Human speech whether my own or the first words of a toddler are by no means the product of a simple process. Out of seemingly nowhere, a thought dressed in the form of a word shows up. Once there, a choice is made to speak out loud or move to the next set of ideas. In the event, we select speech, a series of neuro-connections from our mind to our mouth and voice immediately activate. Moreover, all these processes happen at lightening speed and in places we can only imagine.
A puzzle consisting of first words
So with all this in the background, it is astounding we expect one as young as two to say anything. It’s even more mind-boggling when you consider children acquire speech on the fly. Much of what how they learn is incidental. A child’s first words come by listening to others talk, book exploration, imitation, and building associations between words they hear as they go through their day e.g. mealtime “apple,” social interaction “mommy,” play with toys “car.” Over time kids collect and store the individual spoken pieces of language until it all somehow makes sense. It’s a gigantic puzzle that, miraculously comes together.
As a therapist who has helped guide the acquisition of speech and language, I stand in wonder for all I’ve witnessed.
For a child to say a word as simple as “POP” they must;
1. Close their lips
2. Produce a short breath of air (“P”)
3. Lower the tongue
4. Have the vocal cords open as the first passage of air bursts through
5. Quickly open the jaw
6. Press the vocal cords together
7. Continue to flow through now closed vocal cords (“ah”)
8. Close their lips
9. Open their vocal cords
10. Push a short burst of air
11. Open their jaw (“P”)
12. Do all this in a third of a second.
And all that to say a single syllable first word!
One can only imagine the combination of motor movements necessary to say “Bubble.” “Bye Bye daddy.” “Twinkle twinkle.” “I want apple.”
Speech is infinite
Over the years I’ve come to argue human speech requires greater motor skill than a pianist in concert. A musician plays a piece they’ve practiced over many years. The muscle groups involved include the arms and fingers acting with different levels of pressure. In essence, their musical expressions are largely rote in nature.
By 36 months toddlers have spoken vocabularies numbering in the hundreds. The thought process and coordination necessary to draw from that vocabulary and say single words, phrases, and sentences are immense. Children regularly offer new word combinations as opposed to the pre-arranged piece played in a concert. The utterances of toddlers just appear and seemingly have no end.
From a motor, cognitive, and neurological perspective a development process we can only imagine is afoot. In truth, a majority of children acquire speech right on cue. Some, however, may require more time and possible intervention to complete this amazing task.