for several hours. (I know, I know, It doesn’t make sense-it’s not supposed to! It’s emotion, not reason!) Then there’s only a small amount of time before they’ll be separating from us again to be in school all day. Small actions make all the difference and needn’t take long.

So I noticed when my little girl was 4, that she protested when I went in the shower- every morning! I made one small change which made a huge difference to the quality of our morning. I set my alarm for about 15 minutes earlier than usual and woke her up to snuggle and cuddle first, letting her know how delighted I was to see her. (I have to admit it nearly killed me to wake her up but it was worth it!) While we were snuggling, I put the focus on looking forward to having breakfast together after my shower and it has worked a treat (most days!). Now that she’s older, I still get in beside her in the morning before she wakes up. She’s not a morning person so it’s a much nicer start to the day than repeating ‘It’s time to get up!’  followed by fraying tempers!


#2 When it’s time to say goodbye at preschool, school, or childcare

Keep your words focused on the meeting again part of the relationship rather than on the good-bye. Let them know how much you’re looking forward to seeing them later. You can talk about something you’re planning to do together later like reading a story at bedtime  or drawing a picture or watching Charlie and Lola or Angelina Ballerina – the current obsession in our house! This helps them hold on to you and puts the focus on the return rather than the separation. Au revoir as opposed to adieu.


#3 Give them something of yours to hold onto

This doesn’t have to be anything fancy either.

  1. It could be a note in their lunch box. A Post-It will do. I used to do  fancy kirigami (paper cutting) ones from a kit I had and it was great to focus on I wonder what kind of note you’ll find in your lunch box today. And it never really mattered what was in them really. It was usually things like Lots of hugs and kisses or Whose my girl? or Can’t wait to see you later.
  2. Or it could be a locket with a photo of a parent.
  3. Of a scarf of yours to wear. Connecting through the senses is one of the first ways our children attach to us so a scarf will smell of you.
  4. Or how about wearing your perfume?
  5. Or giving them a pencil that you really like to have in their pencil case.
  6. Or a little torch attached to school trousers.
  7. I used to make origami hearts – one for me and one for my little girl. She kept hers in the pocket of her uniform and knew that when she held it, I was thinking of her.
  8. Another mother I know told her little girl that if she blew a kiss to her mummy, it travelled all the way to their house and her mum would feel the kiss.

#4 Make these books your bedtime stories

There are two wonderful books that reassure children that the relationship is forever, no matter what. One is “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst. It talks about the heart connection we all hold with those we love, even when we can’t be with them physically. And another great one is Debi Gliori’s “No Matter What” which reassures the child that the relationship with the parent is safe, no matter what.

#5 Make time for a parting hug and kiss

This is another way for our children to hold us close while apart. Older children might resist in front of their peers. In that case, a loving touch on the arm, a look of delight on your face, or a smile will do. It’s so easy to forget our attachment manners in the rush to the bus or the car but this is totally worth doing. Do if for yourself if nothing else- it’s heart warming and a precious moment in our day.

I’d love to hear what you tried out and how it went so please comment below. I’d also be really delighted if you passed this post onto a friend that might be interested. If you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for more speech, language, communication, and connection tips at the top of the post (on the right).

And if you’d like more resources, just visit the Talk Nua Shop here.


Let’s get talking!



July 31, 2017
by Mary Pat

The neglected words in your child’s early vocabulary

In my last post you learned a simple but effective way to build your child’s early noun vocabulary. If you didn’t get to read that post, you can read it here

Nouns seem to have a special place in early vocabulary, although not in every language. There’s research showing that in some languages like Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, children might learn verbs earlier or at the same time with no special place for nouns in particular. There’s other research that shows the opposite. Why? Generally it has to do with how studies are conducted, what’s focused on, and what is not. But keeping things simple for the moment, let’s have a look at what children’s first words tend to be. First words tend to be concrete, object names. Nouns.

Things like:

Sound effects and animal sounds like baa or moo

Animal names whether it’s a toy or a real animal like doggie, cat

Vehicles (real or toy) like bus or car

Food and drink words like apple, boob

Clothes words like bib, shoe, sock

Body parts like knee, tooth

Furniture and rooms like table, window

Small household items like blankie or bottle

Outside things and places to go words like outside, sky, swing, shop

People words like Mama, Papa

Games and routines like bath, nap, wait

Action words like open, read, push

But some of the nouns in your child’s first 50 words are also a little less obvious than the names for concrete objects. Things like some body parts, actions (verbs), and places (prepositions). And lots more of course. My little girl’s first words were kiss and tickle– so cute to see her understand them and begin to use them! Children generally say their first real words from anywhere between 8 and 15 months depending on what book or article you read.


But what’s a real first word? It doesn’t necessarily sound like you’d say it yourself. It’s when your child uses the same sequence of sounds to refer to the same object every time. So initially, they might say boo for spoon every time. At about 18 months, you can expect to understand about 25% of what your child says. By 24 months, you should be able to understand about 50-75% of what they say. (If you’re worried that your child might have a speech problem, read this post ).


Learning the names of objects first paves the way your child to learn other, more abstract kinds of nouns. And it gives them a framework for learning action words or verbs. If you know ball and girl then it’s easier to understand and learn kick when you see a girl kicking a ball. Communicating with your child using a diverse range of nouns is a strong predictor of later vocabulary development- diversity matters a lot. It’s all about quality and not necessarily quantity.  Vocabulary and receptive vocabulary in particular (understanding words) are frequently adopted as indicators of language ability and school outcomes. Vocabulary is also important for learning to read and write.


