When Nica was only a baby, I was nervous about not knowing how to talk to her to help her develop language. Does that sound odd? I don’t know where I got that from, honestly. Lots of people will say ‘oh, they’ll learn sooner or later, one way or another, just from being around people talking’… While that is true, I have also found, from all the research I did to allay those initial first-time-mom nerves, that there are attitudes, approaches and techniques that some parents develop naturally (while others may need to learn them) that can make a difference to how much and how fast children learn language. Each child is unique and even applying this ‘program’ equally to all children would not of course ensure they were all speaking in full sentences by the age of one… but it is about maximising their potential for acquiring new language.
Afterall, not all households are equal in the way that children are exposed to language. For example…
- Is there continual background noise from TV or radio or long periods of silence in which to explore making sounds? Do adults mostly talk to each other over the child or do they involve the child and talk directly to them?
- And if they are talking directly to the child are they asking incessant, ‘testing’ questions or are they putting words to what he sees?
- For that matter, are they trying to shift the kids onto their adult view point or are they entering the child’s world and speaking about what the child sees from their eye-level and about what is interesting to them?
- Do grown-ups get down and talk to children eye-to-eye or shout at them from across the room and then get mad if the kid doesn’t immediately follow their ‘order’?
- Is there one language in the household or two (or more) and how much do they overlap by?
- Is the baby treated like a package to be moved here or there or are they treated with respect and like they understand so much, from day one?…
Yes, there are many, many variables which means there are things that work better and things that are less helpful when it comes to a child picking up language.
As I say, I was nervous, so I read a lot (that is what I do, when I feel adrift). So, now, I want to share with you all some of the things I learned on that journey of how to tune in and help our children develop their language skills to the best of their ability and in their own time – without ever pushing, testing or putting any pressure on them to know any more than they feel enthused to learn for themselves. We are very much following their lead, here, but doing it from an informed point of view, rather than just hoping for the best.
Here are my top tips for talking to the zero to two year old set:
- Turn off the TV. Even if you are a hard-core tele-addict (which honestly I can empathise with), try and turn off the TV even if for only 30 minutes a day – but more is better. Babies are unable to distinguish background from foreground sound. Any background noise seriously messes up their chances of focussing on the sounds coming out of your mouth… or the toy they are banging on, or even the sounds they themselves are uttering. They need to be able to really pick apart which sounds they are creating, what is doing what, which sound is coming from whose mouth etc. This helps them build their first understanding of cause and effect as well as help them begin to build associations between words and objects or people. The more clearly they can hear you, the faster they can begin to learn. So, give it a go: turn off the TV, especially before your kids are two.
- Carve out half an hour a day of one-to-one time with each child: You are dedicating this half an hour a day to connect and communicate with your child – is this not what being a parent is all about? The idea is that you let them lead the exploration and play, completely, in this time. And, of course, make sure there is no background noise or interruptions. It can feel hard, to begin with, to just ‘be’, with no props, just you watching and following your kid’s lead in play but the pay-off is immense in terms of closeness, understanding and language development. Ideally you are aiming for half an hour per day with each child – if you can’t do that, do as close to that as you can: 15 minutes with each child/a day or 30 minutes with one kid one day, 30 minutes with another the next. The important thing is that you have one-to-one time where all the language is for them. Here is my first post on this practice and the research that led to it.
- Create shared focus: apart from the no TV rule, this is the single most important tip I ever received about supporting emerging language skills: talk about what they are interested in, at the time they are interested in it. Children are far more likely to remember a word if it is about something they are focussed on – this is proven. In the case of babies (and this applies to toddlers, too, really) the best way to create shared focus is for you to jump onto their wavelength. Don’t try and pull them to yours (“look at that birdie”; “play with this toy, this way”), all the time. Try and use this as time to get to know your child and what fascinates them and holds their attention. And then speak about what they are engaged with, or in other words…
- ‘Sportscast’. Narrate (from the child’s view point) what they are seeing, touching, smelling, hitting, etc. – especially for that half-hour a day but also at other opportune moments in the day. This is a version of what Magda Gerber, author and founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), calls ‘sportscasting’. It works wonders not only for helping children interface with the world but later, as they grow older, with other children, too, even averting and disarming all manner of childish spats. But at the tender ages when language is first developing (say between 9 and 15 months) the primary purpose of narrating a child’s activities back to them, in my view, is to give them words for that which they are experiencing. And, as I said above, children learn the most when it is something they are actively engaged in (rather than something we want to teach them). It is amazing how much a child’s first words can reveal to us about what their priorities are. My kid’s first signs (which came before spoken words) were all about things which she loved, like ducks, ceiling fans and lights – hah!
- Scaffold: my mum, the language teacher, tells me this is a term coined by Vygotsky. If I understand it correctly, it is basically a fancy word for continuing to speak to your kid about one level ahead of where they are at, if that makes sense. You provide the ‘scaffolding’ for them to learn at their own pace. You don’t speak to them in long, rushed, complicated sentences that are way above their ‘pay grade’; nor do you speak about stuff that is not in the room and expect them to understand (not when they are babies, at least); you also don’t need to teach them with flash cards… nor, to go to the other extreme, do you need to either talk down to them or, worse still, talk to them like Elmo or like you yourself are a toddler who doesn’t quite grasp grammar yet (‘daddy take ba-ba’?!). Talk to babies in real sentences with real words but…
- Keep it simple. Make sure to enunciate and speak clearly. Not all the time, in some uber-self-conscious kind of a way. They need to hear natural speech flow with its inflections, emphasis, tone, etc… but when you are speaking directly to them, it can be helpful to think of babies almost like little foreigners to whom you do the respect of speaking with easy, ‘beginner’ words, with clarity and enthusiasm. But mix it up and pop some more advanced words in there every now and again – they may surprise you and repeat a five syllable word right back at you.
