When can my baby understand language?

Expert opinions about when babies can first understand language vary, but one thing is for sure: Babies are able to understand what you say to them well before they can speak any words. 

Babies respond to noises and familiar voices from birth. They respond conversationally, by crying, cooing, and laughing. Between 6 and 12 months of age, they begin to babble (make nonsense sounds) in response. If they stumble upon a phrase such as “mama” or “dada” in the course of their “speech” and see you respond excitedly, they are likely to repeat it often—although it may be some time before the sounds are used exclusively to summon you. 

One thing is certain—babies can understand simple expressions long before they are able to recite them. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that conversation begins to take on added significance for babies at 8 to 12 months. They start to respond to your statements more specifically; for example, looking at a favorite toy when it is mentioned, or putting hands out at the mention of “Pat-a-Cake.” A study from the University of Washington suggests that language development is occurring even sooner; as babies’ brains process sound, they are trying to figure out how to utter them. 

To help your baby’s language skills develop, talk to him as much as possible. Tell him all about what you are doing throughout the day. Name the parts of his body as you dry him off after a bath, for example, or talk to him about his toys—their colors, the sounds, the textures. 

But don’t just talk at your baby. Rather, talk to him. Read him stories and, along the way, ask questions he can respond to. Speak clearly and let your child see your face. Repeat his sounds back to him; this teaches him the back-and-forth nature of conversation and gives him a role in the conversation. 

Like other developmental skills, there is wide variability when it comes to language acquisition. Some children may speak a few words by their first birthday. But most will babble, with tones and inflections of real speech. Keep talking to your baby, and he’ll feel eager to talk back. 

Read this to learn more about the benefits of “baby talk.”

Last updated November 20, 2020

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