Talk to Me!

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When Baby hasn't said her first words, is it time for concern?

When their daughter Makena was born four years ago, first-time parents Karlee and Dave McCarroll did all the right things to encourage her language development.

“Reading to Makena, even as a baby, helped tremendously as far as teaching her new words,” says Karlee McCarroll. “And I’ve always talked with her — from day one — as if she could understand everything I said.”

These days, the amount of talking that goes on in the McCarroll house is about to increase big time. At 20 months, identical twins Morgan and Kennedi are “babbling all the time,” says McCarroll. Now an experienced mom, McCarroll is looking forward to the great language explosion that occurs toward the end of the second year. But she still worries that she could be doing more to help encourage her toddlers’ language skills.

CONCERN IS NORMAL

McCarroll isn’t alone on her parental hand-wringing, according to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.

“If parents spend the first year of their child’s life worrying mostly about motor development, we devote the second to language,” says Eliot, who has two young children. “And if a child’s speech isn’t all that forthcoming, we begin nervously reading up on language delays and disorders.”

Fortunately, the vast majority of children learn language without a hitch, Eliot says. When you think of how difficult it is to master a new language yourself, she points out, the fact that children just 3 or 4 years old, who can’t even add or tie their shoes, can understand and speak in full, complex sentences without any training can seem pretty amazing.

“You become convinced, as most linguists now are, that human language is an instinct, a behavior as innate and inevitable as sleeping or eating,” Eliot says, adding that some researchers have come to this conclusion after seeing how young children will even invent their own language — such as deaf children who begin signing spontaneously — if for some reason they are unable to pick up on the language around them.

HOW BABIES LEARN

We’ve come a long way, just in the past few years, in our understanding of how babies learn language, says Peter Jusczyk, Ph.D., author of The Discovery of Spoken Language. And we’ve gotten rid of some misconceptions.

“I remember my mother telling me when my sister was born that babies really couldn’t see things for the first six months,” Jusczyk says. “It was also thought that babies didn’t really understand language until they were able to produce it.”

Back when our parents were reading baby books, popular learning theorist B.F. Skinner argued that a child learns language through behavioral feedback, a trial-and-error process of having the correct words rewarded (getting a bottle after saying “milk”) and the incorrect words ignored (because “mug” will be misunderstood), Eliot explains.

But researchers now believe a baby’s ability to learn language is much more than trial and error. It’s hard-wired into the brain right from the start. Just watch how young children constantly think up new words and phrases — which make sense in their own way — that can’t possibly have been shaped by just mimicking Mom or Dad, says Eliot. For example, Eliot’s daughter, Julia, recently came up with “yesternight,” which is clearly different in meaning from “yesterday.”

But just because language appears to be instinctive it doesn’t mean babies and toddlers don’t benefit greatly from interaction with their parents and caregivers. In fact, a baby’s day-to-day experience is so important to the process that “any baby, of any racial or cultural origin, can be adopted into another country or culture and end up sounding indistinguishable from native-born speakers,” Eliot says.

BABY TALK: GOOD OR BAD?

So it’s up to parents to provide a language-rich environment for their children right from the start. But should that include baby talk? “Yes!” says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., co-author of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life.

Other experts agree. “Young babies have a lot of information to process,” says pediatrician and child-development expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. “Motherese,” Brazelton’s term for this “I’m-talking-to-you” language, “breaks through and sorts things out for baby,” he says.

But won’t baby talk lead to kids who talk like, well, babies?

Not at all, according to Golinkoff. “It naturally stops as the child gets older and is able to better communicate with the parent,” she explains. “You just naturally adjust. At age 3, you’re not doing it.”

While you’re doing all that baby talk, be sure to say your child’s name frequently. “We know that babies are picking up on the sound of their own name as early as 4-and-a-half months,” says Jusczyk. And while they’re still months away from saying those much-anticipated words, “babies know the meaning of ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ by about 6 months. That’s a lot earlier than we supposed.”

GIRL TALK

While knowing how language skills develop is helpful for parents, it’s important not to get too hung up on milestones, because there’s such a wide normal range of development, Jusczyk says. Also, each child is different. Even siblings of different sexes may learn language at different speeds. “One recent study found that as early as mid-gestation, female fetuses move their mouths significantly more than male fetuses, as if already practicing for a lifetime of speech,” says Eliot.

Girl babies, on average, start talking a month or two earlier than boys, according to Eliot. But boys usually catch up during the vocabulary spurt that occurs between 18 and 24 months, when toddlers can learn an amazing 10 – 20 words per day, says Jusczyk.

Even long before your child starts holding up her end of the conversation, the best thing you can do to help improve her language skills is to talk with her, Eliot says. “Babies and toddlers need to hear a lot of conversations,” she explains. “But that doesn’t mean you plug your baby in front of a TV or just let her listen while you talk on the phone.” It’s the interaction with you that will make all the difference.

