and Caregivers are the Key to Children’s Successful Language Growth
birth through the school years, children are constantly moving
and growing within the domain of language. Even before babbling
begins at 7–10 months of age, infants recognize their parents’
voices and profit from ongoing immersion in language. Handling
objects, viewing surrounding events of interest together, and
just plain cuddling can profitably be accompanied by parental
talk and song. Observing baby’s interests, preferences and ways
of being soothed are all contributions to the onset and growth
of language. Research demonstrated many years ago that the one-year-olds,
who cried the least, using other modes of communication instead,
were those whose cries received a rapid response in the early
months. Also, baby’s language learning depends upon shared understanding
with a caring adult, so continuity of care in home or center is
an important consideration.
My own studies have documented some surprising facts in recent
years. We found that children who babble some of the same sounds
consistently month after month are among the earliest talkers,
so continuity in babble may be more important to early development
than variety. By mimicking baby’s sounds you can usually get her
to continue, so conversations without words provide important
words”, awaited with excitement, may be very difficult to spot.
There is actually controversy about what “counts” as a word, so
parents may notice a gradual growth in “wordiness” rather than
a single time point for the shift to words. Some children begin
with words that are narrow in meaning…“woof-woof” is only a particular
stuffed toy, not any animal encountered. They may also use a non-standard
word – “woof-woof” is an example. When such a consistent baby
word is extended to new situations—even to animals other than
dogs—and a few other words are produced—most researchers would
agree that the baby is launched on words. It is important at this
point to work hard at understanding the child’s meaning, even
if the sound and its situations of use do not exactly match adult
expectation. This gives the baby confidence as a word user and
will lead to expanded vocabulary.
Surprisingly, just before this shift to words, most babies go
through a period of “communicative grunting.” That is, they use
the sound that we make when lifting a heavy box to indicate there
is something important in mind to be communicated. Sometimes grunts
go along with points, to request objects or to solicit adult attention
to an interesting object or event. The adult’s role here is also
to accept the baby’s communication, and respond with attention
and lots of interesting talk. This is another critical step toward
mutual communication which will actually stimulate baby’s word
Between ages one and two most babies begin combining words into
short sentences. Another surprise: even by age five their knowledge
of the grammar of their language is incomplete. Again, accepting
their communication is critical. Also providing models of adult
language through interesting conversation and book reading will
enhance this process.
Do you have more than one language in your home? If so, try to
give both to baby. Bilingualism comes easiest when both languages
begin in the cradle, so a second language is a gift for a lifetime.
Lorraine McCune is a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate
School of Education and serves as advisor to educational toy company,
General Creation. She can be reached at www.generalcreation.com
in the “Ask Dr. McCune” section.
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