What does communication look like before first words? Eight pre-linguistic skills parents should know about. 

Every parent looks forward to hearing their child’s first words, which usually develop around the age of 12 months. However, did you know that there are a number of communication skills that develop BEFORE first words? These are called “pre-linguistic” or “pre-verbal” skills and they are the foundation for future verbal communication. These skills start to develop from a baby’s very first day in the world. So if you are still eagerly awaiting those first words, check in to see how your child is progressing with the below skills. If they’re doing well with these, then first words should not be too far away!


1. Attention and Joint Attention         

Attention is when a child can focus on and notice important information, for example they notice a new and interesting toy and explore it or they notice their favourite song is playing and listen until it’s finished. Children learn to sustain their attention for longer and longer periods of time as they get older, and toddlers can usually keep their attention and focus in one activity for 3-6 minutes.


Joint attention is when a child can share their attention between an object or activity and a person. Often children demonstrate this by looking between the object or activity and the person they are playing with. Joint attention is really important for learning language and communication skills. When children are interested in listening and looking at what their play partner is talking about or what they are doing then they have the best opportunity to begin understanding and learning words. The longer they can stay in the activity with the adult, the more opportunity they will have to learn the language modelled. Joint attention is also a really early precursor to being able to share a TOPIC of conversation with a child, such as talking about breakfast or their favourite animals. 


2. Engagement and Affect

Engagement is when a child connects with you and enjoys the company of the people around  them. Affect is showing a range of emotions and reactions, and shared affect is when your child purposefully looks at you to share their emotion/reaction. Affect drives the internal motivation to communicate and engage with others. Being internally motivated to engage with others is key to supporting a child’s communication development but also key to helping them build relationships with the important people in their lives.


3. Anticipation and Waiting   

Does your child wait expectantly and with excitement when you pause in the middle of a fun routine like tickle or chasing games? If so, they are both waiting and anticipating! Waiting with anticipation means the child is able to remain engaged in an activity (and not walk away or get distracted) whilst waiting for an expected outcome. This space where children are waiting but remaining engaged, is perfect for modelling language and new words or even new play ideas. Over time children will learn to fill this space with a word, action, or gesture to request you to continue an activity. Waiting with anticipation also supports a child to start taking turns (see below), which will help them learn how to take turns in conversations when they are older.       


4. Imitation and Turn Taking

When a child copies your actions they are learning through imitation. Imitation of play, actions, and gestures is really important, because this is also one really important skill for learning future words! Imitation games often lend themselves to facilitating early turn taking too, for example you bang on the drum and then your child has a go and you continue to take turns. Turn taking also happens in daily routines, such as book reading (e.g. taking turns lifting the flaps in books or turning the pages). Turn taking skills are also really important for communication, because turn taking in play and daily activities supports the development of turn taking in conversation. Remember that anything we want our children to be able to do verbally, we need them to be first be able to do non-verbally in play and daily activities.         


5. Intention and Initiation

When a child deliberately communicates with you, then we say they are communicating with intention. Young children will often use eye contact, gestures (e.g. pointing), or vocalisations to demonstrate communication intention. Initiating is when a child deliberately begins play or communication with you, for example they may bring their favourite toy or book so you will play with them. Intentional pre-verbal communication is critically important to developing intentional verbal communication. So if you are waiting for your little one to start saying their first words, make sure they are intentionally communicating with gestures, eye contact, and/or vocalisations first to help them along. Initiating play activities is also very important for future initiating of verbal conversations. 


6. Play Skills         

Play skills are generally learned in a developmental progression, and play itself is where children learn all their motor, language, and social skills. Children also learn to understand how people and things work during play. Play skills are closely linked to the development of cognition and language skills. If your child is having difficulty learning to play, or they only like to play with a limited number of toys it is recommended they see an Occupational Therapist to assess and support their play skills. See our blog for more on play.


7. Gestures and vocalisations

There are two types of gestures that children generally develop before their first words, and these are deictic gestures (e.g. pointing, showing, giving, reaching) and conventional gestures (e.g. waving for hi/bye, shaking head for no, nodding head for yes). Vocalisations include babbling (e.g. mamamama, or badama) and early vocal play (e.g. squealing, grunting). Gestures and vocalisations are often an early way for children to show their intentions to communicate, and they often come together. For example, a child may request a toy by pointing at it and babbling or grunting whilst looking at their parents. Gestures and vocalisations are very important precursors to first words, and consistent use of both gestures and vocalisations to communicate often means that first words are not too far away.


8. Receptive language

Children generally do not say words until they first understand the words. Before first words emerge, children can generally:

  • understand and follow simple directions (e.g. get the ball), 
  • respond to their name by turning their head,
  • understands at least 10 familiar words and phrases such as mummy, daddy, bye-bye, daddy’s coming
  • point to 1-2 body parts
  • find familiar objects that you name

Understanding words is critical to using words correctly. Help your child understand more words by naming objects they’re interested in and talking about what they/you are DOING in play (i.e. talking about verbs and action words). 


There you have it! Eight communication skills that come before first words. If you are eagerly awaiting your child’s first words, then help them get there by strengthening the above pre-linguistic skills. Our North Brisbane Speech Pathologists love supporting families to help their children communicate, and our Occupational Therapists enjoy helping children to play and engage with others. Please get in touch with us via [email protected] or call the clinic on (07) 3265 4495 if you are concerned for your child’s development of any of the above skills, or if you are concerned that your child is not yet talking or playing.

Stephanie Harris

Certified Practising Speech Pathologist