It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and my husband and I were playing with our son Riku on the bed. I got out of bed to get myself a glass of water. And that’s when I heard it “Mammaaa”. Water forgotten, I rushed to the room and asked Hubsu if I had heard it right. It was true! Our little baby had spoken his first word and it was mamma! And it’s a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Every new parent waits for this day. But should we only wait and let nature take its course or can we do something to help build their language skills? And why is early language development so important anyways?
Research1 shows that the foundation of language development built in the early years has a “great bearing on their (child’s) progress many years to come”
So what exactly should parents do? There are simple things that we can do in the course of daily life – no technology or flashcards required. Here goes –
1. Talk a lot, but keep it in context
According to research1, 2100 words per hour of talking to your child is considered a good benchmark. Yes, per hour! That’s an awful lot of talking! It sounds overwhelming but we don’t actually need to count our words (although there are devices to do it, really). But the message is clear – we need to talk a lot to our baby.
Initially it was awkward for us to talk to Riku – young babies make such bad listeners! But we started making a conscious effort to keep the talk flowing – we tell Riku what’s going on around him, talk about what we are doing, label daily use objects, describe his meals as he eats them, etc. Also, we try to talk in context, not just talk for the sake of talking.
Overtime, he started ‘responding’ to our talk, and that was a big motivator to keep going. I remember I was soo thrilled the first time he accurately identified his toys. We would name a toy – “Can you please give mamma your ball?” – and he would dig into his toy box, pull out the ball and show it like a hard-won prize. And he did it for toy after toy after toy that day. We had no idea he knew so many objects at 8.5 months! (I proudly Whatsapped the video to all family and friends) It made us realise that all our talking wasn’t in vain; we would slowly but surely see its effect.
2. Respond to the baby’s babble
What most of us don’t realise is that a baby’s babble is often his way of starting a conversation with us. And our job is to acknowledge the babble and respond quickly. How we respond can have an impact on language learning.
According to this paper,
‘Infants of high-responsive mothers at 9 and 13 months achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers’
Thankfully for parents, researchers also say it is OK, even necessary, that we don’t respond all the time to all the babble. Babies need their space to just babble to themselves.
It has become instinctive for Hubsu and me, when we hear Riku babble we try to see if he is looking at something specific. If he is, we try to label it or describe it to him. If he is just babbling to himself, we often acknowledge it by a simple ‘Yes darling’ or by repeating his babble.
3. Talk Positive
More positive and encouraging talk is directly linked to a significant increase in the vocabulary of kids in later years than talk that is largely negative. Positive talk, including praise, tends to encourage further conversation instead of signalling end of conversation. Of course as they grow older we need to get more creative. ‘Riku don’t put my slippers in your mouth again!’ can become ‘Riku let’s play with Mr Teddy instead’.
I must confess that works only upto a certain point with me, after that it’s a loud and clear ‘Don’t do that!’
4. Talk about what the baby is looking at
“Look at the pretty flower baby…Oh look such a cute little dog!” We all label objects for our babies. But do we label what we are looking at or what the baby is looking at?
‘Object labelling is most effective when the parent describes an object that the baby is already focused on – gazing, pointing or vocalizing’ say Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their article on ABCNews
5. Speak Parentese
Many of us naturally talk to our babies slowly, in a slightly sing song manner, stretching the vowels. What we are unwittingly doing is speaking to them in a language that experts call Parentese. When we use parentese, it makes it much easier for the child to identify the words within a sentence and also brings more clarity to each individual word.
6. Address the baby
Sure our kids would pick up language from the conversations they see around them. But what really makes a difference to their language learning is when we make eye contact and address our words to them. They see how we use our mouths to speak different words, how our facial expressions and hand gestures change with what we say.
This is also the reason that no amount of educational viewing on television can substitute language learning from a live person.That, and the fact that a television does not respond to the baby’s babble.
7. Use the power of Motion
Ever since I read about the power of motionese in the ground-breaking book Nurtureshock – New Thinking About Children, we have been using it to show Riku any new object. Simply put, in motionese we move/wave an object as we show it to a baby, and name the object at the same time. Doing so enhances a child’s learning of the word.
Note : Its effect on human labelling is yet to be proven. You can ask my sister. She has tried jumping up and down chanting ‘Maasi Maasi’ in a desperate (and futile) attempt at getting a 9 month old Riku to identify her as Maasi.
8. Read, Read, Read
According to Lise Eliot, author of What’s Going on in There? How the brain and mind develop in the first five years of Life ‘Two year olds whose parents read to them early and often show more advanced language skills than children read to less frequently, an advantage that seems to last well into the grade school years’. The sooner we start reading to our kids and the more we read, the greater an impact on our child’s language development.
Don’t be disheartened if your little genius is more interested in eating, tearing or throwing his books initially. I speak from experience when I say this – the rewards of persistence will surely come.
9. More the merrier – Languages
If both parents work outside the house and the baby is cared for by someone who speaks another language, you need not worry. In fact it could be a blessing in disguise.
‘It’s far more important for a child to hear spoken words-in any language-than not to hear normal language and communication. Silence is ‘deafening’ because it doesn’t give the brain practice in listening to the stresses and patterns of speech’ writes Jill Stamm in her book Bright from the Start.
In fact, as far as number of languages goes, more the merrier and sooner the better. More languages can also include sign language. Ours being a cross-cultural nuclear household, we have made it a point that in addition to English, Riku is exposed to Gujarati from me and Hindi from our help.
10. Give it a rest
Yes, quantity matters and responsiveness matters. But babies (and parents) need a break! If we were to blabber to them non-stop through the day (even if that were possible) we would only end up overwhelming them and tiring ourselves. Not every moment with our child needs to be a teachable moment. It is important that our kids have the much needed ‘down time’ when they can process their new learnings and just be.
I would love to hear your views and experiences regarding talking to babies. Anything you’ll would add to the list?
1. Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of University of Kansas Child PsychologistsFollow Us On