Healthy living

Learning to talk

Learning to talk is one of the most difficult and important steps that young children take. It helps them to make sense of the world, to ask for what they need and to be able to get on with other people. If you think about how hard it is for adults to learn a different language, you can get some idea of what it is like for an infant to learn to speak from having no language at all. Language and speech, like other development, takes place at different rates for different children.

Steps in learning to talk

The early months

  • Long before they can speak, babies are listening to their parents and carers.
  • They begin to make little noises and sounds which come before speech.
  • If parents and carers imitate these, it is as if they are talking to the baby. This is the beginning of your baby learning to talk.
  • By responding to your baby’s needs when they cry, you show that you have heard them and that they matter. This is the start of communication.

8 – 12 months

  • The early little noises turn into babbling, such as ‘Da-da-da-da’ and ‘Ma-ma-ma-ma’.
  • Babies are beginning to learn what some simple words mean even though they cannot say them, such as ‘Mummy, Bottle, No’.
  • There may be one or two single words.
  • Babies wave ‘bye-bye’ when asked.
  • They obey simple requests such as ‘Give me the ball’.
  • Children know their own name and respond to it.

12 – 18 months

  • There is much babbling in the child’s own jargon.
  • The first single words appear, such as ‘No, Dad, Dog’.
  • Children can point to things that they know when they are asked to.
  • Children know their own name and respond to it.

18 months – 2 years

  • 18 month olds can know and use between 6 and 20 words. Two year olds may have as many as 150-300 words. Many of the words may be unclear but the parent or carer can tell what is meant.
  • Two year olds can say their name.
  • They can ask for simple things that they need, such as ‘Drink’.
  • Children start to join words together, such as ‘Daddy home’, ‘All gone’.
  • They copy the last part of sentences.
  • They try out different speech sounds and make mistakes.

3 – 4 years

  • Children begin to ask ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ questions.
  • They use sentences with many different words.
  • They begin to separate the truth from make-believe.
  • They can talk about yesterday, now and tomorrow and know what they mean.
  • Their speech should be understandable most of the time.
  • They are likely to talk to themselves as they do things.
  • They can learn and join in simple rhymes and songs.

4 – 5 years

  • Children learn to adjust their language to the situation they are in. For example, they talk differently to their parents than they do to their friends.
  • They ask ‘when?’ questions.
  • They can talk about imaginary situations, such as ‘I hope . . .’
  • They still mix truth and make-believe.
  • They like to tell stories.
  • They can hold conversations with their friends and parents.
  • They will be able to say their name, age and address if they have been taught this.
  • Four year olds enjoy making up words for fun and using toilet words, such as ‘poo’, ‘bum’.
  • Their speech is clearer but they still may not be using ‘th’, ‘r’, ‘z’, ‘s’ and ‘v’.

What parents can do

  • Talk to your baby right from birth and imitate their sounds.
  • Name things and talk about what you are doing. Use simple words and sentences at first.
  • Read books with your baby.
  • Have conversations with your child at some time every day.
  • Listen with interest when your child is talking to you. Don’t interfere or correct your child’s speech.
  • Answer questions simply and clearly.
  • Allow your child time to get out what they want to say.
  • Talk about pictures in books and name things in the pictures.
  • Sing songs and read rhymes.
  • Take your child to the local library and read some stories to them. Then you can borrow or buy the ones that they particularly enjoy.
  • Give a younger child a chance to talk without being interrupted by older brothers and sisters.
  • If your child is stumbling over words because they are excited, suggest that they tell you slowly. Then listen to them carefully.
  • Get down to eye level with your child when teaching a new word so they can see your lips and hear the word clearly.
  • For children with a severe hearing loss, it is important that their hearing loss is recognised before 6 months of age.

Be concerned if your child:

  • does not react to loud noises by the time they are 1 month
  • does not turn their head to a noise or voice by 3 months. Hearing problems often cause speech difficulties
  • does not start to make single sounds, such as ‘ba ba’, by 8 or 9 months
  • does not babble or make other sounds when someone talks to them by 12 months
  • is not starting to say single words by 12 months (the words do not have to be clear, but they need to be used for the same thing each time such as ‘mmm’ for mummy or ‘bo-bo’ for bottle)
  • does not understand simple instructions by 2
  • frequently repeats sounds or part-words, such as ‘Wh-wh-where’s my ba-ba-ball?’
  • lengthens sounds or gets stuck on words, such as ‘m-m-m-m’ or ‘da-a-a-a-ad’
  • is embarrassed or worried when speaking.

If you have any concerns at any stage about your child’s speech, talk to your child health nurse or your doctor. Your child may need to see a speech pathologist.


  • Language development needs listening and talking.
  • Use simple language.
  • Sit or kneel down so you are on your child’s level when they are talking to you.
  • Spend time reading simple stories and rhymes, looking at picture books and singing songs.
  • Help children to notice road signs and billboards.
  • Learning language is important. It should also be fun.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book
  • Look in the service finder for child health centres
  • Visit your nearest child health centre

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: (08) 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network


© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction


Child and Adolescent Community Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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