Baby development: Your 11 month old
Watching your little one discover his hands and fingers all those months ago was exciting. Then to watch him move on to use them to grab at things and put them in his mouth was, in its way, thrilling. The same goes for creeping, crawling, cruising and (if not yet, soon) walking.
Some people would argue that nothing in a child’s development is more thrilling than watching language emerge. In the not too distant future (if not already) your little one is going to start talking. By that we mean using sounds that were studiously learned in order to communicate.
Baby talk: learning language
Before that occurs, your baby had to make a brilliant intellectual leap which, unlike the first spoken word, is little noticed and often unheralded. In fact, it probably has happened already, but you missed it or haven’t made too much of it. You should, because your baby literally had the most brilliant idea a human ever has (that goes for you and me, too). It is this: "This sound I am hearing actually stands for something else".
If you think about it, there is no reason that a sound, nothing more than sound waves bouncing around the middle ear, should actually represent something in the real world. Why, for example, should the sound "Mum" mean this wonderful person whom I cherish so much. This brilliant connection of disembodied sound to concrete objects in the world marks the beginning of "symbolic thought", of your baby entering the realm of the mind, not just the senses. It’s as thrilling as it gets. Let’s look into it a bit more closely.
"Receptive" vs. "expressive" language
The process of language development has actually been going on from the beginning, when your newborn preferentially listened to spoken language and began to process its components. A lot of the human brain is dedicated to decoding and generating language and these multiple language centres have been strengthened and reinforced by those language sounds that your baby has been so carefully listening to.
At the same time, your child began to play with sounds and to learn how to articulate the consonants and vowels and musicality of your native tongue. You noticed, for example, how she strung sounds together in a way that sounded eerily like real speech. That was not language, but somewhere around nine months or so, she had her brilliant idea.
After that you wondered if she understood her name or "No!" or bottle, and she likely did. As all of you know who have tried to learn a second language late in life, it’s easier to understand ("receptive language") words than it is to generate the speech ("expressive language") to communicate. Additionally, the oral motor skills involved in talking are incredibly complicated and take a lot of time to master. That’s why a full three months or so go by between the brilliant idea and its manifestation as the much-heralded first word.