How Children Learn Speech


Kevin Cunningham



The process of how children learn speech is a miracle. I have cherished the moments when it clicked with my children, when they first understood that the sounds they made had power. How children learn speech provides crucial information for parents to grow the communication abilities of their child.

Learning speech starts with listening

Speaking and understanding speech are linked functions in the brain [1]. When a person hears speech, both the speech production brain cells and the speech processing brain cells are activated in the brain. And the reverse is true. When a person speaks, it also activates the regions for speech processing. Because they are linked, these brain cells are called mirror neurons. This connection between the mirror neurons for speaking and listening is crucial for children learning speech.

Before a child is even born, she hears speech. As an infant, she is being exposed to speech by her parents and caregivers. This experience with speech builds the brain centers for talking and comprehension before an infant can speak. In typical development [2], a child then begins to babble, which is adorable practice of how to move all the muscles for speech.

Children learn speech by adjusting what they say to what they hear

As infants and toddlers mature, their brain hears their own babbling and compares it automatically to the speech of their family members. In typical development, toddlers begin to change the way they are speaking to be more like how caregivers sound. This is called using feedback. An infant’s brain receives feedback from hearing her and other’s speech, watching the movements other people make with their mouths, and even from what it feels like within her body to make speech sounds. Children then adjust their own way of talking to fit this feedback. Often, toddlers will learn the tone and body language of speech before they learn the speech sounds.

In typical development, the process just takes off from here. Children start to say more speech sounds. They get feedback from perceiving their own speech and that of their parents. And as their speech improves, toddlers get stronger at understanding the speech of their family members.

Activities that involve feedback are opportunities to learn speech

Because experience with speech builds the basis for producing speech, activities that involve exposure to communication are huge opportunities to strengthen a child’s speech development. Even before a child can attempt to talk, parents can increase her experience to speech and speech sounds. In a future post, we will highlight some specific opportunities in detail. In general, any activity that involves naturalistic experience with speech can help a child learn speech:

  • Reading story books
  • Saying the name of objects during activities
  • Including in conversations at the dinner table
  • Songs
  • Encouraging siblings and other family members to talk to the infant

Using the power of feedback in brain development, parents can encourage speech growth through fun, typical daily activities. Take Back Speech Therapy provides speech therapy in North Carolina that puts parents first to maximize a child’s communication. Contact us to book a free consultation today.


[1] Tourville & Guenter (2010). The DIVA model: A neural theory of speech acquisition and production.

[2] American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Birth to one year.

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