By age 2, young children are expected to be saying verbs. What are early verbs? Things like bite, blow, break, bring, bump, clean, close, cry, dance, draw, drink, drive, eat, fall, feed, finish, get, give, go, help, hit, hug, hurry, jump, kick, kiss, look, love, open, play, pull, push, put, read, ride, run, say, see, show, sing, sleep, smile, splash, stop, swim, swing, take, throw, tickle, touch, watch, walk, wash, wipe, write. 


Verbs are important because every sentence has one. When children start to learn verbs, then they can start to combine words into phrases and eventually sentences. One study from 2016 found that typically developing 24 month olds used approximately 50 different verbs, learning approximately 8 new verbs per month. The single best predictor of later grammatical development was verb diversity in spontaneous speech. What does that mean exactly? It means that 2 year olds who were using a range of different verbs, had more advanced grammatical skills at 2 and ½.


Another study from 2017 also stresses the importance of diversity in parents’ language input with their children. By age 2 & ½ diversity of verb input becomes more important for future vocabulary development than the amount of verbs. Quality matters. In this 2017 study, they found 216 different verbs produced by 20 parents with 32 verbs used by more than half the parents. Nine verbs were produced by all parents. What were they? Do, get, go, have, look, play, put, see, want. Other common verbs used by more than 50% of the parents were: know, think, like, eat, feed, cook, fit (like in a puzzle), blow, open.


Verbs are learned later than nouns and make up a smaller percentage of early vocabulary most likely because they involve more complicated concepts than nouns. Remember for nouns, you need to say the name of the thing while your child is looking at it. Early nouns are concrete; they’re things and they stay still (by and large!). Verbs are another story! Verbs are about events (Mary built a beautiful house) and states (conditions or situations: You are good). (Any linguists reading, please forgive my oversimplification here!) And learning the meaning of a verb involves learning what words go before and after it in order to communicate exactly what you mean.


What does this mean for you and your child? It means that it’s important to focus on verbs as well as nouns when having conversations with them. And verbs that have specific meaning. General all-purpose verbs are ones like go but walk, run and step are more meaning specific and better for language development.  Play is general but bounce, lift, toss are meaning specific. Cook is general but stir, fry, and bake are more specific. Exposing your child to more meaning specific verbs provides critical opportunities for them to increase their verb vocabulary. Parents using a diverse range of verbs with more of these specific verbs appears to be a crucial factor for enhancing toddlers’ verb acquisition between the ages of 1 year 9 months and 2 years 3 months.


What can you expect at different ages? These are very loose guidelines as early child language development is highly variable. Why so? Because there are several influencing factors that vary from context to context. These factors include children’s early experiences, their exposure to and usage of their language(s), active participation in interactions with adults, the language of their preschool teachers or carers, parental levels of education so it’s best not to get too attached to ages and stages.


By 24 months your child should be using at least a few verbs. Many children can say 40 verbs by this age. A child with 3-4 verbs at this age would be considered to be at the low end of the average range. Not a problem as long as they continue to learn several new verbs every month for the next 6 months. Children who have no verbs at 24 months and who don’t speed up the rate at which they learn new verbs in the 6 months between 24 and 30 months may be at risk for language development problems.


How can you develop your child’s verb vocabulary then?

#1 Make a list of current verbs they do understand and use. Nothing fancy required here, only a pen and paper. If you can divide the list into verbs they understand and verbs they use, that’s very helpful because understanding generally comes first. How will you know they understand the verb? I remember one day when my little girl was 12 months old and sitting on my lap. I was talking to my niece about her and words she understood. I said something like ‘She definitely knows kiss’ and immediately she sat up and pursed her lips for a kiss- so cute! That’s comprehension! She wasn’t saying it yet though. Another example- I remember a friend’s little girl putting turf into a basket next to the fireplace when I asked her to. You can track progress by noticing which verbs they start to say as time goes on. And you want to see new verbs being learned each month.


#2 When you’re having a conversation with your child, be sure to include meaning specific action words to describe what they’re doing or when something happens like The spoon fell down. Lovely opportunities for meaning-specific verbs abound in their daily routines. For example a trip on the bus can include verbs like get on, get off, step up, step down, pay, wave, look, see, hear, stand, sit and so on. Bath time will involve verbs like splash, pour, spill, dry, wipe , rub, shake, wash, wet and so on. Playing with bricks: build, knock, fall, topple, push, wobble.


#3 Use simple complete sentences when you’re focusing on verbs as you give them lots of opportunities to detect and learn to use the grammar of their language. Again, there are lots of opportunities in your child’s everyday life to do this. If we think about play scenarios, you could say things like The farmer is driving the truck. He likes to drive. He goes to the fields. In short, talk about the toys, give the toys their names, and try to do the action while you say the verb.


#4 Be grammatical– this follows on from # 3 but ask yourself would your words sound okay to other adults in very informal situations? If your answer is no, then revise. You can keep your language simple and still be grammatical.


What were your child’s first words? Be sure and let me know in the comments below! If you like this post, please pass it onto your friends and if you haven’t already, be sure to sign up to get posts delivered directly to your inbox.

Let’s get talking !


Inspired by:

Saxton. M. (2010) Child Language Acquisition and Development. London: Sage.

Fenson, L., Marchman, V. A., Thal, D. J., Dale, P.S., Reznick, J. S., & Bates, E. (2007). MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI): Words and Gestures. Brookes Publishing: Baltimore, MD.

