Helping Babies Develop Language

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A new study shows that children under two who are in rooms with televisions-whether the child is watching or the parent is-has a smaller vocabulary and later speech development. In part, this is because the child has less opportunity to interact with and communicate with adults. It was discovered children zone out on television as adults do, and adults watching television are not interacting with their child.

A child’s most important learning comes from her parents and language is a critical part of that learning. Strong vocabulary and grammar skills are important when a child enters school, because much of learning is done by reading and writing, and most personal learning is also done this way. Teachers tend to view a child with good language skills as being more intelligent than those without them, even though there are many types of intelligence. Solid language skills give a child more tools for understanding and organizing his world. They are essential for a productive life.

Building a child’s language skills begins right at birth. Although a child may not speak until she’s nine months or older, he is absorbing language. She will be able to understand language long before she can speak it. However, to give meaning to the gibberish around her, she must listen to a great deal of language, given in meaningful context, so the sounds begin to make sense.

This can be seen in an adult learning a new language through immersion. At first, as she listens to the people around her speaking, she just hears a never-ending wave of words. In time, however, she can hear individual words, even if she can’t understand them. Then, as she interacts with people, she begins to understand the most important words and eventually, she is making sentences. Babies have the same learning experience, but due to their age, learn much more quickly. It is important to give them as much exposure to language as possible in their years of fastest learning.

Talk to your newborn throughout the day. When she’s awake, place her near you as you’re doing your chores and discuss with her what you’re doing, using complete sentences, as if she were an adult. Take some time each day to do a “talking tour” of the home. Carry her around and show her several things, placing her hands on them and naming them-just a single word. Then add a sentence, and finally, discuss it. “Book. This is a book. Every night I read you a book. I love books. Don’t you? This book is about a princess. Book. Book.” You might feel silly doing this with an infant, but you’re entertaining her, stimulating her, and exposing her to focused language. Since we don’t really know when those words become meaningful, we must start immediately to make sure we’re talking to her when the time comes.

Another way to stimulate language in an infant is to read to her from the very day of her birth. Bring a book to the hospital and read it aloud to your child. Even if you’re certain she’s not paying attention, read to her every day of her life. Start with  a few books meant for infants, and follow those, in the same session, with a picture book meant for preschoolers. Then read a chapter of a children’s novel or an adult book (carefully chosen, of course) as she falls asleep. This allows you time to read your scriptures, study history, or do something else mentally stimulating as your child listens in. You’ll find she’s paying attention to those chapter books much sooner than you expect-you’ll find a name from the book being assigned to a toddler’s doll, for instance, so do choose wisely. Don’t save all the reading for the end of the day. Reading to an infant is a lovely rocking chair activity any time of the day-and gives you an excuse to sit down and relax.

Use multiple senses when teaching a child language. When you’re introducing her to her body parts, first point to your own nose and say, “Nose.” Then touch her nose as you say the same word, introducing touch to the experience. She will soon learn what a nose looks like and that she has one herself, even though she can’t easily see it. Periodically do this in front of a mirror, so she can see her own nose. In time, she will realize that baby in the mirror is her. Before handing anything to her, label it.

Baby talk is controversial. Some studies suggest it’s helpful, but today, many parents believe it only confuses a child. After all, why waste time teaching her a word she can’t use the rest of her life? She has only a limited amount of learning time before her rate of learning slows, so many parents feel it’s foolish to waste time teaching her one version of a word, only to have to struggle to un-teach it later. In addition, many parents have trouble letting go of those cute words later on, if they’ve gotten into the habit of using them. Speaking in grammatically correct sentences exposes a child to correct grammar from the start and may lead to earlier use of grammatically correct, complete sentences.

Don’t limit your vocabulary to words a child already knows. The only way she will learn new words is to hear them often. No word is too hard for a child-ambulate is no longer a word than is dinosaur, and the only reason more preschoolers use the word dinosaur than know the word ambulate is because parents are more likely to teach the animal word than the other one. If you want a child to learn a word, use it often and the child will learn it as easily as she learns words more commonly taught to small children.

Children need a wide range of experiences in order to have large vocabularies. Even small children should be taken to many places and given the language to talk about it. Take them shopping in small doses, even though it’s challenging. Go to the park, the zoo, child-friendly museums, and on walks through the neighborhood. The more they experience, the larger their vocabulary will become. Learning about a farm through a book is good, but going to a farm and petting a real cow is better, because it involves more senses and creates more memories. Naturally, a parent will discuss the experience as it happens. It’s not necessary to deliver never-ending lectures. Children also need time to experience things on their own, to feel, to think, and to talk, but they should be given the vocabulary to define the experience.

Summary of Language Development Guidelines:

  • Avoid television, even if the program is meant to help babies learn.
  • Don’t watch television in front of a child younger than two.
  • Speak to a child often throughout the day, beginning at birth.
  • Teach vocabulary by naming specific items.
  • Use good grammar and complete sentences.
  • Use a diversified and challenging vocabulary.
  • Read to your baby from birth and include material that appears too hard for her.
  • Give her a wide range of real-life experiences.
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