Babbly Interview: Analyzing Speech Development and Language Milestones
Some of the common questions we hear from parents who are home with children due to COVID-19 are around speech development and language milestones. To provide some guidance, we partnered up with Babbly – a startup focused on empowering parents through technology to assess and support their child’s speech development.
Co-founder and CEO Maryam Nabavi was originally trained as an aerospace engineer and has applied her skills in helping many Fortune 500 companies develop tech-enabled products. Her team is made up of speech language pathologists, pediatricians, AI engineers, and designers in their pursuit to build tools related to speech development. Maryam recently spent some virtual time with us to provide insight on the topic.
Q: What are the big speech development milestones to watch for in the first year and after?
One of the first manifestations of verbal communication is crying. At Babbly, we don’t analyze crying, however, I can share what research is telling us. Different types of crying mean different things. Parents intuitively know this and often build an understanding of their infant’s signals and sounds. For instance, a hunger cry has a lot of involvement of the tongue and mouth and will feel more urgent than a getting-sleepy cry or moan. We also know that very high-pitched crying over long durations can flag a correlation to hearing problems (related to an absence of input or feedback to the child).
Apart from crying and non-verbal cues, infants will start to communicate vowels in what is called raspberry sounds. As they fine-tune this skill, their muscles will develop to result in producing consonants.
There are three general stages of babbling and speech in the first couple of years:
- Around six months, infants will be saying single syllable vowels on top of cooing, resulting in sounds such as ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh.’ They can also start using a consonant and vowel together resulting in sounds such as ‘da’ or ‘ma.’
- Around nine months, an infant can begin to duplicate consonant-vowel sounds creating ‘words’ such as Mama and Dada.
- Around 12 months, a first word will have likely emerged. Additionally, a one-year-old can combine different combinations of sounds and ‘words’ together to create jargon. It will sound like a language with melody and pitch changes but isn’t really expressive of their primary language.
- Around 18 months they should have 20 words they can appropriately use.
- By two years of age, 90% of toddlers have accumulated 50 words or more that they are using appropriately.
Q: What are common misconceptions you hear working in the area of speech development?
There are a few myths floating around about language development that are essentially unproven.
First, we often hear that being raised in a bilingual home can cause concerning speech delays. Any evidence of this shows that at most, bilingualism can correlate to a delay of up to 3 months – which is not considered scientifically significant.
Another thing I’ve heard is that baby-talk may be harmful. This is simply untrue. Infants’ first step to communicating is using sounds together in a melodic way, so they are receptive to language coming in varying and high-pitched tones. In this case, our instincts to baby-talk are correct and we advise parents to use song and animated language with their little ones.
One last point – I often talk to parents who bear guilt about having a ‘late talker’ or a struggling communicator. We all do the very best we can and there are many factors at play in language development. While there are some things we can do to encourage language, it’s unreasonable to think a parent has somehow failed if a child needs additional support to develop language skills to their best ability.
Q: You mention there are things that can help encourage early language. What can parents think about on this front?
The first thing is to talk talk talk. Even with a newborn, listening to someone talking helps them learn the nature of language, communication, sound, and loving tones. And even if you aren’t a great singer, sing! It can increase the quality of language they hear because there is a rhythm and melody; it is easy to receive.
Try sitting at your child’s level and maintaining eye contact at times when you communicate. A tip is to incorporate a pause occasionally so they hear the break and realize you are open to response and ‘inviting’ them to the conversation. With a three-month-old, the response may be a smile. With a three-year-old, you are inviting a vocal response.
One last tip that is quite hard to do: don’t tell them what to say. For example, resist instructing things like “Say banana,” or “Can you say hi to Grandma?” The reason is this may pressure a child and cause them to feel like they’re being tested. Instead, parents can model the word and pause after to encourage the child to attempt to repeat after. Try to teach them to initiate words and conversations by modeling the language for them. “This is a banana.” “Oh, hi Grandma, it’s nice to see you!”
Q: What are the right steps to take if you have concerns about speech development?
Don’t panic. Don’t worry. The fact that parents even take the time to think about their child’s speech development means they’re on the right path. Follow your instincts and check things out that pop up instead of taking a ‘wait and see’ approach – often there are simple tweaks and steps that can adjust language development appropriately. We know from research that when parents are trained, they can be highly effective in supporting their child’s development. A parent or caregiver is the child’s best growth facilitator.
The best practice is to talk to your doctor and get a referral to a speech language pathologist. Even if there ends up being no major concern, an exploration of speech therapy is very fun for both children and parents, and basically just adds new ways to interact and play into the parent’s toolbox.
We do find parents can get lost in the infinite opinions and directives available through Google searches, Facebook groups and even chatting with friends. It’s always better to talk to a professional who can look at your child as an individual.
Q: Tell us what Babbly is. What is the technology behind it and what can this new tool provide parents and professionals?
Babbly is an in-development technology app that will empower parents to track their child’s speech development and coaches them on strategies that promote social skills. I often liken it to a thermometer for babbling. In the same way that we can actually measure physical things such as height, weight, and head circumference as infants grow, speech development will be trackable to provide insights about where a child is at. Parents and professionals can upload video files or audio tracks and within five seconds receive an analysis and insights about the child’s speech development. Parents will also get access to tens of professionals that are a click away to answer their questions.
The Babbly app will be launching soon. If you are interested in this tool and want to dive into a speech quiz for your child, check out their website!