Hadley, P. A., Rispoli, M., & Hsu, N. (2016). Toddlers’ Verb Lexicon Diversity and Grammatical Outcomes. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 47, 44–58.

Hadley, P.A. & Walsh, K.M. (2014). Toy talk: simple strategies to create richer grammatical input. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools,  45, 159-172.

Hsu, N., Hadley, P. A., and Rispoli, M. (2017). Diversity matters: parent input predicts toddler verb production. Journal of Child Language 44: 63-86.

Bredin-Oja, S. & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 15-26.

Wordbank: An open data base of children’s vocabulary development


July 13, 2017
by Mary Pat

Two small but powerful words that affect your child’s language development

So your child has started talking and you find yourself saying ‘What’s that?’ A lot. Sometimes you get an answer, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you child looks at you with a puzzled expression on their face. To find out why this isn’t the best way to build your child’s language or have a conversation with them, try this quick experiment.

What’s that?

What’s that?

What’s that?

Last one! What’s that?

So I’m hoping you had some trouble naming the things in the pictures precisely using one word! That’s what it’s like for children when we say ‘What’s that?‘ It tests their knowledge. It can feel confusing and uncomfortable. Like we know an answer is required but we can’t answer. And we’re not sure which bit of the picture are we supposed to have a name for.


That’s the problem with that innocent-sounding question ‘What’s that?‘ It’s not a genuine question because for a question to be really authentic, we’re not supposed to know the answer! Otherwise, what’s the point in asking? It doesn’t help language development either because it’s testing not teaching. And it kills conversation. When you ask this question, it’s probably not clear to your child what exactly you’re talking about. Think of the last picture- was it the honeycomb or that wooden thing that you tried to name? You knew it had something to do with honey but what exactly is it called?


So, what’s a more helpful thing to say? Let’s look at those pictures again but this time, I’m saying what the thing in the picture is and not asking you ‘What’s that?’

It’s a gong from a Buddhist temple.

It’s a partial solar eclipse.


It’s the roof of a Buddhist monastery.

It’s a honey dipper.

So instead of a question that tests your child’s knowledge and stops conversation, try a comment where you name what your child is looking at.

Instead of ‘What’s that?’ Try ‘Hello birdie’. or ‘ It’s a cloud.

For learning nouns or the names of things, this is the best way to build your child’s noun vocabulary. You need what’s called joint attention where your saying the name of the object follows your child’s focus on the object. Like in this photo where the father and little girl are both looking in the same direction and pointing together:

He might be saying something like: big cloud or fluffy cloud. They’re also at the same level physically. Why’s that important? Find out why in my last post here.


It doesn’t work when we draw their attention to something that we’re looking at and they aren’t. See in the next photo how she’s pointing and looking at something while the boy’s attention and focus is elsewhere? That’s how not to do it.

So there you have it! To build noun vocabulary, you need to be looking at the same thing together. Then you say the name of the thing- that’s your turn. One way children develop language is through imitating what they hear around them so instead of testing them, you can ‘teach’ them the words instead. Turn your questions into comments!

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends. If you haven’t already, be sure and sign up for speech, language, and communication tips direct to your inbox every fortnight.

Let’s get talking!


June 29, 2017
by Mary Pat

It’s all in your eyes….

There are two small tweaks you can easily make which will have a big impact on your communication with your child. It will boost their language development. And it’ll help them calm down when they’re upset or angry. They’re so simple but so powerful. For language development and communication, all you do is make sure you are face to face with them. So you hunker down or squat so that you’re at their eye level. When they’re upset, you need to be below their eye level. For what this might look like, have a look at Talk Nua’s Facebook page here.

‘That’s all’, you ask? Yes, but it’s really powerful! How so? Read on to find out!

2 reasons why being face to face is good to do:

# 1 It helps language development

Children learn to take turns very early on- when they’re feeding. So while they’re feeding all is generally quiet; we tend not to talk while they’re feeding. And all that lovely eye contact starts there too. Then, when they stop feeding, we start to talk to them; we take our turn. When our children are babies, there’s a lot of face to face interaction. We pick them up and wiggle them to make them laugh; all the while looking at each other. They laugh and we respond by wiggling them again. But gradually as they get older, we tend to forget to be face to face. We may take the lead more often than not by asking questions or trying to get them to perform in some way. ‘Say ball’ and so on.

One of the best ways to help their language along is by giving them opportunities to start the conversation. And that starts by being face to face and waiting. Following what they’re interested in makes them want to interact with you more and it lets you get to know them better. That goes for adults too I think! We like it when the person we’re talking to shows interest in what we’re talking about rather than them trying to steer the conversation to what they want to talk about. Being face to face is the first step towards more connection in interaction and one of the key strategies in the Hanen It Takes Two to Talk programme. That programme is for children whose speech and language are not developing as expected but it’s a good principle for interacting with any small child.

If we use too many questions or direct the conversation too much, then they’re missing out on opportunities to practice the new words they’re learning. They learn words better if we comment on what they’re interested in rather than trying to draw their attention to something else. They need experience of both initiating and responding in conversation. When we’re face to face, it’s easier to hear each other and they get to see our facial expressions more clearly. And we can read their expressions better too.