- Have fun. Nothing squelches learning faster than being ‘taught’ or worse still, being ‘corrected’. That just presses us back into our emotional shells where we want to hide until we know we will be safe rather than humiliated or made to feel small. So for the sake of your child’s learning but also for the health of your relationship and, perhaps more importantly, just for your own enjoyment as a family, keep it light, joyful and playful.
- Learn and share basic sign language. I have blogged much about this before, but essentially, babies are able to communicate using their hands months before they are able to do so with sound. This is because it only takes a few muscles to shape your hand into a sign whereas speaking involves coordinating your breathing, your vocal chords, your mouth shape, your tongue position – all together. It is no wonder it takes a while to master. Children as young as six months can make their first signs. It gives you a real window of insight into a child’s mind, what they notice, what they are interested in but most importantly it gives them an avenue to begin to express to you all that is inside them, from basic needs like ‘milk’ or ‘potty’ to their wonder of the world (‘cat’!!). Research has also shown that babies who are taught to sign actually benefit from a lasting boost to not only their language skills but also their IQ so that at “8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.”
- Be responsive: when your baby coos, coo back; when they ga-ga, ga-ga right back at them. This is the first lesson in communication: that we listen and respond, that we take turns, that we talk to each other – this is all valuable information that babies use as foundation for learning how to talk.
- Be positive. As they get older and start to use real words, make sure to notice and emphasise what they are getting right. In fact, it is a helpful rule of thumb to respond to most attempts at labelling something by saying ‘Yes‘. They say ‘bid’ you say ‘yes, it is a bird’. This helps build their confidence that, first and foremost, you did understand what they were trying to communicate. Then any ‘correction’ is easier to receive, too, right and kind of seamless. I call it ‘auto-correct’:
- Aut0-correct. If they make a mistake no need to make a big song and dance about it, afterall they are only little and, frankly, doing an AMAZING job at picking up language from scratch at an alarming rate, I am sure. So instead of saying ‘no, it is not a do-d0, it is a dog, can you say DOG?’, try simply repeating back to the child what they said but using ‘auto-correct’ (like a kind of auto-tune but for words – lol). They say ‘it is a do-do’, you say, ‘yes, it is a dog’ (correction made and heard. No fuss.)
- Practice expansion. ‘Expansion’ in this context, is when you gently, lovingly, seamlessly expand on what your child has just said – this is a part of scaffolding, really. You repeat what they said back to them but add onto it, for example they say ‘ball’ you say, “Yes, it is a red ball” – you expanded on what they said emphasising one word addition to what they said. As they get older and bolder you can get fancy with this but the basics of ‘expansion’ is just about agreeing and adding to what they are saying in very small increments so that they are anchored in a word they do know and can add another one on, in the right place, with your help.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. If there is a new object or word you are noticing they are interested in, repeat it in different contexts. ‘Ah, you see the crane. It is a big crane, isn’t it? Shall we go take a closer look at that blue crane?’, etc…
- Make sound effects: kids adore them. A love of language and communication starts often with a love of sounds, of exchanging them backward and forward between mama and baby (or papa or granny or… and baby). It doesn’t need to be about words, animal sounds, the car vrooooooming by, the prellllllllll sound you make when you pick baby up and the ‘ping’ of the toaster popping (repeated by daddy for fun) can all become little ‘word games’ that delight your little listener.
- Read or recite lots of fun little nursery rhymes – kids enjoy them and the ability to recognise and create rhymes is an important milestone in a child’s language development that shows how they are grasping and manipulating sounds. Kids especially like the ones with accompanying actions like ‘pat-a-cake’ or ‘ring around the roses’.
- Read simple books with lots of repetition to build word-familiarity. (but don’t worry, they’ll make sure you really get the ‘repetition’ part of this tip.)
- Sing – singing is another fun way to practice new words, often with rhyming, too. And because of the rhythm, it can make it easier to memorise.
- Tell stories. I am a huge fan of story telling for kids. The little ones especially like stories about themselves, either real or imagined (as long as they are the protagonists). Auto-biographical stories like this actually help integrate the right and the left hemispheres of the brain as well as to provide narrative for events of emotional significance in a child’s life. The book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson really goes into the power of story telling as a technique not only for locking-in vocabulary but also for developing memory (exercising it like a muscle, really) – as well as for processing and integrating difficult or emotional events (such as a car accident, for example – although I feel that is food for another post). I also LOVE this post by Jennifer of Hybrid Rasta Mama on the power of story telling for young children. I am convinced our daily ritual of a bedtime story has really helped my daughter remember words for the things and people she sees each day in a way she would not otherwise do.
- Get down to their level, engage in eye contact and let them read your lips: this is such a simple tip and yet it can yield great benefits. And it is all about respect, too – you are showing them you care and respect them enough to make the effort to come to where they are and look them in the eye while you talk to them. Who doesn’t feel appreciated when they are engaged with, fully? Plus kids can learn a lot from simply mimicking the shapes you make with your mouth as you talk.
- Listen. When a kid talks, pay attention. If possible, ‘listen with your eyes’ as we say in our family. Demonstrate that you are really engaged in what they are saying by focussing on them with all your energy for a moment (even if to say, ‘I need to give the cooking my full attention right now, but you are really important to me and I want to hear what you have to say, so as soon as I am done here, it will be your turn and I will give you my full attention’)…
Please note: I am neither a childcare professional nor a speech therapist. I am a mom and the above is my opinion only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you suspect your child has any language delays you should speak to your doctor or seek the help of a specialist that can help your child overcome any potential or actual issues.