Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By Dr Leher Singh
How can we help our babies and toddlers to learn language? Research has revealed that much of early language development depends on the environment that parents create for their children. In this article, we will discuss research that focuses on what parents and caregivers can do to support their children’s language development in the first two years of life.
START AT THE BEGINNING
From the moment babies are born, they start to tune into human language. Research shows us that newborns have a host of listening preferences within 2-3 hours of birth. They prefer the sound of their mother’s voice over voices of unfamiliar females, human language over other sounds such as music, their own language over foreign languages (yes, they recognise their native language!), and even stories read by their mother during the last trimester of pregnancy over new stories! These preferences tell us that babies have been ‘eavesdropping’ on their linguistic environment even from the womb. They enter the world ready and eager to take on their own language and are keen to hear what you have to say. It is therefore never too early to start talking to your baby.
MORE IS BETTER
Over the first few years of life, one of the biggest factors contributing to children ending up with high vocabularies is simply the amount of speech they heard as babies. Studies demonstrate that children who know more words when they enter school heard several times more speech from their caregivers when they were babies in comparison to children with lower vocabularies. Talking to your baby will take them a long way towards mature language development. Young children need consistent exposure to language. Therefore, it is very important that every person taking care of your child (whether you, a grandparent, or a helper) directly interacts with them throughout the day by engaging them in conversations.
BABYTALK IS BEST
In addition to surrounding them with language, research shows us that the way we talk to our babies can also make a difference. A form of language that is particularly good for children is ‘babytalk’. When we encounter a baby or a small child, we automatically launch into a different way of speaking. We start to produce ‘sing-songy’ melodious speech, which draws young children into language. Over the last twenty years, scientists have focused on examining the effects of this speech style on early language development. Babytalk has been shown unequivocally to be beneficial – it is the most ‘learnable’ type of language. In comparison to normal adult speech, babytalk makes it easier for babies to notice differences between important sounds, such as ‘ee’ and ‘ah’ and consequently, to learn the sounds of their own language. It also helps babies to remember new words, pick out words and link them to their meaning and even learn the grammatical structure. Brain scans done of babies reveal that babytalk leads to greater activation in language centres of the brain in comparison to normal adult speech.
Although parents sometimes express concerns that they will limit their child’s language growth by simplifying speech by using babytalk, the contrary is true. Infants who are exposed to high levels of babytalk from ages 0 to 2 develop more complex better language skills later on.
LET’S HAVE A CHAT!
Our children’s language development can further be affected by the conversation topics that we choose. In particular, it is ‘conversational speech’ that greatly facilitates language acquisition. This type of speech does not place direct demands on a child, but is produced mainly to make conversation. For example, ‘please put your shoes away’ is not an example of conversational speech; it is an example of functional speech. In contrast, ‘Let’s see. What shall we have for dinner? We have rice and pasta in the cupboard. Hmmm…I think rice would be nice for tonight. What do you think?” is an example of conversational speech. Undoubtedly, children need to hear a lot of both types of speech (it goes without saying that functional speech is a necessary part of daily interactions). However, we should make an effort to surround our children with speech that is produced simply for the purposes of initiating or maintaining conversation. Young children can greatly benefit from hearing us chitchat.
PRACTICES TO AVOID
Research shows us that not all types of language exposure benefit young children. For example, children do not learn from speech they have simply overheard. Spending the whole day in a household or even in a school where there is continuous talking does not benefit a child in language learning unless that speech is directed at the child.
Similarily, children do not benefit from speech they hear on TV or on the iPad. This is not to say that you should categorically avoid those devices, but rather you should not consider time spent in front of the TV or iPad to be time spent learning language no matter how rapt their attention seems to be.
Finally, children do not learn better with an instructional approach to language. When talking with your infant or toddler, think ‘interaction’ not ‘instruction’. In other words, it is neither critical nor beneficial if you focus on teaching them the meanings of words or the correct structure of sentences. Instead, try to meet their gaze and engage in conversation about objects or events that they are focused on. Studies demonstrate that young children readily learn the names and properties of objects that they prefer to look at and play with. As babies and toddlers, they do not learn the names of objects and events that are abstract (e.g. the solar system), not present in their environment, or uninteresting to them. Therefore, it is best to try and build language-learning experiences around your child’s play preferences. For example, if they love vehicles, you can support their language development by harnessing this interest. Introduce parts of vehicles, but also colors, shapes, paths of motion, names for body parts and clothes of people driving in the vehicles, names of animals riding on the vehicles and so on. Try not to force interests on the conversation and avoid re-directing the conversation towards specific material in which your child is not engaged.
Research also shows us that young children demonstrate a strong “Goldilocks Effect”. This means they do not attend to objects nor do they listen to language that is beyond their understanding. Likewise, they do not listen to language or look at objects that are too simple for them. Rather they have a strong preference for things that are within their intellectual reach (in other words, things that are ‘just right’ for them). Each child has a different threshold, so try to keenly observe your offspring’s focus and to work within, not beyond, that. Stay clear of setting an agenda for the conversation such that you divert their attention to something that they are not interested in. Avoid preparing sequences of words, such as working your way through flash cards or trying systematically to memorize every single item in “Baby’s First Words” (a wonderful book for learning, by the way, but let your baby sit in the driver’s seat!). Let the child point out pictures or objects that are within their focus of attention and use that as a window of opportunity for further learning. The potential for language acquisition is much greater if your child is concentrated on the topic of conversation.
So whether you are talking to your child as you stroll through the park, chit-chatting during diaper changes, striking up a conversation while washing the dishes and cooking dinner, or reading them your favorite children’s books, one of the best gifts you can give them is copious amounts of your own voice!
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D., & Berk, L. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evidence. NY: Oxford University Press.
Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1999). How babies talk: The magic and mystery of language in the first three years. New York City, NY: Dutton/Penguin Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Leher Singh is an Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She is the Director of the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre. Her teaching and research interests have been concerned primarily with early language and cognitive development. Her research on language development has been published in internationally renowned scientific journals such as Cognition, Child Development and Developmental Science.
If you and your child would like to contribute to research in early child language, the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre would love to hear from you! You can view more details at http://blog.nus.edu.sg/babytalk/ and sign up on-line.