#2 It helps regulate them when emotions are running high

So let’s say your child has done something that frustrates or annoys you. It’s written all over your face, your body language, your tone of voice– you’re fuming. And they know it. When emotions get high like this, it triggers what Daniel Siegel and Tanya Payne Bryson call the downstairs brain. They feel threatened which sets off a fight, flight, freeze, or faint reaction. They can’t think straight. This is not a teachable moment and no problem solving is possible. When you hunker down and put yourself below their eye level, their brain stops perceiving you as a threat and their physiology calms down. Then their upstairs brain can engage and they can handle themselves better. For this type of situation, you need to be below eye level not at eye level. Now you’re the opposite of threatening. Depending on the situation, this might mean sitting on a chair, lying on the bed or floor. Your body needs to be relaxed with open posture too so the message you’re sending is I’m here for you. I’ll help you.


If you do this regularly, you will see a difference- you can’t help but connect more with them when you are face to face.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Be sure and leave a comment below to let me know how you got on when you tried being face to face or below eye level.

Let’s get talking!



June 15, 2017
by Mary Pat

What not to say to your kids about money

Money doesn’t grow on trees

I’m not made of money

It’s too expensive

We can’t afford it

Money is the root of all evil

Just enough to make ends meet


These are the messages about money that I remember from my childhood. Not very helpful for learning how to manage money! We also got pocket money but didn’t have to do anything to earn it- another poor money lesson. There’s no such thing as money for nothing!! I did learn some good habits too, to be fair, like saving– remember Henry Hippo from the Ulster bank? And always living within my means. I love stationery and once on holidays in Dublin, I came across this pink, perfumed diary with a lock that I just had to have! I’d spent all my money already though and went pleading to my father. I’ll always remember him saying ‘You have to learn to live within your means’. I probably remember it because he still bought me the diary! But the lesson stuck.


I want to do things differently for my little girl. Last year I came across the wonderful Ann Wilson a.k.a. The Wealth Chef. Her book of the same name is really effective for changing your money habits. What about your children though? She recently did a video about this on Facebook (you can watch the whole thing here ). I started putting her suggestions into practice and it’s been really interesting! So first of all, I decided on an amount of ‘pocket money’ per week. I had no clue really so I just went with what I felt was a reasonable amount for a 6 year old so it’s €5 a week. Then myself and my little girl did a list of jobs that she would do in order to earn the money and we taped it to the door of the living room. What kind of jobs? This really depends on your situation. So for us at the moment, it’s things like having her school bag all packed and ready each morning, tidying up all her toys each evening, putting clothes in the washing machine, making cards for me to send to people, and so on. The basic idea is that money is an exchange of value so the value in making the cards is that I don’t have to go and buy them and people like them. It can be kind of hard to come up with jobs that are worth paying for as opposed to things she needs to do without expecting money. Like homework for instance. But we had great chats about what jobs to put on the list. And it’s interesting to see what motivates her and what doesn’t. She did try to get me to pay her for hugs!


Then Ann Wilson suggests the following spending plan. I like her idea of spending plan rather than budget. It feels more abundant to me. So, starting at age 3 and up to age 5, she suggests 3 pots: Spend, Save, and Share. You give your child the money they’ve earned in the following proportions: 50% Spend, 40% Save, and 10% Share. So Spend is easy. This is money to spend when you get it. Save is the money they save in order to buy something like a doll or a tutu or whatever takes their fancy!  And Share is money that they use to give to charity or maybe buy a present for someone they love. The idea of the Save pot is to teach them how to set a goal, take the steps needed to reach the goal, and to wait. Depending on what they want to save for, you can offer to go 50/50 with them so they don’t have to wait for months!


They learn so much by doing this. They’ll learn the different coins, the amounts they stand for, cent vs euros/dollars, numbers, and the concept of quantity and value. Goal setting. Patience. What they’re prepared to do to achieve their goal.


For 6 – 9 year olds, you add an extra pot Grow. This pot is like investing and you agree to pay them interest for the money they put in here. I give my little girl 10% interest at the end of the year. The money for this age range is divided up as follows:  50% Spend, 20% Save, 20% Grow, and 10% Share. For children in this age range they can set short term or long term savings goals- it’s up to them to decide. You use actual pots- here are ours: nothing fancy, you just want to get started. It’s good too if you can have the pot match in size the % of the whole amount that goes into it as a visual reminder. But don’t stress about that- getting it up and running is the most important thing.


So at the moment, my little girl is choosing to combine her Spend and Save so she can buy Barbie Fashionista dolls. The first thing she wanted to buy was a Barbie Pet Mobile that was going to take about 8 weeks to wait for even with a cash injection from me and her granny! We marked out the Saturdays (pay day!) on the calendar and she had no problem waiting. She has started to get more impatient since though! But we still have great conversations about what she wants to aim for, how much it costs, how long it will take, is she prepared to wait that long, is it worth it? We’ve also had great chats about the marketing strategy of scarcity and how your brain can trick you into impulse buying if you think things are running out. And how shops are trying to get you to part with your money. And the difference between wants and needs.


When they go to spend the money too, encourage them to do the transaction, get the receipt, and make sure the change is correct. All highly useful skills to learn for life.


For older children then, (age 10-12 -although you could do a version of this with 6-9 year olds), Ann Wilson suggests that 4 times per year, you sit down and talk about what they need in terms of clothes and shoes for the following 3-4 months. You set the amount and you plan the spend together. You give them the money and if they come in under budget, they get to keep what’s left over.


Finally, for the 10-12 year olds, you add another pot for Joy or Playing or whatever they want to call it. This is money you spend on things or experiences that really bring you joy. Does this bring me joy? is a question from Marie Kondo’s book about decluttering and is really useful for life in general. The pots for 10-12 year olds are as follows:  10% Joy, 50% Spend, 20% Growth and 10% Share.