Repetition is important, but don’t underestimate your child. “Babies get bored,” Eliot says. “You need to keep changing things.” So, instead of saying “cup” over and over while pointing to a cup, try saying, “Would you like the blue cup or the purple cup?” or “Would you like water or juice in your cup?”

There is some controversy in academic circles over whether it’s possible to speed up a baby’s ability to learn language, says Jusczyk, adding that there’s really no magic method for accelerating language learning beyond exposing babies to conversation and reading to them.


ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT

But it is helpful to stay just slightly ahead of your baby’s developmental stages, Eliot suggests. Most babies at 3 or 4 months will be making mostly vowel sounds, for example. So this is a good time to start making repetitive consonant sounds, such as pointing to pictures and talking about “the cat, the cow and the canary,” in a children’s book.

Through the first year, a baby concentrates primarily on individual words. But at 16 to 18 months, toddlers begin to appreciate differences in word order, says Eliot. For example, 16 to 18-month-olds were seated in front of a pair of television sets, each showing Sesame Street puppets acting out one of the following two sentences: “Big Bird is tickling Cookie Monster” or “Cookie Monster is tickling Big Bird.” The children looked more at the video that corresponded correctly to whichever sentence was playing on the voice-over.

This ability to appreciate the meaning of word order is quite helpful when toddlers begin speaking two-word phrases themselves, at about 18 – 24 months. Just listen to a 2-year-old: “I go.” “See Kitty.” “More milk.”

Parents can help at this stage by not stressing out over grammatical mistakes. “There’s a good reason why older 2’s, 3’s and 4’s come up with constructions such as ‘He gots a purple truck;’ ‘She beed happy’ and ‘Katie comed over,'” Eliot explains.

The child is learning the rules of grammar, without ever having been formally taught. She is taking an irregular verb — one whose past tense is not simply formed by adding “ed” on the end — and treating it like a regular verb. These errors are a normal part of learning language, Eliot says. And they’ll continue, despite parents’ correction, until a child eventually memorizes the rules of grammar.

The important thing is to encourage your toddler’s efforts. If she says, “He gots a purple truck,” just respond by repeating the sentence correctly: “Yes! Jimmy has a purple truck.” Simply hearing the correct version is more helpful — and certainly more fun — than being told, “No, that’s not right.”

BILINGUAL BABIES?

If learning one’s native tongue is a big job, parents may be concerned that exposing a baby to two or more languages, either in a bilingual home or through time spent with a caretaker who speaks a different language, might be too much of a burden.

It’s not, says Brazelton. “I wish I had raised my children bilingually. If a child is lucky enough to hear two languages — or even three — he is set up to be bilingual.”

Hearing different languages can be confusing at first, Brazelton admits, and there can be delays in learning English as the child sorts out more than one language. But in the end, the child comes out ahead, he emphasizes.

Golinkoff agrees. “We know from research that the critical period, when a person is most receptive to learning multiple languages is before puberty,” she says. “And to become the best native speaker, the best time to learn is age 5 and under. So, what do we do in this country? We teach foreign languages after puberty.”

“Research shows that the brain seems to be sculpted by early language experiences,” adds Golinkoff. And, if there is no exposure to other languages? “The native language takes over those areas of the brain,” she says.

THE JOY OF READING

It’s never too soon to introduce a baby to the joys of books and works. Use cloth or cardboard books for babies, suggests Golinkoff. Now is the time to make books fun, so don’t insist that proper page-turning occurs and don’t worry if your child just wants to talk about the pictures, she adds. Just have a good time.

If, for some reason, parents are unable to read with their child, “perhaps an older sibling or a babysitter can read to him,” suggests Jusczyk. Visiting story time at a library, with the child sitting cozily in a parent’s lap, also helps promote a love of books and language. “The important thing is to show your child that reading is a fun, interesting thing to do,” says Jusczyk.

While reading a child’s favorite book night after night can drive parents a bit batty, the practice helps increase a child’s vocabulary and feelings of mastery, Golinkoff adds.

And for parents like Karlee McCarroll, it feels good indeed to know that some of the most enjoyable parts of parenting — reading stories, singing silly songs, even just chatting over breakfast — can help a child learn to love language.

Language Milestones

Parents can watch for these predictable signs of language development:

By 3 months: Smiles at the sound of your voice and begins to babble. Begins to imitate some sounds and turns her head toward the direction of sounds.

By 7 months: Responds to her own name. Begins to respond to “no” and starts to distinguish emotions by tone of voice. Responds to sound by making sounds. Uses her voice to express happiness and displeasure and babbles chains of consonants.

By 1 year: Pays increasing attention to speech and responds to simple verbal requests and to “no.” Babbles with inflection and says “Dada” and “Mama.” Uses exclamations such as “Oh-oh!” and tries to imitate words.

By 2 years: Recognizes names of familiar people, objects and body parts. Points to objects or pictures when they are named. Says several single words (by 15 – 18 months). Uses phrases (by 18 – 24 months). Follows simple instructions and repeats words heard in conversation.

By Kathy Sena

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Kathy Sena is a writer, editor and mother.

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