Monday, June 13, 2011

Language Development - Not a Spectator Sport

A few months ago I read a very interesting book called Nurture Shock. I mentioned it in this post about sleep back in April and it has helped shape my parenting to some extent. I would love to dedicate a blog post or two to each chapter but I'm pretty sure plagiarism is frowned upon. . . right? I don't blindly agree with all the findings in the book; more so, I prefer to be skeptical about several factors until I have the time and energy to review the literature myself. What I do love about the book, is that the authors look at common concepts in parenting and turn old, preconceived notions on their heads.

I do want to go over one particular chapter because it has been all too real in my life lately and is a subject that most parents care about very deeply. I am talking about language development - how soon your kid speaks and how much. The following is part summary of Chapter 10 from Nurture Shock, part additional information researched by me, and part my own anecdotal experiences:
For a long time, it has been a pretty established idea that the more words a child hears throughout the day, the broader their vocabulary. In 1994, research by Hart and Risley from the University of Kansas showed a very strong correlation between the number of words heard by infants and their resulting vocabularies at age three. This is a very famous and often quoted study. I know this not just because the book says so, but because I have run across it a few times myself and I am not a child psychologist or in the field at all. I remember a reference to this in an undergraduate level biology class, in a discussion at Kaelan's ECFE toddler class, and on a local radio show geared towards parents. All over the place, parents are being told to talk talk talk to their babies and they will be little chatterboxes themselves by the time they are toddlers. Not to say that talking a lot to your baby is bad, but there is so much more to early language development than that.

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.
What does this mean for parents? Instead of just talking on and on around your baby, get down to their level (or bring them up) and try to interact with them. This is the best way to encourage early speaking. Different parents have different levels of natural ability for this, but any parent can make a concerted effort to improve. When your four month old coos at you, smile and give them a kiss. When your nine month old looks at a diaper on their dresser, tell them "that's a diaper!" You don't have to do it constantly, but make an effort to do this more and help make those connections.

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?"
I try my best to incorporate some of these strategies into our everyday lives. We all do these things to some extent but it can be hard to force yourself to act a certain way around your child if you aren't used to it. I must say that when I make an effort I do notice a difference.

In the last day or two I have been trying the "parentese" talk with Hailey and she started mimicking a lot more of what I was saying. I did it with "button" when she was all excited about the buttons on my shirt. She immediately started saying "butt, butt." I have been repeating "cat" to her and now she is saying "hat" whenever she sees the kitties. I'm not surprised she caught onto that one right away since she is completely obsessed with the cats so her focus is on them frequently. This isn't just mimicry though since she says it on her own now sometimes. 

With Kaelan, I notice he does start to use better grammar (or use any at all for that matter) when I vary my sentences. That may just be him picking it up over time, but I think my efforts are helping.

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.


  1. I think that having older siblings helps with language development too. And now after reading this (about how hearing things from different people helps too), it makes sense! My brother- and sister-in-law are having #8 (they're actually at the hospital right now!), and I've seen their last two kids develop their language skills faster than any other kids their age. Their older siblings were (and still are!) always talking to them in "parentese."

  2. Agreed, and it isn't just limited to language from what I have seen. Hailey wants to do everything her big brother does which is a big reason why she is very mobile right now. I have heard from some parents that older kids will sometimes translate everything for a younger sibling which can result in slower speech development but I have no experience with that myself. It will be interesting to see if that happens or not.

    Congrats to your brother and sister in law!


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