When you talk about money in this way, it takes the emotion out of it and makes it more neutral. You’ll be amazed at how your child gets the hang of the system and it’s so interesting to watch them take it all in and make their own decisions. She also suggests that you divide up any money they get as presents into the pots too. I haven’t done this yet- I save any money she gets as a present but I’m working my way towards being able to let go!!


This website A Mighty Girl has useful resources for teaching children about money. You can find it here.


One last thing- you’re going to the shop and your child asks you to buy them something. You say No and they say Why? Answer with That’s not how I want to spend my money today.  So they’re hearing a model of conscious directing of your money rather than messages of lack.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends!

Let’s get talking!




May 15, 2017
by Mary Pat

Will speaking more than one language put your child at risk of stuttering?

In my last post you found out all about stuttering in pre-school children in general. What does it sound like? When does it start? What are the risk factors? And most importantly, what you can do when your pre-schooler starts to stutter. You can read it here. The 10 Dos and Don’ts in the post apply to everyone.


This week’s post is about stuttering when your child speaks more than one language. This is a complex topic! Stuttering is an intricate problem to understand and treat no matter how many languages you speak. The research is very limited. It’s hard to find definite answers for families who speak more than one language.

Speaking more than one language and the risk of stuttering is still being debated in the research. No studies in the last 16 years have actually focused on the frequency of stuttering in non-Western cultures and it’s not clear why. There’s been little progress in the research about stuttering and speaking more than one language. Right now, in the existing research, there isn’t even basic evidence to support or contradict a claim that speaking more than one language puts your child at risk for a stutter. Remember that fact if a health care professional tells you otherwise. The evidence either way just isn’t there yet.  (I’ve put the research I read at the end of the post for you) There’s no justifiable reason for suggesting that a child who begins to stutter should drop a language. Language is for communication, emotion, family, and relationships. And dropping a language is not the answer.

The Stuttering Foundation (a U.S.-based not-for-profit organisation) says that no evidence has been found to suggest that speaking two languages in the home since birth causes stuttering. Colin Baker (a well-respected author on bilingualism) says the same thing. The Stuttering Foundation also says that there’s no indication that teaching your child a third (or 4th etc.) language causes stuttering. Additional languages are often introduced around age four, which can be a critical age for both language-learning and stuttering. Now they also say that if you notice that your child’s language isn’t developing as expected or you notice the beginning signs of stuttering, you do need to see a speech and language therapist. They mention holding off on the introduction of an additional language in these case until after age 6. But if your child needs 2 or more languages to communicate, then holding off may not be an option.


People who speak more than one language and stutter, including pre-schoolers, tend to stutter in both of their languages. Stuttering might happen a little more in the less-developed language. As competence in the less developed language increases, stuttering usually disappears.


So in the face of all this mixed information, what should you do? I think it’s a good idea to consult a speech and language therapist who specialises in stuttering. Find out what are their approaches to treating young children who stutter. If they tell you to drop a language that your child needs to function in their home, school, or community, don’t do it. While you’re waiting for an appointment, use the 10 Dos and Don’ts in my last post which you can read here.


If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Let’s get talking!


What I read:

Multilingual Aspects of Fluency Disorders (2011) edited by Howell and van Borsell.

National Stuttering Foundation

Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism

Practical Intervention for Early Childhood Stammering: Palin PCI Approach by Elaine Kelman and Alison Nicholas

Yairi, E. & Ambrose, N. (2013) Epidemiology of stuttering: 21st century advances. Journal of Fluency Disorders 38(2): 66-87.

Description of multilingual participants who stutter by Geoffrey A. Coalson∗, Elizabeth D. Pena˜ 1, Courtney T. Byrd2 Journal of Fluency Disorders 2013 38:141-156.

Vonga, E.,Wilson, L. & Lincoln, M. (2016). The Lidcombe Program of early stuttering intervention for Malaysian families: Four case studies. Journal of Fluency Disorders 49: 29-39.

Schenker, R. (2011). Multilingual children who stutter: clinical issues. Journal of Fluency Disorders 36: 186-193.


April 19, 2017
by Mary Pat

47 Books & 8 Movies That Every Health Care Professional Needs to Read & See

A new student society has been set up in the university where I work. It’s called The Health Care Society and the whole point is to put the patient and the patient’s voice at the center of health care. This is something I’m very passionate about. So I’ve put together a list of the best books and movies that I’ve seen and read so far that give insight into what it’s like to be the person experiencing the illness or condition. No-one knows it like the person living it.

So let’s start with the books. These are all excellent reads and will move you both to laughter and to tears. I’ve read them all and ruined my mascara repeatedly! I’ve divided them into 4 different categories.

#1 First person accounts

  1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Domnique Bauby
  2. Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
  3. My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
  4. Expecting Adam by Martha Beck
  5. I Think There’s Something Wrong With Me by
  6. The Wounded Story Teller by Arthur Frank
  7. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient by Norman Cousins
  8. Meaning of a Disability: The Lived Experience of Paralysis by Albert Robillard
  9. Staring at Lakes by Michael Harding
  10. Hanging with the Elephant by Michael Harding
  11. Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows: A couple’s journey through Alzheimer’s by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
  12. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi
  13. My Left Foot by Christy Brown
  14. Like Sound Through Water: A Mother’s Journey Through Auditory Processing Disorder by Karen J. Foli
  15. The Impossible Just Takes a Little Bit Longer by Art Berg
  16. If You Could Hear What I See by Kathy Buckley
  17. Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison
  18. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  19. Paula by Isabelle Allende
  20. The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson
  21. We Need To Talk About Grief: How to Be a Friend to the One Who’s Left Behind by Annir Broadbent

