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Advancing Toward What Will
Be: Speech Development in
Infancy and Early Childhood
Jennell C. Vick Acquiring speech, the most finely coordinated of human skills,
Address: is a momentous accomplishment ofeurly development.
11635 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, ohm 44105 HOW H’-‘S Dona
USA “You listen. And then you make noises. And then you shape the noises into words.”
_ This, an account of speech development, comes from my seven-year-old daugh-
_ _ Email: ter, Fiona, who then added, “You just have to keep trying.” Neither Fiona nor her
mCk@ChSC'°Yg five-year-old sister, Annabel, recall a time before they could speak, and both were
equally perplexed by my question about how people learn to speak. But, amaz-
ingly, the explanation Fiona provided was fairly accurate and easy to understand.
With just her short lifetime to practice, she articulates with the near precision and
intelligibility of an adult, coordinating the movements of some 70 muscles and 10
different body parts to shape her breath and voice into her carefully articulated
message (de Iong, 2018).
The process of acquiring speech is, indeed, a momentous achievement, with a
time course that begins long before birth and continues well into the school-age
years. Decades of research have helped elucidate the many systems and processes
that must be in place for speech to emerge as well as some of the obstacles or con-
straints that limit the speed of development. From birth, it seems the scaffolding
has already been put in place for mature language despite the seemingly limited
abilities and functions of the neonate. At every turn on the journey, it seems there
is a singular focus on adwncing toward what will be, with occasional staggering
leaps forward in development that bear little resemblance to the skills or abilities
from just a day or week prior. At the earliest stages, parents play a critical role.
Together, the baby and the parent exchange and learn together to advance toward
the common goal of sharing a conversation. The earliest words represent the at-
tainment of countless other skills and capacities, including the ability to recognize
that things have names (in English, most first words are nouns), to perceive the
sounds in the environment as meaningful, to participate in the basic turn taking
of verbal social exchanges, and, finally, to coordinate the movements of a series of
structures in an intentional way to produce something like “mama,” “ba,” or “da.”
Speech and language seem like inseparable concepts, but an account of speech
acquisition requires an understanding of how they diverge. Language, the words
we use to express ideas and the associated rules for putting them together, is a
catalyst for speech, which is just one of a multitude of ways that language can
be expressed. Speech, on the other hand, is how we verbalize the sounds, words,
and ideas a.nd, more specifically, how the sounds of a language are generated with
the lips and tongue. While language and speech develop concurrently, relying on
each other to progress, it is noticeable during development how they sometimes
diverge. Many parents notice, for instance, that a toddler can understand much
more than it can express.
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