How do Babies Learn to Talk? Part 1: Sounds and Stages

In a departure from our usual family travel/outdoors/festival posts our latest article is about speech.  More specifically, it’s about how children and babies acquire speech.  The reason for this is that, as a parent, I often hear (or overhear, being the nosy sort) conversations about those celebrated first words or worries about rates of language development, and whether children are falling behind other babies and toddlers.  We seem utterly obsessed with baby talk. In fact, we’re so obsessed that we parents have developed a sub-language of our own – motherese – for the way we go all gooey and squealy when we talk to the little apples of our eye.  But more of that technical talk later.

Away from being a dad to my two crazy critters, I’m an English teacher in a large secondary school.  I have to confess that, since having children, teaching Child Language Acquisition to my 6th form A level English Language classes has become one of my favourite parts of the week.  Of course, I also have to confess that prior to having children discussing baby ‘gobbledoogook’ was one of my worst nightmares.  How times change hey!  And anyway, talking about their language development sure beats talking about the texture, structure and colouration of their poo I suppose!


One of the easiest ways to begin to understand how your baby develops speech is to understand the stages that they are expected to go through.  The first of these is pre-verbal, i.e. before they can actually form words and talk.  This will be made up of progressively more sophisticated sounds, and patterns of sounds, which we, as parents, are able to attach an ever increasing variety of meanings and emotions to.  Basically, they are able to help us understand what they want and how they feel before they are able to formally verbalise it.  Pretty amazing hey!


Stage Features Approx. age (months)
Vegetative Sounds of discomfort or reflexive actions.

Examples of this could be crying, coughing, burping or sucking.  The control of sounds even starts at this early stage as they often have more than one cry noise to suit more than one need.  Come on, how many have said ‘oh that’s windy cry’?

Cooing Comfort sounds and vocal play using open mouthed sounds.

Grunts and sighs become vowel-like ‘coos’

Laughter starts

Hard consonants and vowels produced.  These are among the easiest sounds for an infantile vocal system to produce.  Because of this, during the next stage (babbling) you’ll see why babies often say ‘dada’ (hard ‘d’ sound) before ‘mama’, which has a more difficult ‘m’ sound to produce.  But let’s keep that one to ourselves hey dads!

Pitch (squeals and growls) and loudness (yells) are practised.

Babbling Repeated patterns of consonant and vowel sounds.

Sounds linking to own language.  They’ll begin to make sounds that sound familiar to our own adult language.

Some of these sounds will be reduplicated sounds (‘ba-ba’) while others will be non-reduplicated (variegated) such as ‘agu’.

Proto-words Word-like vocalisations.  These do not match actual words but, impressively, they are used consistently for the same meaning.  For example, using ‘mmm’ to mean ‘give me that’, with accompanying gestures such as pointing, supporting the verbal message.  9-12


Following on from this pre-verbal stage is the verbal stage.  This stage, as its name suggests, is characterised by actual words and how babies and toddlers are able to string them together to begin to form grammatical constructions.


Stage Features Approx. age (months)
Holophrastic/one-word One-word utterances.  Following their use of proto-words they’ll now start to use single words in isolation that are real words.  These will, more often than not, be nouns as we, as parents, begin to point to and name things around them. 12-18
Two-word Two-word combinations 18-24
Telegraphic Three or more words combined 24-36
Post-telegraphic More grammatically complex combinations that resemble adult speech. 36+


Producing sound is crucial for any child’s language development. From an early age they will use their vocal cords to get the attention needed to ensure their survival and emotional needs. That is why they cry when they are hungry and when they want a cuddle.  The ‘cooing’ and ‘babbling’ stages mark the beginnings of prosodic features.  Prosodic features are features of sound such as pitch and tone (of voice) that we are able to control in order to add meaning to the sounds or words we use. This means that whoever is listening to us has a better idea of what we are on about.  Think about how you tell your kids off when they’re about to create World War 3 in your living room.  You use a serious tone of voice so that they know you’re about to lose the plot with them if they don’t stop it right now!   Crucially, early developments allow your child to increase the variety of sounds that they can produce (phonemic expansion) and then reduce the sounds to only those they need for their own language (phonemic contraction), showing that children have, at this stage, the potential to learn any language in the world from birth.


So how are sounds produced?

Sounds are produced by air from the lungs passing across vocal cords.  So, when we consider consonant sounds we have to also understand what they are affected by:

  • The manner of articulation (how the airstream is controlled).  Is it a short, sharp sound like a ‘p’, which requires less control of your vocal cords, or is it a more complex sound like an ‘s’ or ‘l’, which takes longer to produce as it requires you to have more control over its sound?
  • The place of articulation (where it occurs).  To make sounds we can use our lips, tongue, teeth and the roof of our mouth, or a combination these.  Again, some of these are far easier than others for little mouths so sounds that require a combination of these things will often be among the last to develop in young children.