Your suggestions

# 1 Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

#2 The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

#3 My Donkey Body: Living With a Body That No Longer Obeys You by Michael Wenham

# 4 Against the Odds: Living with Motor Neurone Disease by Andy McGovern

#5 Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius


#2 Books about conditions

  1. The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin
  2. Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry Prizant
  3. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.
  4. Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
  5. Migraine by Oliver Sacks
  6. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
  7. Seeing Voices : A Journey into the World of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks
  8. When the Brain Can’t Hear by Terri James Bellis
  9. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doige

 #3 Fiction

  1. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
  2. The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
  3. House Rules by Jodi Picoult
  4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
  5. Still Alice by Lisa Genovi
  6. Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
  7. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  8. Great Small Things by Jodi Picoult
  9. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
  10. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
  11. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

 #4 Medical Memoirs

  1. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
  2. On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Your Suggestions

# 1 In My Room by Jim Lucey

And here are the movies some of which are made from the books- I always prefer the book first!


  1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  2. Inside I’m Dancing
  3. My Left Foot
  4. Untouchable
  5. Me Before You
  6. Brene Brown Empathy vs Sympathy

Your Suggestions

#1 Patch Adams

#2 El Mar Adentro/ The Sea Inside

I’d love to hear about what other books you’ve read or movies you’ve watched that put the person’s experience at the center, rather than focusing on labels or deficits. Be sure and leave a comment below telling their names.

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends!

If you haven’t signed up to Talk Nua yet, be sure and sign up to get future posts direct to your inbox!

Let’s get talking!



March 30, 2017
by Mary Pat

10 Dos and Don’ts For When Your Pre-School Child Starts to Stutter

My little girl started to stutter when she was 2 & ½ years old. And although I knew the theory, it didn’t stop me from filling up with anxiety about it. This post is for you if your young child has started to stutter. (Stuttering and stammering are basically the same thing) The kind of speech I’m talking about here  is called normal non-fluency. It’s also called developmental fluency. It’s most common between ages 1 & ½ and 5 years of age. Or 2 and 4 depending on where you read. The American Speech Language Hearing Association say that about 95% of people who stutter, start stuttering before age 5. It sounds like this:

#1 Repeating syllables once or twice (parts of words) li-li-like this

#2 Repeating whole words once or twice but but I want to stay

#3 Hesitations or pauses

#4 Fillers like uh and er and um The dog is uh black.

 These kinds of disfluencies as they’re called, tend to come and go. So you might notice them for a few weeks. Then they go away and then after several weeks, they come back again. With my little girl, it seemed to me that the stuttering came back when she was going through a growth spurt. She’d grow a bit, stutter for a few weeks, and then it would go away again. She’s 6 and 1/2 now and it’s gone for at least a year.


In young children, these disfluencies tend to be effortless- no tension as your child is not aware of them. I know with my little girl, they were effortless and she never seemed to notice them. But then we never remarked on it. One day, my mother did say to her I think you have so much to say that you have a stutter. (I nearly died!)  I just held my breath and noticed my little girl looking at my mother with a kind of What the bleep are you talking about? expression and then moving on- phew!! I didn’t know what to say to my mother so  I said nothing. Later, I asked a colleague who specializes in working with children who stutter what to say when people comment. She suggested saying, lightly, ‘Oh that’s normal for her age’.

The other thing to remember is that everybody hums and haws when they talk, to varying degrees. We start a sentence and then change our minds and pause and start again. We use those fillers like uhm and ah while we try to put our thoughts in order. I noticed after a while that she sounded like my husband! (Hope he’s not reading this!) So she was learning from the model she was exposed to.

These disfluencies are often happen alongside spurts of speech and language development. How many people are affected by stuttering in genera;? About 5% of the population is thought to stutter at any one time in their lives- this is from childhood to adulthood. But it’s a bit of a head-wreck trying to find a definite number because studies tend to vary in how they carry out the research.  When stuttering first starts, the ratio of boys to girls tends to be equal. By the time they start school the ratio is 3 boys to every 1 girl. There’s a higher likelihood of stuttering in an identical twin if one of them stutters. But for non-identical or fraternal twins, the chances are the same as for anyone else.


Do children grow out of it? The 24 months between age 2 & 4 is considered to be the time window for both the peak numbers in terms of it starting and children recovering naturally. And rates of growing out of it range from 68%- 96%. Again, the issue with the variety in how studies are conducted….it’s not black and white. And it’s very hard to identify which children will grow out of it and which children will go on to develop a stutter.


Is your child at risk of developing a stutter? The most straightforward information I could find comes from The American Stuttering Foundation who have a useful checklist of risk factors.

Having a parent, sibling, or other family member who still stutters is considered a risk factor. Other risk factors are starting to stutter after 3 ½ years of age, the stuttering lasting 6-12 months or longer, being a boy, having delayed language, (I’ll be posting about this soon so be sure and sign up to Talk Nua) and having speech that is difficult to understand. I have a post about that which you can read here:


What can you do about it? Here are 10 ways to support your child’s fluency:

#1 Slowly, Slowly

I speak fast and I realised that when my daughter started to stutter, she was trying to keep up with me! So I focused on slowing down- still sounding natural, just not at full tilt. Keep it slow and relaxed. This sets the scene for relaxed communication in general. And when we talk too fast, it makes it harder for our child to organise their thoughts, and express themselves. Make sure your body language is relaxed too- you’re not leaking impatience in your facial expression or tapping fingers.

