Although most children vocalise from the moment they are born, the ability to produce speech sounds for communication is not innate. Surrounded by a multitude of sensory information at birth, babies take time to process speech, sound, light, shade, movement and even touch. It takes even longer to make sense of all these rapidly changing stimuli.
So how do children learn to copy speech sounds? It all begins with closeness. Research has found that infants are attuned to faces from their earliest days. When others come close and chat, babies become very still. Over time, babies begin to mimic facial expressions and to make little sounds at their turn in the ‘conversation’. These little sounds are usually vowels. The mouth is open, the tongue is flat and the vocal cords vibrate together to create voice.
Here lies the foundation for later chatterboxes. Being exposed to the rhythm and beat of social interaction, and vocalising at their turn, babies are honing their emerging communication skills. This allows them to later focus on the rhythm and beat of sounds and syllables in words and words in sentences.
Tickle games, peek-a-boo and hide and seek (behind a hand) fun allow babies to enjoy interacting and to seek out more.
In parallel to this interactive fun, babies begin to take solid foods. This allows their articulators to develop more complex movement patterns, which are the foundation for speech sounds. Lips that close tight to stop food from falling out of the mouth are also practising an essential sequence of movements for first speech sounds: ‘m’, ‘p’ and ‘b’.
When lips are ready and vocalising for interaction is fun, babies begin to babble, using these lip sounds in combinations with vowels.