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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 23:43 GMT 00:43 UK
Language link to 'bubble blowing'
Toddlers go through a period of very rapid language development
Infants who can blow bubbles and lick their lips are more likely to pick up language quickly, research suggests.

A Lancaster University study of 120 toddlers found the ability to perform complex mouth movements was strongly linked with language development.

They also found children who were good at 'pretending' an object was something else had better language skills.

The findings could help experts identify children who may struggle with language skills at an early stage.

At 21 months - the age of the toddlers in the study - children are learning new words at a faster rate than any other time in their lives.

Children who have speech and language problems before they go to school do tend to have problems with learning to read and write
Dr Katie Alcock, lead researcher

Children pick up language skills at different speeds - some children will be late to start talking - but this doesn't mean they will always have poorer language skills than other children.

In a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Katie Alcock, lecturer in psychology at Lancaster University, carried out a series of tests to identify skills that might predict a child's ability to develop language.

She looked at the infants' ability to perform hand gestures and mouth movements and to carry out tasks involving puzzles and pretend play.

The children's language ability was also assessed through a parental questionnaire, word games with simple images, and monitoring during normal play.

As well as oral motor skills, she found that hand gestures such as waving or making shapes were associated with better language development but other movements such as walking and running were not.

Pretending

The researchers said they expected to find that children who had better cognitive development, such as being able to do a puzzle or match pictures and colours, would have better language skills.

But in fact, only the ability to pretend that one object was another object - such as pretending a wooden block is a car or hairbrush - was associated with better language skills.

Dr Alcock said: "Until children are about two they are very poor at licking things off their lips or giving someone a proper kiss.

"If they don't have those skills it's going to be a big stumbling block in learning to form sounds.

"Children who have speech and language problems before they go to school do tend to have problems with learning to read and write.

"It's important we give children who need it extra help as early as we can."

Dr Alcock added that children learn to speak at different times and most children who start late will catch up.

"The best thing parents can do to help is talk to their kids," she added.

Most researchers recognise the role that oral motor skills may play in the early identification of children with speech
Professor Stephanie Stokes

The team are planning to follow the children at three, four and five years to see how the skills that were found to be linked to language impact on later development.

Professor Stephanie Stokes, professor of speech and language pathology at the University of Newcastle, said: "Previous studies have shown that children who have well developed symbolic (pretend) play skills and a range of hand gestures at the age of 14 to 18 months have better language development at 28 months than children who do not show such early skills.

"An interesting finding from Dr Alcock's study is the relationship between oral motor skills (like blowing bubbles) and language skills.

"Most researchers recognise the role that oral motor skills may play in the early identification of children with speech, but not language impairments.

"It remains to be seen whether or not Dr Alcock will find that the children who did poorly on oral motor skills in her study have a speech versus a language impairment when they are assessed at four years of age."


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