# 2 Pause

Pause before you speak- maybe count to 3 before responding- all part of creating an environment that will support fluent speech. This is also good for giving your child the space to start a conversation if they feel like it. The Stuttering Foundation of America recommend waiting 2 seconds before answering your child. The idea is that not only will it create an environment for relaxed talking but children learn by imitation and may well adopt a slower rate which helps fluency.

# 3 Respond to the message not the speech
Think about the content of what your child is trying to tell you and don’t focus on how it sounds.  What’s more important? For you to really get what they’re trying to tell you so they feel understood? Or saying it according to expectations that it should be a particular way? This is important because showing your anxiety to your child isn’t helpful. After a lot of reflection, I realised that I was the only one who was anxious about my little girl’s speech. I realised also that I had anxiety that was just looking for a home and it happened to be her speech! Let them know by giving them your full attention (listening and looking at them) that you’re interested in what they are trying to tell you rather than whether their speech sounds smooth or bumpy.

#4 Ditch the questions
How was your day? What happened in school? What are you doing? Do you want to watch a movie? Questions are a pressure on speech; there’s an expectation of a response. And they’re not the best way to get a conversation going. So reduce your questions and use statements instead. When you do ask a question, wait for your child to answer before asking another one. I have two other posts with more tips on getting rid of questions here: and here:

 #5 Don’t give them advice
It’s not helpful to tell your child to slow down, take their time, start again, take a deep breath and so on- the kinds of advice we might instinctively give.  Instead, focus on other general ways to create a calm environment like not rushing in general or putting time pressure on like Oh there’s the bell. We’re late. What ways can you think of that will help your child not tire themselves out and get more rest?

#6 Undivided attention
This means 5 minutes undivided attention where there’s no rush. This isn’t time reading a book or playing a lively outdoor game. You let the child choose the activity and you play with them for 5 minutes giving your undivided attention focusing on what your child is saying rather than how he says it.

#7 Don’t finish their word or sentence for them

Your child is most likely not aware that their speech sounds different and you want to keep it that way at this stage. The British Stammering Association suggest that as long your child isn’t upset by the struggle, it’s better to leave them finish what they’re saying in their own good time. Keep normal eye contact so don’t look away. Accept your child’s speech without commenting but do keep an eye out for any signs of anxiety about speech.

#8 Keep it simple

We talk a lot in our house and once I paid attention to how I was communicating with my little girl, I realised that I was using very complicated language. Long sentences.  I’d fallen into the habit of expanding everything she said to make it even more complex! I had to work at actually saying less and keeping my own contributions short and simple. So no long and complicated sentences.

#9 Take turns

Make sure everyone gets a turn to speak and try to minimize interruptions. This isn’t easy! But everyone talking at once is another pressure on speech. I have a blog post about how to work on turn taking here:

#10 Let them know you love them just the way they are

When I was worried that my little girl’s speech, I found myself thinking about the future and what would I want for her if she did have a stutter? The conclusion I came to was that I wanted her to love herself the way she was and the only way I could think of doing that was by loving her the way she was. I never commented on her speech or drew her attention to it because I knew that was actually my problem and not hers. I didn’t want to infect her with my anxiety so I talked to a trusted colleague who specialises in working with children who stutter and that really helped too.

One of my favourite books about this is Ann Irwin’s Stammering in Young Children: A Practical Self-Help Programme for Parents– you can get it on Amazon.

If you’re worried that your child is stuttering, it’s best to contact your local services and talk to a speech and language pathologist and ideally one who has experience of working with young children who stutter. There are other treatment options for pre-schoolers that involve working directly on their speech. So far. one approach has not been identified as being superior to another approach. Each child and family’s situation is unique so this is something to discuss with your local speech and language pathologist.

 If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends.

Did this happen to your child? What worked for you? Be sure and leave a comment below.

Here’s what I read for this post?

Yairi, E. & Ambrose, N. (2013) Epidemiology of stuttering: 21st century advances. Journal of Fluency Disorders 38(2): 66-87.

The American Speech-Language & Hearing Association 

The Stuttering Foundation

Ann Irwin’s Stammering in Young Children: A Practical Self-Help Programme for Parents.

Let’s get talking!


March 16, 2017
by Mary Pat

What you need to know about speech development when your child speaks more than one language

So my last post was all about speech development and delay in general. How to know if your child might have one and what to do about it. You can read that post here:


This week’s post is about children who speak more than one language and speech development. Oh my God, reading the research nearly wrecked my head! One word comes to mind: complex….actually other ones came to mind too when I was wading through the studies- most of the words too rude to put here!


So what’s the story then? Well, the research has tended to compare multilingual children with children who speak one language. Which is like comparing apples and oranges instead of comparing apples with apples. Not particularly meaningful. But that’s what’s out there.  What did they find? I’ve done my best to keep it simple but all the same, fasten your seatbelts!


Some studies found that in comparison to children who speak one language, multilingual children have speech sound skills that are more advanced. They call this positive transfer. But wait for it…they also have speech sound skills that are less advanced. They call that negative transfer.


What else? This stuff is SO confusing to read.  It’s a bit like the story of the blind men and the elephant. But here are 6 definites.

 7 truths about speech development & speaking more than one language

 #1 speech development is complex whether you speak 1 language or 4. It starts while your baby is still inside you; hearing the intonation patterns of the languages around them- I love that! And there are lots of ingredients that go into learning to speak. More of that later.


#2 Where children are acquiring multiple languages (which is actually the global norm) the languages interact with each other which leads to variation in their speech development and makes it hard to have definite facts.


