Dear Emmy,

When you were a little kid, maybe you played Peek-a-Boo or sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” These kinds of games and songs have a lot of the different sounds we make when we are first developing speech.

A lot of humans start out playing with speech through cooing and crying. At about six months old, this cooing and crying turns to babbling. A baby might make sounds such as ma-ma, pa-pa, or ba-ba.

Words first start to develop around a baby’s first birthday. That’s what I found out from my friend Georgina Lynch, a speech language pathologist and clinical researcher at Washington State University.

illustrated cartoon gray cat, Dr. Universe, wearing a white lab coat, yellow pants, and a crimson shirt with Washington State University logo“Kids begin to put two or more words together at about the age of two, but the magic comes when a child acquires their first 50 words,” she said.

Then they can use those words to communicate their ideas. Little kids build up those sounds and words as they watch their caregivers, observe their environment, and repeat things their caregivers say to them.

Making sense of sounds

Lynch also told me about something called the speech chain, which helps us make sense of sounds. The sounds you hear come through your ears but the sound is processed in the left side of your brain. Here, the vibrations that make up sounds get translated into the information you need for language, forming meaning for individual speech sounds. Meanwhile, the right side of the brain sends signals to muscles in our faces and mouth to help produce sound.

Lynch told me that eye contact, or visual attention, is also important when speaking. Humans often look at what they are they talking about, such as pictures in a book or at objects. It’s how they learn which sounds go with the things they see.

Lynch works with kids who have autism and often have a hard time with visual attention and learning to speak. Lynch came up with an idea to study eye-movement and the brain and is helping us learn more about children with autism using technology and eye-tracking cameras.

All kinds of communication

It’s important to remember people can communicate in different ways. At WSU, Lynch teaches future speech-language pathologists who work in a clinic where they see kids of all ages who have lots of different needs when it comes to speech.

She also told me that some kids may never be able to have verbal speech—that is, they don’t talk out loud with words. Instead, they might use a tablet or a computer program to help them generate words and communicate their thoughts and feelings by having the computer speak for them.

You might also see some people using their hands and facial expressions to communicate with sign language. Here is how you can say “cat” in American Sign Language. It’s kind of like drawing some whiskers in the air with your fingers.

It takes the work of the brain, eyes, ears, mouth, and muscles in the face to make speech. And while the first 50 words are key to sharing your thoughts and ideas, the dictionary has more than 171, 476 words you can try out in your lifetime.

Dr. Universe