If by 18 months your child hasn't spoken any meaningful words, he is considered to have speech delay.
When speech therapist Aina Elias told that to a packed auditorium at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya, there was an audible gasp from the audience. Of the 130 present, most were parents, many with little ones in tow.
This month's StarLIVE talk focused on speech and language difficulties in children. Speaker Aina stressed the importance of early intervention in detecting and treating problems.
"Early intervention is key," she said. "If you suspect there's something wrong or not quite right, please seek help. The earlier you get help, the better the outcome."Aina explained that communication skills can be broken down into four components: pre-linguistic skills, speech, language and pragmatics.
Pre-linguistic skills include children making eye contact, turn-taking (i.e. knowing how and when to respond, even without speech), joint attention (engagement or looking at something together) and gestures.
According to Aina, speech "actually only refers to the way you say your sounds."
Language, on the other hand, can be divided into the expressive and the receptive. Expressive language refers to what children say, how they contstruct their sentences and the grammar they use. Receptive language is what children comprehend, such as the meaning of words and sentences.
Finally, pragmatics concerns the the social use of language. For example, although a child may be able to talk in complex sentences, he or she may not be able to maintain an appropriate conversation with another person if they don't understand the social context.
She also highlighted the speech and language milestones children should reach from zero to five-years-old. By five, for instance, children's speech should be coherent and understood by everyone, not just family members.
Speech and language milestones are broken down into the expressive and receptive. In the first year of their lives, children should reach quite a few milestones. Expressively, they should be able to babble using different sounds, vocalise vowel sounds ("baaaaaa"), chuckle and vocalise excitement. Receptively, they should make eye contact, respond to the direction of sounds and listen when spoken to.
"If children don't meet these milestones, one of the first things parents can do is to get their children's hearing checked, especially if they're prone to ear infections," Aina said.
"Hearing is very important to speech and language development."
She also pointed out what parents can do to help children achieve milestones at each stage. She underscored the usefulness of playing with children to improve their communication skills. Parents should interact with their kids by playing games and telling stories. Speaking in short, grammatically correct sentences - "The car is red" or "Look at the red car" - is crucial.
"Give your children your full attention. Don't just talk at them, talk to them," she emphasised.
Children learn better when they're not being badgered, so parents can adopt more interactive strategies like verbalising everyday activities - "Mummy is feeding Siti" and "Siti is eating carrots" - to help them.
Aina said that joining play groups is a good option to develop communication skills.
"Some parents may think it's too early at two or three, but children learn a lot from other children. They are actually more likely to imitate other children than adults."
Engku Zulkifli, 33, and his wife brought their three-year-old son along.
"Our son has a speech delay. At his age, he can only say Papa. We're worried that he might be autistic, so we decided to come today to learn more. We want to be as prepared as possible before he starts school. The talk today was informative," he said.
Although Chan Lian Hee's son has met the milestones for his age, she was eager to learn more.
"I want to make sure I do all I can to help my child," she said.