Dr. Linda Acredolo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California at Davis and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of child development. She and Dr. Susan Goodwyn co-authored the best-selling book entitled BABY SIGNS: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, Baby Minds: Brain-building Games Your Baby Will Love and Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start and founded the Baby Signs Institute.
A natural question is: If all kids eventually learn to talk, why does it matter how soon they do so? Isn’t this just another example of competitive parents pushing their babies to outshine the baby next door? The answer is no. It does, in fact, matter how early and easily your child learns to talk. Language is your child’s passport into many of life’s most important experiences.
For example, even the relationship between parent and child changes in very positive ways once the child becomes a true partner in conversation. Frustration levels diminish as needs can be expressed clearly, parents find it more rewarding to engage in conversation, both asking and answering questions, and children begin to enjoy sharing their own ideas about the world—singing songs, telling stories, and playing make-believe.
Language opens up the world beyond the family, too. When do babies finally stop playing alone and begin to play with peers? When they can talk to each other. When do children begin to share things at circle time? When they feel confident enough to express themselves. When do children begin to really learn about the world? When they can ask questions and understand answers. In short, language skills are just as integral to the lives of children as they are to the lives of adults. And then there’s school where the ability to follow instructions and answer questions is crucial.
In general, then, whether at home, in the classroom, or on the playground, being adept at language makes life easier and more satisfying, both for children and for the adults around them.
Now that you know how important language is to your child’s future, here’s the good news. Even from the earliest days, there are easy ways to support your child’s development of this critical skill. Here are just a few examples from my book with Dr. Susan Goodwyn, Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love:
- Birth to 6 Months. Talk to your baby using speech sounds to encourage him to make speech sounds, too. Why? Research by Professor Kathleen Bloom of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada revealed that when babies hear adults say words, rather than just sounds like “tsk, tsk, tsk,” they are more likely to reply with word-like sounds themselves. And the more practice babies get in making speech sounds, the easier the whole job gets to be. In other words, like the proverbial well-behaved older child, babies speak when they are spoken to!
- 6 Months to 9 Months. Ask questions when using books with your baby even though you still have to supply the answers. Why? Because babies learn to understand words by listening to them in context, especially when the contexts occur more than once—as is true for books that are read several times. In fact, researchers have proven that even having heard words once results in babies reacting differently to them the second time around. So go ahead and ask a simple question like “Who’s that?” And then answer it yourself. “That’s Dumbo! What’s Dumbo doing? He’s flying!” In addition, you are getting both you and your child used to going beyond the written words in books in ways that expose children to a wider variety of words and challenge them to devise answers on their own.
- 9 Months to 12 Months. Begin in earnest teaching your baby to use signs to communicate. Why? Because my own research with Dr. Susan Goodwyn, funded by the National Institutes of Health, proved that signing actually helps babies learn to talk. That’s why we founded the Baby Signs Program and wrote the book, Baby Signs: How to Talk with your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. There are many reasons for this positive effect: (a) Signing makes babies excited about communicating and eager to find an even better way to do so (words). (b) When babies use signs, adults inevitably respond with lots of words—and hearing words is critical to learning to talk. (c) Signs enable babies to choose the topics of conversations, thereby making them more likely to listen to the words adults use. (d) Signing increases babies’ enthusiasm for books, and books help babies expand their vocabularies. These are just some of the reasons we feel so strongly that one of the best things parents can do to foster good language skills is to encourage their babies to use signs.
- 12 Months to 18 Months. Make sure to provide lots of toys that lend themselves to make-believe. Why? For two reasons. First, make-believe play fosters language practice because it inevitably inspires children to use richer language than other types of play. Talking with Grandma on a toy telephone requires even toddlers to come forth with whatever words they can. What’s more, they listen carefully to the words that adult playmates, like Mom and Dad, model for them, imitating them as best they can (e.g., “Say Hi to Grandma. Ask her if she’s coming over today.”). Second, both language and make-believe play require the child to understand that one thing can represent/symbolize another. Just as the word “Grandma” stands for the woman who gives hugs and cookies, the toy telephone stands for the real one. Because both these domains depend on this form of mental gymnastics, practice in one (make-believe) benefits the other (language).
- 18 Months to 24 Months. Cheerfully read storybooks over and over and over. Why? Because going through a book multiple times increases a baby’s familiarity with the words, thereby providing important practice in understanding and eventually saying them herself. The interesting thing is that babies actually crave this practice! They love the challenge of becoming familiar with the words and pictures in their favorite books. So, grit your teeth, read Goodnight Moon for the umpteenth time, and appreciate the strides your baby is making in language development every time you do.
- 24 Months to 30 Months. Engage your child in dialog about the books you read together by asking questions. Why? Because the effort to answer your questions will challenge your child to come up with words. And even those times when you have to provide the answers yourself are helpful because you are providing the model your child needs to eventually say the words himself—perhaps as soon as the next time you read the same book. Professor Grover Whitehurst calls this style of interaction “Dialogic Reading” and has shown in experimental studies that incorporating it into book-reading advances a child’s language skills.
- 30 Months to 36 Months. Carve out time at bedtime for a one-on-one conversation about the day’s events. Why? Because talking about the day’s events requires children to probe their memories and put the results into words. Research shows that practicing language, just like practicing any skill, makes children more proficient. What’s more, because children crave one-on-one time with their parents, they are willing to work hard to make these conversations rewarding—and as lengthy as possible!
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