#3 These interactions mean that there can be positive and negative transfer across languages.

There are numerous studies that show positive transfer. In one study of Maltese and English speaking children (aged 2-6), the bilingual children had more consonant accuracy, speech was more consistent, and they had fewer speech errors than monolingual children. This is positive transfer. Negative transfer then is where the multilingual child makes more errors and more uncommon errors (when compared to children who speak one language).  And there are lots of studies showing this too! One study involving Cantonese-English speaking bilingual children ages 26-67 months found that the bilingual children did not have as wide a range of speech sounds as the monolingual children.


#4 So what’s the bottom line? Multilingual children seem to have overall speech development that is similar but not identical to monolingual children.


#5 Over the long term, when children have lots of quality opportunities to hear and use all of their languages, their speech sound development will match monolingual peers. 


#6 There are clear differences between languages when it comes to their influence on speech sound development. What makes things more complex is that the options for the combinations of languages in families is huge given the potential number of languages in the world and the potential family make-ups. Variety is the order of the day which makes generalisations hard to make from the research. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that the individuality of each child’s family structure and language patterns must be taken into account.


#7 Speech sound skills are not the same in each language. They tend to be spread differently across the languages. This is because the rules of languages are different. What does that mean? Well in Italian, words with many syllables are common. They’re less common in English. Consonants at the ends of words are more common in English. Not so common in Italian. I once assessed a little boy who spoke Italian and English and words like helicopter, crocodile, hippopotamus were much better in his English pronunciation than I would have expected for his age thanks to the Italian influence.


I also read a paper that reviewed 66 studies carried out over the last 50 years. Basically, what they say is that there is limited evidence to suggest that bilingual children develop speech at a slower or faster rate than monolingual children. There was evidence for more variation in the speech production of the bilingual children. Nearly all studies show evidence of transfer but the amount varies. It’s accepted that there are 2 systems interacting when the child is acquiring 2 languages. 


How does speech development happen? There are 3 processes involved with different skills needed for each stage.

 3 Processes of speech development: Input-Storage-Output

For input, your child has to be able to hear a sound and recognise that it is a speech sound in your language as opposed to an environmental sound like the tap dripping.


Then they have to store the sounds in the right order. And they have to store the meaning that goes with that sequence of sounds. And they also store what kind of word it is; noun, verb etc.  When they are older they’ll add the spelling.


Think about a new word you learned recently. Our favourite one for teaching the SLT students is cryptosporidium– a nasty little parasite in Galway water that gave us the runs. When it was on the news first, I couldn’t say it because I hadn’t stored the sound sequence. I knew the meaning but not the sounds. It takes practice to set down the right sequence and then I could say it no problem. And later I could spell it. That’s how word learning goes.


Output or production means their brains have to plan & execute the saying of the word accurately. They are little geniuses when you think about what has to happen for speech to develop!


Each of these skills is important for acquiring a competent speech sound system. This all takes from birth up to about age 6 +. After age 6 there are still some things to refine like intonation and stress in words like photography and for English speakers, the /r/ sound.


So what does all this mean for you and your child?

 #1 Speaking more than one language does not cause speech problems. This is universally agreed upon in the research and by professional bodies like the American Speech-language & Hearing Association (ASHA), the Royal college of Speech & Language Therapists (RCSLT) etc. (This doesn’t mean you won’t be told to drop a language. If you are told to drop a language, ignore them and read this instead:


#2 There is greater variation in the speech development of children who are learning more than one language. This can make the precise identification of a problem a little harder to work out. What you can do about that is when you go to see a speech and language pathologist, have a clear description of:

  • the languages that your child is exposed to,
  • the amount of time (roughly) that they are exposed to each
  • the ages they were when they began to be exposed to the different languages.


# 3 It’s reasonable to allow a greater range of normal variation in the bilingual children and allow more time for speech milestones to be reached. For any child, when you look at ages at which they should be doing things, it’s always important to remember that these are rough guidelines and not written in stone. At the same time though, you should see your child making progress i.e. speech gradually getting clearer. It’s important to identify children with speech sound disorders sooner rather than later.

If you do go to see a speech and language pathologist, here are 2 things to bring along with you to your visit:

#1 This form which comes in lots of different languages. It’s a report of how easy or hard it is to understand your child. And it’s a great starting point for exploring potential speech problems.


#2 This speech checker is for English but it will allow you to get a sense of what sounds your child is using at the start, in the middle, and at the end of words.


#3 If you do the speech checker for English, listen to your child speaking the other languages and make a note of what speech sounds you’re hearing. And write down examples of some words and how your child is saying them, especially if they are not saying them ‘correctly’ by adult standards. It doesn’t have to be precise, just a 1st attempt at mapping out their speech sounds.

If you like this post, please share it with your friends.  Be sure to leave a comment below about your child’s speech development.

Where is all this from? Here’s what I read:

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2012). Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children. In McLeod, S. & Goldstein, B. (eds.) Multilingual Aspects of Speech Sound Disorders in Children.


Hambly, H., Wren, Y., McLeod, S. & Roulstone, S. (2013) The influence of bilingualism on speech production: A systematic review. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 48(1), 1-24.


Goldstein, B. & McLeod, S.  (2012). Typical and atypical multilingual speech acquisition. In McLeod, S. & Goldstein, B. (eds.) Multilingual Aspects of Speech Sound Disorders in Children.


Gildersleeve-Neumann, C. and Wright K. (2010). English speech acquisition in 3- 5 year old Russian children learning English. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools 41, 429-444.

Let’s get talking!