Sounding letters out loud helps you hear how and where they are produced.  Try saying the letter ‘p’ which is a plosive sound.  We purse our lips and block the airflow for a very brief period of time.  These are among the easiest sounds to say.  Now say ‘l’ (L) out loud.  This is known as a lateral sound so we produce this by placing our tongue on the ridge of our teeth, which allows air to move down the side of the mouth.  This, for a baby and toddler, is a pretty difficult task so will generally take much longer to master.

As a result of these difficulties that your little critters will come across when learning to talk, it is not hard to see why they make so many mistakes along the way.  These mistakes are a necessary part of the learning curve.  So, to finish part one of this guide, see how many of these mistakes you can spot in your little critters:


Term Explanation Examples
Deletion leaving out the final consonant in words. Go(g), cu(p)
Substitution Substituting one sound for another (especially replacing the ‘harder’ sounds that develop later, with easier sounds) ‘pip’ for ‘ship’
Assimilation Changing one consonant or vowel for another (as in the early plosive sounds ‘d’ and ‘b’.  In the example, you can see that it’s simply  easier for a baby to produce two different sounds (‘g’ and ‘o’) than it is to produce three different sounds (‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘g’). ‘gog’ for ‘dog’
Reduplication Repeating a whole syllable Dada, mama
Consonant cluster reduction Consonant clusters lots of consonants placed together) can be difficult to articulate, so children reduce them to smaller units. ‘pider’ for ‘spider’
Addition Adding extra vowel sounds to the end of words, creating a CVCV pattern. doggie
Deletion of unstressed syllables Leaving out the opening syllable in polysyllabic words (a complex word with lots of syllables).  Again, this just makes it a more manageable proposition for little mouths. ‘nana’ for ‘banana’

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14 thoughts on “How do Babies Learn to Talk? Part 1: Sounds and Stages

  1. serenityyou says:

    my son never learnt his ‘babble’ sounds as a baby, and had to see a speech therapist. he is now 11 and still struggles with his ‘sk’ sounds

    Liked by 1 person

    • pottyadventures says:

      Many, many children have difficulty with certain sounds for a whole variety of reasons. Speech therapist often do a wonderful job though. I know of a few kids a teach who still have language therapy and it really improves their confidence over time. Thanks for reading.


  2. playathometeacher says:

    This was a really interesting read. I have been really worried about my daughter’s speech. She’s 21 months and has only recently started to say words. I can spot lots of the difficulties – it’s useful to see the terms for the different types. Thanks for a great blog post. #ToddlerApprovedTuesday

    Liked by 1 person

    • pottyadventures says:

      Ah, I’m glad you found it useful – thank you. I wouldn’t worry too much, these stages are a guide and like anything else, crawling, walking etc. there can be developmental differences that all even out at a later date.


  3. The Unsung Mum says:

    What a great read! I have to confess that i was one of the worriers with my second as she’s now only just starting to talk at 22 months. My first was speaking, singing and saying sentences at this age so when she just carried on crying and pointed i didn’t quite now what to do. Love how plainly laid out this post is and easy to read. #DreamTeam

    Liked by 1 person

    • pottyadventures says:

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments. Yes, this very much a general guide as, as you well know from personal experience, they’ll develop at slightly different rates (just as they do walking, crawling etc) until they all tech a similar plateau. Thanks again for reading I’ve got part 2 on words and meaning drafted out so hoping that will go down as well. 😄


  4. powerporter says:

    It all makes perfect sense now!! I love chatting to my babies and my little girl at three can have fabulous conversations. Her first word was baba!! No bias towards mum or dad in this house! #coolmumclub

    Liked by 1 person

    • pottyadventures says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yeah ‘baba’ is another popular one as it uses the hard plosive ‘B’ sound, which is another of the simpler sounds to make. It’s great having little conversations with them isn’t it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. motherhoodtherealdeal says:

    I think the development of speech is one of the most miraculous things you can witness in a child’s development, and even at three I am now marveling at the development of vocab. Such a fascinating post thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Annette says:

    This is really interesting. I don’t think I have ever fully considered the exact stages of speech. Little Button seemed to suddenly be full of words and now they just keep coming…. and coming. Sometimes I wonder if she’s swallowed a dictionary :-O Thank you for linking this interesting read up to the #DreamTeam x

    Liked by 1 person

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