Learning a language is complex and occurs rapidly within the first three years of life. Babies language morphs from vocalizing, to babbling, to words, to phrases, to full-blown conversation within a brief matter of time. The acquisition of language follows a pattern that is shared by babies across the world. Language provides us a bridge to social interaction and communication. Therefore, once the power of language is realized, it’s hard to get littles to stop talking. Language learning is innately driven but we as caregivers support its development and teach its power. There are several different components of language (content, form and use- which can be broken down even further, I’ll spare you the detail), but when dealing with little, littles (birth to toddlers), I typically break their language down into two general processes: receptive and expressive language. Let’s take a look at what those are and how we can support them to develop good communication skills in our babies.
Receptive language– Is our ability to understand and comprehend the intended meanings of messages, this includes understanding general concepts (on/off, big/little), grammatical forms (tenses, parts, etc.) and perceiving questions as questions. Children typically develop receptive language skills first and have the ability to understand far more than they can produce when first learning a language. Understanding language is what teaches them to express it!
Expressive language-Is our ability to formulate thoughts and produce relevant messages, verbally and non-verbally (facial expressions, gestures, written). It’s basically our ability to get a meaningful message across to someone else and express our wants/needs.
Ten Tips to Support Language Development in Babies:
- TALK– Don’t stop talking until baby is asleep….I’m kidding that’s a bit much to ask, but I do recommend talking to baby throughout the day, during daily routines (diapering, bath, eating) and in play. Listening to us talk is how they learn. Talk to babies in a simple manner (say “mommy eat” instead of “Mommy’s going to eat this yummy cracker.”) while using correct form (say “bottle” instead of “ba”). I’m talking baby, babies here, you want to increase your language complexity as baby’s increases.
- LABEL/NAME– Become a commentator! Name objects, items and pictures throughout daily activities. Babies only know a shoe is a shoe and a ball is a ball because we’ve told them. Start with just naming (“ball”) then add adjectives (“big, blue ball”) and so on.
- MUSIC– When you’re not talking to baby, SING to baby! I don’t know all the neurological components but for whatever reason, our brains react to music and it aids in learning and mood setting. I’ve learned this in my practice as an elementary school teacher, speech-language pathologist and a mom. Read more about the power of music and babies here. I recommend using a combination of human voice and instrumental sounds throughout baby’s day.
- REQUESTS– Give baby simple directions to process and follow. Around eight to ten months of age, babies are typically ready to start following very basic directions given gestures. Giving baby directions such as “give the block to mommy,” “give daddy your cup,” or “go get the ball” helps develop their language processing and object discrimination skills.
- GESTURE– Become an actor! Pair words with actions. Acting out what things do helps baby to connect the dots. Tap your mouth when saying “eat,” brush your hair, then baby’s hair, make a bunny hop and a fish swim. Providing gestures with words develops vocabulary and concepts. I’m a big fan of incorporating baby signs. Learn more about signing with baby here.
- SOUNDS– Make sound effects-“beep, beep” “quack, quack,” “wee.” Adding sound effects not only makes things more interesting, it gains baby’s attention so they can learn!
- BOOKS– READ to baby! There are so many benefits to reading to baby, I can’t begin to describe them all! Reading books with baby incorporates an understanding for the rhythm of language (words go together to make sentences), vocabulary development, naming and labeling, listening skills, comprehension, memory, and auditory and visual input just to state a few. You can not go wrong with reading to baby. Do it and do it often! Check out my post on Reading to Baby for more benefits.
- ADVENTURES– Get out and about with baby. Expose them to new and different things. Adventures provide great sensory experiences for babies and encourage caregivers to talk about what’s happening…. win, win!
- TIME– Give baby time to process information. I like to call this “wait time.” So if I say, “clap your hands,” I wait ten seconds to allow baby’s little brain to process, organize and perform the task. I provide demonstration if they don’t.
- TAKE TURNS– Allow baby to state their piece then talk back to them just as you’re having a real conversation with each other. Begin back and forth vocal play the minute baby starts making those sweet, sweet coos. Having a good foundation in turn-taking is the premise for the back and forth nature of communication.
Check out this video for an awesome example of receptive and expressive language development. My son processed what I said, took action then verbalized it to the best of his ability. So, so cool!
This is how language learning occurs, we first interpret and understand a message then we express understanding. Children spend their first years of life interpreting and understanding, we must give them plenty of opportunities to do so! When dealing with babies (newborns, infants, young toddlers), it’s important to consider language in simple fashion. Language development is like a video game, it starts out basic and advances. The more you play, the better you get! One thing is for sure, how we acquire language is universal, just like smiling! So, do lots of communicating and lots of smiling and the world will be a better place!
Peace & Love,