Some of the newer research shows that language is not merely a function of hearing words; it is the back and forth communication between parent and child that really matters. The output of a baby's communication is more important than the input. This kind of hit home to me because I always worried that I didn't talk enough with Kaelan. I have known people who chatted away endlessly to their kids about everything around them and I always admired their ability to do so. Our instinct as parents is to assume that a little infant doesn't respond very much in the first few months; that there is little-to-no back and forth communication. I know my own attempts at "talking" with my infants have felt rather one sided at first.
The key to early communication are those subtle responses that babies make. If you pay attention, babies are full of them. I'm talking eye contact, reaching, cooing, small body movements etc. Responding to them accordingly encourages a baby to make connections. The book mentions a study: Maternal responsiveness and children's achievement of language milestones Tamis-LeMonda, Bornstein, and Baumwell 2001. All the families in the study were relatively well off academic families. This study measured the responsiveness of mothers when their babies were nine months, and again when their babies were thirteen months. The study showed a very strong correlation between a mother's responsiveness to subtle cues and their child's vocabulary at eighteen months of age. From my own reading, the thirteen month measure of responsiveness was the most indicative predictor of vocabulary at eighteen months.
The book mentions a few different strategies for encouraging language in older babies and toddlers:
- Talk in "parentese" - that sing-songy language that many of us use naturally with babies. It helps focus their attention and interest on what you are telling them about. Moving an object around lightly in front of them while telling them the name of it in "parentese" is very helpful too. According to the book, this works well in kids up to fifteen months of age.
- Be very careful not to mistake where your baby's attention is focused. If they are all excited about the cat on the couch and you keep telling them the word "couch", that just confuses everything and delays learning considerably.
- Pick objects that they are naturally drawn to. Do not try to force them to pay attention to what you want to show them.
- Have multiple people reinforce the words you are teaching your baby. Hearing different people say the same word helps them learn faster and remember the word longer. The book mentions that when children listened to a word spoken by several people, that it is picked up much faster. This is because the children were given "the opportunity to take in how the phonics were the same, even if the voices varied in pitch and speed. By hearing what was different, they learned what was the same."
- For toddlers, it is important to switch up sentence structure and word usage. By hearing nouns, verbs, conjugates, etc being switched around, the meaning of words can be deciphered and grammar is learned. Say several sentences out loud that all essentially mean the same thing; For example, "daddy really likes reading books. Reading books is daddy's favorite. Do you like to read books like daddy?"
Of course this is all general advice for how to help along a normal child's speech development. Individual differences between kids still count for a lot in my book. Particularly shy kids might not speak as much but understand an awful lot. Special needs children also might not react the same way to this language encouragement or have the capacity for it at the same ages. I wanted to share this because it is interesting to me and has made a difference in my own kids. I know that for many, this is over-thinking the issue and I certainly respect that too.